Tag Archives: William Guier

More Thoughts on Fostering Emergent Platforms within Extension

Is Extension up to the task of helping build the emergent platforms of the 21st century?In spite of all the justified concerns about the economy and spiking fuel prices, we live in unusually exciting times.

I really mean that.  The rapid acceleration of intellectual exchange that has followed the advent of the Internet and, more recently, of Web 2.0 has enabled some of the world’s brightest thinkers to gain deeper insights into the factors that drive human progress.

I personally derive immense optimism from that fact.  I think the enhanced clarity garnered from these new insights not only will help us surmount these current challenges but will also help transform Cooperative Extension System into the 21st century knowledge organization it must become.

The factors that have contributed to this enhanced clarity are outlined in Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation.

Johnson borrows “platform,” a term commonly used in software programming, to describe those environments that provide the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

No passage in the book better expresses the optimal conditions required for the formation of such environments than the quote from William Guier and Geroge Weiffenbach, the two young scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory whose impromptu research in the midst of the Sputnik crisis contributed to one of the most influential platforms in human history.

The two credited their achievements to the open intellectual environment that prevailed at the APL in the 1950s:

APL was a superb environment for inquisitive young kids, and particularly so in the Research Center. I was an environment that encouraged people to think broadly and generally about task problems, and one in which inquisitive kids felt free to follow their curiosity.  Equally important, it was an environment wherein kids, with an initial success, could turn to colleagues who were broadly expert in relevant fields, and particularly because of the genius of the Laboratory Directorship, colleagues who were also knowledgeable about hardware, weapons and weapons needs.

As Johnson points out, “APL was a platform that encouraged and amplified hunches [and] that allowed those hunches to be connected with other minds that had relevant expertise.”

Of course, the APL is only one of many such platforms that have occurred at different times and places throughout history, though they have tended to share a few characteristics in common:  all provided environments in which diverse types of thought could “productively collide and recombine.”

As I see it, this is our 21st century organizational charge: to recreate open-source environments that secure the most optimal conditions for mutual exchange and recombination of ideas.

There is a strong emphasis among many public commentators and policymakers on building technological infrastructure as the most optimal way to foster creativity and innovation.

Without a doubt,  technological infrastructure has contributed mightily to American economic and scientific leadership throughout history, but so has human infrastructure — the kind of infrastructure Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We still have immense potential for providing human infrastructure in the 21st century. We Extension educators can still serve a valuable role  enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0-driven technological infrastructure.  But reaching this potential will require a complete reassessment and retooling of our outreach model.

In the end, our success will depend on how adept we become at optimizing those conditions that have been shown to foster the most generative emergent platforms.

Advertisements

Sputnik Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Artist's rendering of Sputnik orbit.

Sputnik sparked a crisis as well as one of the most generative emergent platforms in human history.

Monday, October 7, 1957, was a day of bewilderment mixed with a generous but subdued measure of geekish awe at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

Americans had been confronted the previous weekend by newspaper headlines announcing the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik.

As science writer and bestselling author Steven Johnson relates in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, APL scientists spent the following Monday reflecting on this troubling event and discussing the implications for the arms race and for the future of U.S. scientific leadership.

Somewhere along the way, in what turned out to be one of the most far-reaching “AH HA!” movements in human history, two young scientists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, realized that they could use equipment in APL’s inventory to track Sputnik’s microwave emissions.

This insight soon led the young scientists to another discovery: that they could use the Doppler effect to calculate the speed with which Sputnik was moving through space.

Guier and Weiffenbach were on the verge of what they later recalled as “the adventure of their lives,” only they didn’t know it at the time.

Several months later, they were asked by an APL administrator to subject this insight to reverse processing — in other words, to determine if the position of a receiver on the ground could be calculated based on the precise location of an orbiting satellite.

In a manner of speaking, the Soviets ended up being hoisted on their own technological petard.  This reverse processing not only proved to be achievable but also provided the basis for using satellites to navigate nuclear-powered Polaris submarines.

Less than a generation later,in the tragic aftermath of the Korean Airlines 007 crash in 1983, President Reagan declared that satellite-based navigation would become a “common good” open to civilian use to avoid similar tragedies — not to mention, potential nuclear crises —in the future.

In only a short time, this system acquired its current name — GPS — a common good that has provided critical guidance for everything from mobile phones to precision agriculture.

While scarcely aware of it, Guier and Weiffenback had begun initial construction on what Johnson describes in his book as an “emergent platform,” one that has benefited human beings in ways scarcely imaginable a half century ago.

There are a couple of lessons here for Extension educators.  First, much like Guier and Weiffenbach, we have constructed our own emergent platforms within the last century.  Much like the platform that grew out of the Sputnik crisis, these have produced their own far-reaching effects.

One notable example: The emergent platform that developed from efforts to control boll weevil outbreaks in cotton and that led to a wealth of innovations, including row-crop entomology, cotton scouting, crop diversification (notably the introduction of peanuts) and aerial spraying, which, in turn, led directly to the formation of the commercial airline company, Delta.

In fact, the platform that grew out of the Boll Weevil crisis was an unusually generative one  in terms of how information has been recycled and used for other purposes— something we should bear in mind as we reconstruct the new Extension outreach model.

Johnson’s Sputnik account presents Extension educators with another critical insight: Our success in the 21st century will depend on how well we create ecologies of openness — on how well we optimize the conditions for similar highly generative emergent platforms of the future.