Diversity & Inclusion Information

Perseverance and Patience Can Lead to Positive Partnerships

Youth enrolled in LEEP summer programming participate in 4-H conference judging of their group project with an Extension Educator.

As an Extension Educator with the University of Minnesota, I had the opportunity to experience the eXtension Diversity & Inclusion Issue Corp Designathon in February 2017.  My team’s project, Reaching culturally diverse volunteers to grow the 4-H youth development program in Southern MN, was an idea influenced by 4-H Youth Development staff across Southern Minnesota.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Designathon was the systems thinking instruction where we were reminded to break our project into smaller pieces to see how it all fits together.  Since the Designathon I’ve been reminded of the importance of breaking goals into smaller pieces as I’ve worked to develop a partnership with a local organization to start a site-based 4-H club.  My perseverance and patience eventually led to a very positive partnership.

My journey in developing a local 4-H club to reach youth with special needs began back in February 2016 when I met two staff members from LEEP (Leisure Education for Exceptional People) at a University of Minnesota Extension sponsored event (Southeast MN Youth Development Regional Forum).  During a brief conversation between sessions, I saw the potential for a partnership with LEEP and within a week of the conference sent a follow-up e-mail to the program manager I had met.

The need to persevere in developing partnerships became apparent when I didn’t receive a response to my e-mail and made a phone call to the LEEP office where I learned the person I had met weeks earlier had left the organization.  After giving LEEP enough time to hire a new program manager I contacted them again in June 2016 and introduced myself to the new hire.  Recognizing that it takes time to settle into and learn a new job, I waited until December to set up a face-to-face meeting.  That first meeting led to additional planning meetings every 4-6 weeks from January through June 2017 when we piloted the LEEP 4-H Club during LEEP’s summer program for youth ages 10-21.

The journey from February 2016 to June 2017 – from when the idea for the partnership first occurred to me until the 4-H club actually launched – required me to persevere and be patient.  It’s a testimony to the idea that developing partnerships takes time.  However, the investment of that time led to a very positive partnership which allowed youth not previously enrolled in 4-H the opportunity for a 4-H club experience.

You can contact Tammy at

Diversity & Inclusion Fellowships Information NAEPSDP

Are you evaluating your program? Ask the stakeholders!

Julie Huetteman, Ph.D., is the Strategic Initiatives Coordinator at Purdue Extension. She is serving as the National Association of Extension Program and Staff Development Professionals (NAEPSDP) eXtension Fellow for 2017.

My role as 2017 eXtension NAEPSDP Fellow for Program Evaluation was launched with the Diversity and Inclusion Issue Corps (now called the Impact Collaborative) in Cincinnati. Since then, I have attended online sessions for those projects to share progress, challenges, and accomplishments. In addition, I have been included on the Corps evaluation team to learn of feedback from project teams.

A theme in this feedback was “stakeholder” involvement expressed as 1) key to their program goals; 2) instrumental to providing external input, perspective and support for their program; and 3) important in their next steps to move forward in their program planning, implementation and evaluation efforts.

In my online interactions with project teams, I found myself repeating, “Have you asked them?” I reminded many to “keep asking questions” of their stakeholders, audience, participants, and attendees to connect to those perspectives, interests, and insights.

We don’t have to have all the answers. Instead, consider asking questions of stakeholders to get those answers.

In education, the “expert” typically shares information or content. But do we know what is of interest to attendees? Do stakeholders understand what is being shared? Is the program of value to participants? How did the audience benefit from taking part in activities? Here is the break: We don’t have to have all the answers. Instead, consider asking questions of stakeholders to get those answers.

A lot is involved in planning, implementing, evaluating and reporting Extension programs, and we want to do the best we can. So, consider asking questions throughout and use feedback to inform your decisions.

  • Are you planning activities that encourage attendees to be active, involved and engaged? Check on current research for best practices, then ask the intended audience: “What activities would you find interesting to do?”
  • When deciding which topics are most important, check the literature, then ask a couple representatives of your future audience: “What topics are important to you?”
  • While planning the evaluation, check on practice guidelines, then ask stakeholders: “What questions might be asked to find out the value of this program?” Alternately, give them draft questions and ask: “Which ones work well to capture the value of the program for you?” followed by “How might you state a question to ask about its benefit to participants?”
  • In your outline or curriculum, schedule specific activities to involve and engage participants like asking verbal questions, posting polls, sharing questions on a slide, and so on. Some examples: “Is there anything that you need to be clarified?” “Was this activity helpful?” “What was most valuable to you?” Also: Keep questions going throughout; don’t wait until the end of the program to ask.

Avoid packing your program with so much content that you forget about — or don’t leave time or space for — getting to know the audience.

Ask your audience to 1) help clarify your planning efforts, 2) give feedback during your implementation, and 3) craft questions for debriefing, or 4) review and express the evaluation results. Avoid packing your program with so much content that you forget about — or don’t leave time or space for — getting to know the audience. Include questions to get their ideas on, the perceived value from, and experience of the program. Key questions to get started might be: “Has the program met your needs?” “Is this activity/program of value to you?” “Is this of interest to you?” “What is important to you?” “How have you benefited from this presentation/program?”

Ask questions, then listen. Audience responses and feedback can guide your next steps for planning and evaluation. Make time to get to know, and connect with, the audience by asking about their thoughts or perceptions. Ask your audience – before, during and after your program – so that their perspective is the focus of your planning, activities, and evaluation.

Julie can be contacted at

Diversity & Inclusion Fellowships Information

Perspectives: Overcoming Bias in Program Evaluation

Julie Huetteman, Ph.D., is the Strategic Initiatives Coordinator at Purdue Extension. She is serving as the National Association of Extension Program and Staff Development Professionals (NAEPSDP) eXtension Fellow for 2017.

My eXtension NAEPSDP Fellowship for Program Evaluation 2017 started with the Diversity and Inclusion Corps in Cincinnati. I have been exploring related resources, opportunities, and associations ever since. Here I share thoughts and reflections more so than a set of instructions. We need space and time to ponder our human experience and learn about other perspectives to incorporate those thoughts as we plan, develop, deliver and report on our Extension work.

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald is one book recommended to me by Dr. Pamala Morris, Assistant Dean/Director of the Office of Multicultural Programs in the College of Agriculture at Purdue University. The book is about research on our human minds that looks at how our biases develop toward race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion and so on. The researchers share their Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures how the brain associates people and groups with traits and values. This automatic preference that develops pervades even when egalitarian beliefs are expressed.

A lot of self-reflection about perceptions and openness to others resulted for me. Completing sample tests and activities had me assessing my views, thoughts, and actions about and toward others. This created time and space to think and reflect on our society and our human relations across the personal and professional, local and regional, and global.

We can apply these reflections to program evaluation efforts.

  1. Make sure we make time to reflect on our own hidden biases.
  2. Make opportunities to include our clients/participants in our activities. Invite the perceptions, thoughts, and direction of our stakeholders from the beginning, and throughout, as we work to plan, develop, deliver, and report program activities and evaluation approaches.

The ultimate result is that the opportunities made available are of value and benefit to stakeholders. Given the busy-ness of our jobs, these steps can be easy to overlook, but they are incredibly worthwhile.

I would like to send a special thank you to Pam, for sharing this resource with me at this moment in our society and for a time of reflection on our human interactions.

Julie Huetteman, Ph.D., Coordinator, Extension Strategic Initiatives, Purdue Extension

Banaji, M.R. & Greenwald, A.G. (2016). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York, NY: Bantam Books.


Diversity & Inclusion Information

Mashing-up Platforms and Gaining Permissions: Our Diversity E-book Project

Book cover photo: Diversity: The Source of Our Strength. OSU 4H publication 372.
Diversity: The Source of Our Strength. OSU 4H publication 372.

E-books are old hat. Right? There are numerous platforms upon which one may design, write, and offer content. But do these mash-up with your university’s (or organization’s) server? Do you need permission? Or do you go rogue (using a different system)?

Here at Ohio State, our “Online Project Book” team left the Feb. 2017 eXtension Diversity & Inclusion Issue Corps meeting with great excitement. With the help (and inspiration) of experts and colleagues from around the country, we successfully developed an initial content layout plan and began the design formation phase.

Our aim was simple: translating a print version of a 4-H Diversity project book to an interactive, online option. I use “translate” purposely. We did not wish to simply transfer content. (That could be boring online!) Instead, we wanted to translate the spirit of the readings and activities into an interactive, online book that would engage and (hopefully) inspire.

Sound easy enough? Well…

Our main challenges began with the platform. OSU uses different systems (sometimes depending on what college your department is housed in). Then, there were permission issues. Some team members could not access the content that others had begun. What we thought would be an easy online sharing process turned out to cause quite a delay in progress.

So what’s to be done?

Start early! But mostly, involve your technical peeps. They can help you avoid platform and permission issues BEFORE they happen. Also, look for non-team members who may have interests in your topic or expertise in design and delivery. They can be life-savers, contributing both small and large ideas that propel you forward. Lastly, look for students or interns that might be available to assist. We got very lucky in finding some free student hours. It moved our project forward… and perhaps more importantly, gave her a very nice resume item!

We continue moving ahead and look forward to the launch.

Brian Raison, Jo Williams, Jane Wright

Diversity & Inclusion

i-Three Issue Corps: We are the cultivators of our work environment

Recently, at the University of Delaware, I had the opportunity to attend their first diversity summit, titled “Diversity Summit: Realizing Social Justice for a Better UD.” As a member of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Diversity Committee, I feel it is important to stay developed in this field, but I didn’t know what to expect from an all-day summit and I wasn’t sure how it would integrate with my role at UD or with the Diversity & Inclusion Issue Corps.

There were two keynote speakers Dr. Carol Henderson, Vice Provost for Diversity at the University of Delaware, and Dr. Tony Allen, recently appointed provost at Delaware State University. Dr. Carol Henderson spoke about our responsibility to making sure youth get a quality educational experience. She said it takes all of us to cultivate that experience. I would like to take that a step forward, because I believe this goes beyond the classroom. I believe as professionals it is up to all of us us to cultivate the experience we have in our workplace.

Dr. Tony Allen speaking at UD Diversity Summit (Photo Credit: Christy Mannering)

During Dr. Tony Allen’s remarks, he said, “We all have a responsibility to serve as we have been served. None of us white, black, brown, gay or straight, male or female, have gotten to any of our positions or any of our places in life, alone.” The truth is that whether we notice and acknowledge each other or not, we still all play a role in each others lives. The way we live, the way we work, the way we present ourselves, our action and our inaction can very much impact and shape the lives of the people around us.

We impact and shape the lives of the people around us.  moment of clarity during the event I realized how this connected with the idea of developing emotional intelligence in the workplace. If you’re stressed, overwhelmed or frustrated and you are unable to self-regulate that could negatively impact your work environment (Deleon, 2015). Our technical skills, our expertise and knowledge won’t matter if we are unable to effectively work with others. Emotions often prompt the way we behave and react. Our emotions influence the type of leader we are and how we learn from constructive criticism.

Emotional intelligence goes beyond self-awareness and self-regulation. Are we able to look through the lens of other people? Can we look through the lens of different backgrounds including age, culture, race and ability? To promote diversity and be inclusive we need to be aware of ourselves, aware of our peers and that includes colleagues outside our work “silos”. Being more in tune to each other will help us to provide better service to those we work with in the public and a better workplace experience.


Deleon, Mariah. (2015). “The Importance of Emotional Intelligence at Work.” Entrepreneur.
Diversity Summit Logo created by Office of Communication and Marketing at the University of Delaware

Diversity & Inclusion Information

i-Three Issue Corps: Diversity Corps Member Heads to Chile

As a recent eXtension Diversity & Inclusion Issue Corps member, I am conducting some of my research in developing several South American Cuisine curricula in Chile. I recently went on a study tour with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food & Culinary Professionals Practice Group to Santiago, Valparaiso, and local sites nearby.

The purpose of the trip was to learn about the culture and cuisine of Chile, as well as Peru and Argentina. We worked with local chefs and historians touring seafood and produce markets, vineyards, a goat farm and cheese facility, indigenous pottery production, and preparing the multi-cultural foods.

Seafood at the market
A variety of fish and octopus at the market

Surprisingly, besides the Spanish influence, French and Italian cultures had, and continue to have, a large influence on the customs and cuisine. For example, one would think coffee would be the hot beverage of choice, as they are so close Central America, where is it grown. However, tea wins out, mostly due to the western European influences.

One of my favorite culinary finds was the spice blend of Merken, a combination of local ground chili pepper, ground coriander, and a little salt.

Merkin - a spice blend found in Chile

Merken is a local spice mix used in Chile

It is used in soups, stews, and on sopapillas with salsa, for example. Of course, with Chile having such a long coastline, you would expect to see a variety of seafood as well. I hope you enjoy my introductory video and pictures highlighting some of my finds.

grilled octopus dish
A grilled octopus dish
A curried scallop dish
A curried scallop dish










Diversity & Inclusion

i-Three Issue Corps: Colorful yarn weaves a web of unity

Being mindful of our emotions can help us to gauge our own reactions to situations. When we understand why we react a certain way it can help us better articulate a response. Additionally, when we are able to take a step back from a high stress or confrontational situation and think about multiple perspectives, we are going to be more likely to defuse the situation peacefully. This is what emotional intelligence is all about.

My proposal for the Diversity & Inclusion Issue Corps is to develop modules for employees to facilitate workshops and sessions which will teach about emotional intelligence. When coupling the self-awareness we can achieve when being more emotionally intelligent with constructive coping techniques, a person is more likely to be able to monitor situations from a dual perspective and facilitate thoughtful conversations and plans with a more comprehensive approach.

When thinking about ways to promote diversity and inclusion it’s important to consider that while we are all uniquely amazing, we also share more than we realize. During a recent employee luncheon hosted by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Diversity Committee at the University of Delaware along with the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI), we spent time discussing workplace bullying and discrimination. At the luncheon we discussed ways bystanders can assist victims of discrimination. I asked our facilitator to allow employees an opportunity to share times they have faced discrimination anonymously on note cards. These scenarios were shared at various tables and the employees were instructed to develop a plan of how they could’ve helped as a bystander.

While working as teams to better understand discrimination, we also asked each person to walk up to our unity web, a peg board with yarn. At each peg was an identifier like “I’m a parent” or “I identify as LGBTQ.” Each person picked a color of yarn and tied it around the center peg, then wrapped it around each peg they identified with. In the end, the peg board was beautiful. While each person chose to wrap their yarn around different pegs, they all ultimately ended up overlapping with another color. I got this idea from a larger unity project which I saw on YouTube.

We sent out a post event survey and received positive feedback from 33 of the 55 employees who attended. When asked if the content was relevant to their position within UD and eXtension, 93.9% said they agreed. When asked if the workshop stimulated learning 93.7% said they agreed. When asked if they better understood diversity and inclusion as a result of the workshop 93.7% said they agreed. When asked “Will anything that you learned at the workshop lead you to change your practice or behavior” one of our responses was, “It made me feel better to see how many people are against bigotry, but are too afraid to speak up. They’re intimidated, not apathetic. If I took initiative to defend someone, others might also be supportive if given the opportunity.”

Community Design Diversity & Inclusion Extension Fellowships Food Systems i-Three Corps i-Three Event Impact Information Information Technology Innovation Issue Response Social Networking Technology Working Out Loud

Solving for Pattern: Reimagining our Land Grant System as Networked Knowledge Commons, Part 5

Optimizing for Health: Linking Land Grant Knowledge Assets in Support of Healthy People, Food Systems and Communities.

When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.

– Francisco Varela

Village rice fields, Shirakawa-go, Gifu-ken Japan (photo by Joel Abroad,

The scene above is an example of “satoyama”, a traditional Japanese agricultural landscape where different land uses are maintained in an integrated and harmonious manner over many generations. More broadly it is also what some call a Socio-Ecological Production Landscape (SEPL), supporting both human well-being and biodiversity through sustainable production systems. The Community Development and Knowledge Management for the Satoyama Initiative (COMDEKS) helps sustain and promote SEPLs across the globe by collecting and distributing knowledge and experience from successful on-the-ground practices for replication and upscaling in other parts of the world.

Though perhaps in a less idealized way, I and many of my Community, Local and Regional Food Systems CoP cohorts seek similar outcomes in the form of healthy, multi-functional1food systems adapted to local need and conditions, including urban environments. Of course as a Community of Practice knowledge sharing is also of great interest to us. In this post I highlight several findings from my recent eXtension supported Land Grant Informatics fellowship2 relevant to realizing these kinds of outcomes by more effectively linking people, technology and information in support of our Land Grant mission and the diverse communities we serve.

“Emergent Health” as an Integrative Framework for Collaborative Action

One thing I sought out early in my investigations were broad systems models/definitions of health and fitness, touched on in my last post. And from that, what opportunities might exist for “convening an ecosystem”3 of Land Grant actors around a shared set of informatics related objectives supporting those models in the form of healthy people, communities and food systems.

As it turns out, there is in fact a fair amount of existing momentum to build on, including that documented by the:

  • ECOP Health Task Force Cooperative Extension’s National Framework for Health and Wellnessprioritizing greater integration of nutrition, health, environment, and agricultural systems projects, followed up by the
  • APLU Healthy Food Systems, Healthy People initiative, calling for “collaborations and integration among agriculture, food, nutrition, and health care systems that have never before been explored or optimized. Working across these systems and developing solutions that combine multidisciplinary research and education”. The image below from that report illustrates those kinds of collaboration across various scales.

Figure 1 (from APLU Healthy Food Systems, Healthy People report) Integration must occur at many societal levels, including national, state/regional, community/local, and scientist/educator/practitioner.

Underlying many of these initiatives are social ecological models which view:

health as an ‘emergent property’ that results from different interactions among components of a complex, adaptive system. Together the individual determinants of health4, and the system as a whole – including social and environmental determinants – can develop a high degree of adaptive capacity, resulting in resilience and the ability to address ongoing and new challenges… To achieve and maintain health over long periods, individuals must continually readjust how they… respond…to the changing demands of life… Social action also is required to create circumstances that can promote individual and population health.5

This emergent, adaptive view of health echoes that of many others, including those I’ve quoted earlier in this series. It suggests a shift away from top down, one-size-fits-all prescriptive approaches often focused on treating the symptoms of dis-ease toward more facilitative ones (e.g. building soil health as a foundation for healthy food systems). A complex adaptive systems approach would also require the arrows in the diagram above going in both directions, allowing knowledge and insight to flow “up” and down, as well as laterally (e.g between communities).

I document in my report2 similar efforts/voices across various disciplines and sectors, some aimed squarely at tackling wicked problems like food insecurity and climate change. Many highlight the critical role networks and “boundary spanners” like Cooperative Extension professionals can play in supporting connectivity and feedback,  one “circumstance” vital to the health of these systems, including sustainable agricultural systems. They do that partly by enhancing the ability of people, organizations and communities to recognize and leverage multiple forms of capital. That includes data, information and knowledge resources supporting ongoing learning and innovation locally, and collective intelligence on a larger, sometimes global scale.

Yet in spite of the many good reasons and calls for greater collaboration and integration, doing so remains a wicked challenge in itself, a task often at odds with our well-intentioned but increasingly outdated institutional, programmatic and funding structures. The good news is that a number of useful but underutilized tools and strategies already exist.  What remains is for Land Grant actors (including Cooperative Extension and libraries like my own) to more systematically and collaboratively link and leverage these in support of network-centric approaches

Networked Platforms and Stacks Supporting Emergent Learning

As I began to outline in my previous post, this transformation will require new “socio-technical” structures and capabilities. That means systems (including agrifood systems and Land Grant knowledge systems) where social and technical subsystems are optimized to support locally-directed, globally-connected problem solving and innovation, as well as the well-being of those (including Cooperative Extension) engaging with those systems.

In that post I also mention several architectural patterns commonly found in innovative environments, including networks, stacks and “emergent platforms”. If we look at health as an emergent property relying on these, then a systems approach would require the co-creation and maintenance of such structures. Though now retired Jim Langcuster from Alabama Cooperative Extension has written at length about the future of Cooperative Extension depending on its ability to embrace this type of work, transforming itself into an emergent, generative, “open source platform” developing “adaptive digital networks… responsive to the needs of contemporary learners”.

One central recommendation in my report is the collaborative development of a particular kind of knowledge commons, a “Land Grant Knowledge Graph” undergirding and/or linking such adaptive learning networks and platforms.  Like the underlying (light gray) one on the far right below, potentially supporting a variety of emergent, health enhancing efforts.

Figure 2. Different kinds of networks serve different kinds of needs, including the emergence of complex adaptive networks. (Image from

“Graph” knowledge structures including graph databases provide an ideal matrix for supporting these environments of connectivity, enabling the modeling of a variety of topics or entities, and the relations between them. They offer many practical applications including support for serendipitous discovery and linking of widely distributed expertise and knowledge artifacts, as illustrated through various research networking tools like VIVO and derivatives such as AgriProfiles. In my report I also outline how Issue-Based Information Systems (IBIS) can be used to help document and map as a graph conversations amongst diverse stakeholders working to address wicked problems, through facilitated approaches like dialogue mapping.

Figure 3. “Google Knowledge Graph Card”, returned as part of a Google search result for “Liberty Hyde Bailey”

One of the more developed and commonly used examples of a knowledge graph is Google’s. Figure 3 shows one benefit provided by that graph, the ability to aggregate a wide variety of information resources related to a particular subject in the form of a “Knowledge Graph Card”. In my report I frame this as part of a larger evolution toward a “semantic web”, the original vision Tim Berners-Lee had of the World Wide Web , “where anything could be potentially connected with anything else”, offering countless opportunities/pathways for the sharing, discovery and (re)use of knowledge.


Realizing a Land Grant Knowledge Graph, more effectively linking the diverse and widely disparate knowledge resources from our various institutions in support of emergent learning and health might seem at first to be an impossible undertaking. Especially if approached from a traditional top down planning approach. In his piece Government as Platform, technology thought leader Tim O’Reilly flips that model, suggesting6 a more emergent, collaborative approach, by developing data and information layers, “on which we, the people, can build additional applications” –a suggestion worth considering for Land Grant Universities, sometimes referred to as the People’s Colleges. The Obama administration embraced such a role through its Digital Government initiative, outlining three layers of digital services within a digital ecosystem:

  • Information (or Storage) Layer -Includes structured information/data such as census data, plus unstructured information such as fact sheets and recommendations.
  • Platform (or Management) Layer -Includes all the systems and processes used to manage this information.
  • Presentation Layer –What the “end users” of information create/need in order to leverage that data and information in support of informed decision making and action.

Adapting this brilliant XPLANE created image from Jay Cross’ Informal Learning Blog (now archival due to his unfortunate passing), I’ve created the animation below to illustrate how Land Grant supported networked stacks and platforms might help facilitate emergent learning and innovation at the community level. Each able to both “push” and “pull” from those above, below and adjacent to it, enabling multiple pathways for data, information and knowledge exchanges. Combined with efforts like those highlighted in a recent GODAN Open Farms documentary this could greatly contribute to the development and scaling of SEPLs and similar integrated approaches.


My report2 provides several examples of existing organizations and initiatives illustrating typical roles or needs within this stack. It also provides several suggestions on how Extension and others can develop their “sociotechnical capabilities” for interacting with and contributing to such an ecosystem. That includes best practices like following FAIR principles, what I see as a specialized form of Working Out Loud, where you make the “digital trace” left by your work more findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable.

Recommendations relevant to Extension include three broad areas of development (potentially supported in part through eXtension competency-based education (CBE) services):

  • Gaining and promoting a systems-oriented definition of health, including agrifood systems health, based on an understanding of complex adaptive systems and related emerging transdisciplinary frameworks.
  • A shared understanding of and ability to effectively leverage information and communications tools and systems (including Issue-Based Information Systems capabilities and metaliteracy)
  • Promoting trust and mutual understanding amongst Land Grant personnel and those they work with, nurtured through facilitative/network/systems leadership.

Next Steps

I and several colleagues have already begun exploring how some of these ideas could be implemented in the form of Land Grant system facilitated Crucial Conversations on Health and Wealth. Though we might each use different tools and programmatic structures to realize desired outcomes, we share an interest in collective sensemaking and problem solving approaches which can help communities better address wicked problems like hunger. At the very end of my report is a concept map generated from a recent Diversity & Inclusion designathon session exploring those ideas. Look for future posts/updates as we proceed on that learning journey!

Links to all the various outputs associated with the eXtension co-sponsored fellowship this post emerged from are available here:



1. Food systems “multifunctionality”, those providing economic, environmental and social functions or benefits simultaneously, is  something many researchers and practitioners look at when assessing the health of food systems, particularly those applying a social-ecological systems (SES) framework.
2. My fellowship final report is available for download from Cornell’s eCommons repository here:
3. In line with eXtension/LG system partner GODAN’s (Global Open Data for Ag & Nutrition) theory of change for realizing a data ecosystem for agriculture and food
4. A broad range of personal, social, economic, and environmental factors can influence the health of people, communities and food systems. More information can be found here:
5. Bircher, J., & Kuruvilla, S. (2014). Defining health by addressing individual, social, and environmental determinants: New opportunities for health care and public health. Journal of Public Health Policy35(3), 363–386.
6. O’Reilly’s article is chapter two from the book Open government: collaboration, transparency, and participation in practice

Community Diversity & Inclusion Extension Fellowships Food Systems Horizon Report Information Information Technology Innovation Issues Social Networking Technology Working Out Loud

Solving for Pattern: Reimagining our Land Grant System as Networked Knowledge Commons, Part 4

Andaman Islands coral reef. Photograph by Ritiks, distributed under CC BY-SA 3.0 license @

Emergent by Design: Solutions Creating More Solutions

Over several previous posts1 I’ve written about why Cooperative Extension and the Land Grant system as a whole might (and in some cases already has begun to) embrace a more network-centric approach, enabling it to better facilitate the co-creation of knowledge and solutions which are both locally-grounded and research-informed. As well as helping it become more of a “system which learns”, continually adapting its fit to a changing world with greater responsiveness to issues like equity, inclusion and sustainability. Implying that:

network-centric organization is both a sensible response to a complex environment and an enactor of sensibility on that environment.2

I explore these themes further here within the broader context of systems oriented approaches to complex problems, and the role “socio-technical systems” and platforms can play in supporting such capabilities. I also touch on the implications this has for institutions and programs seeking to support healthy, resilient people, communities and food systems.

Before proceeding its worth noting the relevance of this topic to recent ECOP interest in both innovation and civil discourse as well as priorities in the Technology Outlook for Cooperative Extension 2016-2021 Horizon Report3. Particularly one of the most significant “wicked challenges” identified in the latter, teaching complex thinking, a capacity described as essential for people to understand the networked world in which they’re living and be able to tackle complex problems.

Approaching Wicked Problems through a Complexity Lens

The term wicked problem, a complex problem for which there is no simple solution, or even agreement on what the problem really is, was first popularized in a 1973 article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning4 by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. In it they differentiate between “tame”, solvable problems and those with many complex interdependencies and changing requirements, with the latter requiring a much different approach than has been taken in the past. They state:

The classical paradigm of science and engineering -the paradigm that has underlain modern professionalism -is not applicable to the problems of open societal systems, problems inherently wicked.

Originally presented from the perspective of social policy planning the term has since been used to describe a host of modern challenges. That includes many Cooperative Extension and the Land Grant system as a whole are concerned with such as the “triple burden of malnutrition” (overnutrition, undernutrition or micronutrient deficiencies), invasive species and pest outbreaks, growing wealth disparities and climate change.

Addressing the root causes and not just the symptoms of such issues requires an understanding of the complex systems from which they arise. Several transformative areas of scientific inquiry (illustrated below) arising over the last several decades are helping shed light on these.

History of Complexity Science
A history of complexity science, by Brian Castellani. Click to enlarge. Distributed under CC BY-SA 3.0 license @ Wikipedia:

Drawing from, informing and linking several disciplines (including network science) this work is helping reveal and model the dynamic structures and relationships of a variety of different complex systems, such as cities, ecosystems, networks of neurons, social networks, power grids, and the internet. It’s been found these can give rise to “emergent” behaviors or intelligent structures (like bird swarms and termite mounds) not easily explained or predicted when looking solely at the aggregate abilities of their constituent elements, which might be quite limited at the individual level. Essentially systems where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Complexity science is also concerned with how those systems interact with their larger environment (often as nested, linked or overlapping systems of systems). Insights are now leading to the development of human designed systems like “robot swarms” exhibiting emergent behavior or “swarm intelligence” mimicking that found in the natural world.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Research in these areas has led to the recognition of complex adaptive systems (CAS), collections of entities or “agents” whose patterns of interaction over time can feed back on the system in a way which informs future interactions. That includes emergent responses to a changing environment which can increase survivability of the macro-structure, as well as the self-organizing processes which give rise to such responses. Because these processes are distributed and spontaneous, the system is typically better able to survive or self-repair than one dependent on top down or external control/resources.

Most relevant to my investigations1, the study of complex systems is also revealing reoccurring patterns in what could be called healthy or “fit” systems, including agrifood systems. These can exhibit the ability to 1) maintain functionality without fundamental changes (robustness), 2) recover or bounce back to a previous state (resilience), or 3) change (adapt) in the face of challenges, with examples found in a variety of social, ecological and technological situations. Systems able to maintain a balance of factors contributing to both resilience and efficiency, optimized for health and sustainability are said to exist within a “Window of Vitality”.

Land Grant Applications

So how might we consciously apply these principles to Land Grant institutions and programs? What are we to do when we realize that more often than not, the systems which we depend on and support are doing exactly what they were “designed” to do (intentionally or by default), sometimes at the expense of overall goals related to public health and well-being (possibly even while realizing individual programmatic outcomes)?

A 2014 book by Patricia Auspos and Mark Cabaj from the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, Complexity and Community Change: Managing Adaptively to Improve Effectiveness5, applies complexity science to the world of place-based community change efforts. Building on the work of Bill Traynor (mentioned in my last post, in regards to creating environments of connectivity), and others, it states:

A complexity perspective emphasizes the interrelated and systemic nature of issues…responses to the underlying issues may be less fragmented, more strategic, and more sustainable if they are linked and integrated across programs, organizations, systems, sectors, and areas of activity… The potential to generate cross-domain effects helps to bring stakeholders together around a common vision.

They argue that community change actors experience complexity in two ways: by addressing complex problems and by working within complex adaptive systems. Their efforts can be improved by looking at problems (the book uses food deserts as one example) through the lens of complexity and employing adaptive leadership and management approaches (also mentioned in my last post).

Political scientist Jenna Bednar uses a complex adaptive systems lens in exploring What Makes Some Institutions More Adaptable and Resilient to Changes in Their Environment than Others?6. In that publication she outlines several internal and external barriers to institutional change, even as the context in which they operate changes. She describes three design characteristics, diversity, modularity, and redundancy which can contribute to institutional fitness. Elsewhere7, Bednar and Scott Page argue that the collective intelligence of a community depends on network structures linking diverse perspectives, and that those structures may depend on institutional ensembles.

Federal systems are presented by Bednar as being particularly robust. Such distributed structures offer systems level fitness advantages not found at the institution level, through phenomenon such as institutional complementarity, subsidiarity and “spillover”. This presents a compelling opportunity (and perhaps obligation) for embracing a CAS approach within our Land Grant system, something eXtension and federated bodies such as APLUECOPAgNIC and USAIN are well positioned to champion and facilitate in coordination with federal agencies like the USDA.

Donella Meadows, co-author of the groundbreaking 1972 book The Limits to Growth, pioneered the application of complex systems analysis toward sustainability challenges. In the paper Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a Systemshe outlined a series of specific system properties which could be targeted to proactively change a system (or even transform it entirely).

Meadows arranged these “leverage points” along a continuum from those most easily altered but with relatively weak impacts (left end of lever above) to those more challenging to alter but extremely influential (right end above). These represented what she called “places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything”, a nonlinear trait of complex systems. Interestingly and still relevant today, Meadows first iteration of these levers came to her while attending a high-level meeting about globalization. Though well-intentioned she grew increasingly concerned about its focus on enhancing corporate growth without adequate attention to control mechanisms. Here and elsewhere Meadows reminded us that in many cases it is not technical solutions but our own mindsets which are holding us back from real (and often counterintuitive) solutions to wicked problems like hunger, with actions taken potentially worsening the very issues we seek to resolve…

People are not hungry in this rich country because there is too little food or money or organization. They are hungry because food, money, and organizations are not used for the purpose of once-and-for-all ending hunger. What is lacking is public commitment, or as some call it, political will.

–Donella Meadows, 1986, Hands Across White River Junction

In terms of my own work within the Cornell University library system, with Cooperative Extension, and beyond, I’m particularly interested in how increasingly sophisticated information tools and systems can better effect positive social change through lever number 7, The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information), and the affect that might have on the other levers.

Socio-Technical Systems Supporting Collective Intelligence

To support community and political decision-making, and the social “argumentative process” viewed as critical for better understanding wicked problems [and I would contend self-organized, emergent solutions], Horst Rittel and colleague Werner Kunz introduced the concept of Issue-Based Information Systems (IBIS) in their paper Issues as Elements of Information Systems9. It states:

IBIS guides the identification, structuring, and settling of issues raised by problem-solving groups, and provides information pertinent to the discourse. It is linked to conventional documentation systems but also activates other sources. Elements of the system are topics, issues, questions of fact, positions, arguments, and model problems.

Though IBIS was introduced before the arrival of modern computing systems, use of these was definitely anticipated. A variety of computer assisted or web based tools supporting this kind of sense-making through argumentation process have indeed been developed by others since then (see this blog post for a great overview: From information to knowledge: the what and whence of issue based information systems). I’ll be exploring potential Cooperative Extension applications with other colleagues at the upcoming eXtension Diversity & Inclusion Issue Corps designathon next month in Cincinnati, looking at how structured approaches like this, “designed for conversation”, might support civil discourse around health, wealth and shared prosperity, leading to collaborative solutions to issues like hunger.

This approach of bringing people, technology and information together in support emergent solutions is closely related to the concept of sociotechnical systems. The term was publicly introduced by Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth based on action research work with workers in English coal mines10. A key focus is on “joint optimization”, where both social and technical subsystems are optimized to promote organizational performance AND worker well-being.

Similar to what has happened with IBIS, since that time the concept of sociotechnical systems and their applications has continued to evolve and dovetail with other fields like complexity science. In their paper Solving Wicked Social Problems with Socio-computational Systems11, Joshua Introne and his colleagues describe one such effort, Climate CoLab,

representative of a general approach to melding human intelligence and social technology to solve wicked social problems. It is a sociotechnical system writ large, that leverages not only the intelligence of thousands of community members, but also the knowledge and capabilities of many pre-existing human systems. The platform itself is merely a nexus in which we hope our vast potential collective intelligence may be applied to solve the problem of climate change.

Work like this on “collective intelligence” platforms and systems draws from many of the same insights and biological models informing complexity science more broadly. For example a key mechanism supporting self-organization and the spontaneous emergence of complex, intelligent structures or behaviors without the need for central planning, control or even direct communication between agents is called stimergy. “Trace” left in the environment informs subsequent actions by the same and other agents which reinforce and build on each other. One example is the pheromone-marked trace ants leave, supporting networked discovery of and access to vital resources.

Some are recognizing distinct similarities between this type of highly efficient sense-making in the natural world, and the role modern databases, wikis, and social media sites can play in supporting improved knowledge creation and sharing at a societal level12. One of the things my fellowship1 is focused on is understanding how we might enhance the ability of Land Grant personnel to more effectively contribute and gather “digital trace” through sociotechnical capabilities like metaliteracy, simultaneously and efficiently supporting both our individual work and collective mission.

Land Grant System as Emergent Platform

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation13, Steven Johnson explores why certain environments seem to be disproportionately better at generating and sharing good ideas. Drawing from science and history he outlines seven distinct patterns which appear again and again, animated in the video below.  What he found was that contrary to the common myth of the isolated genius working alone in his lab until that fateful eureka moment occurs, great discoveries often evolve as slow hunches, maturing and connecting to other ideas over time before they’re fully developed. That “chance favors the connected mind”.

One of the key components of innovative environments are what he calls “emergent platforms”. Within the biological world Johnson uses the example of coral reefs, but similar patterns can be found in a variety of other environments, including online ones. By providing accessible and safe environments of confluence, and the necessary scaffolding for increasingly sophisticated collaborations, insights and adaptations, these platforms support innovation in a variety of forms, transforming relative deserts into rich and abundant ecosystems through mechanisms such as resource partitioning and reuse, symbiosis, and tight nutrient cycling.

“Liquid Networks” also play an important role in the development of innovative ideas and adaptations. These spaces or networks (physical or virtual) allow a diversity of ideas and elements to come together and combine in creative, and sometimes serendipitous or fortuitous ways. One way this happens in dense networks/populations is through what is called “information spillover” (similar to Bednar’s reference to institutional spillover above), where ideas and information are allowed to easily pass across and between domains or areas of interest, uninhibited by disciplinary silos.

Another important concept Johnson refers to is “stacking”, combining or re-appropriating previous innovations to create new ones, often in unusual and unexpected ways through what evolutionary biologists call exaptation. He uses the example of Tim Berners-Lee developing and combining several technologies (HTML, URI and HTTP) to create the World Wide Web (laying the groundwork for the modern Semantic Web stack I mentioned in an earlier post)

In my next post, I’ll be sharing my fellowship1 final report with several specific recommendations related to how we can work together on implementing the above ideas within the agrifood systems domain, transforming our Land Grant system into a “socio-technical platform supporting continuous learning and innovation”. On January 19th from 12-1pm Eastern Time I’ll also be sharing those results via an eXtension Zoom webinar. UPDATE -a recording of that presentation and the slides are now available here.


  1. This Solving for Pattern series represents one effort to learn and work out loud as I pursue an eXtension supported “Land Grant Informatics” fellowship, exploring ways we might more effectively link people, technology and information in support of healthy people, food systems, communities, and our Land Grant mission.
  2. Network-centric organization, from Wikipedia:
  3. Freeman, A., Adams Becker, S., & Cummins, M. (2016). NMC Technology Outlook for Cooperative Extension 2016-2021: A Horizon Project Sector Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
  4. Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. Modified version of paper originally presented to the Panel on Policy Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Boston, December 1969.
  5. Auspos, P., & Cabaj, M. (2014). Complexity and Community Change -Managing Adaptively to Improve Effectiveness. The Aspen Institute.
  6. Bednar, J. (2016). What Makes Some Institutions More Adaptable and Resilient to Changes in Their Environment Than Others? In Complexity and Evolution: Toward a New Synthesis for Economics. MIT Press.
  7. Bednar, J., & Page, S. E. (2016). Complex Adaptive Systems and Comparative Politics: Modeling the Interaction between Institutions and Culture. Chinese Political Science Review, 1(3), 448–471.
  8. Meadows, D. H. (1999). Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system. Hartland, VT: Sustainability Institute
  9. Kunz, W., & Rittel, H. W. (1970). Issues as elements of information systems (Vol. 131). Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California Berkeley, California.
  10. Trist, E., & Bamforth, W. (1951) Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Long Wall Method of Coal-Getting, Human Relations, Vol. 4, 3-38
  11. Introne, J., Laubacher, R., Olson, G., & Malone, T. (2013). Solving Wicked Social Problems with Socio-computational Systems. KI – Künstliche Intelligenz, 27(1), 45–52.
  12. Musil, J., Musil, A., Weyns, D., & Biffl, S. (2015). An architecture framework for collective intelligence systems. In Software Architecture (WICSA), 2015 12th Working IEEE/IFIP Conference on (pp. 21–30). IEEE.
  13. Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation.
Advocacy Community Diversity & Inclusion Fellowships Food Systems Information Innovation Social Networking Technology Working Out Loud

Solving for Pattern: Reimagining our Land Grant System as Networked Knowledge Commons, Part 3

Cultivating Solutions in Place through a Network-Centric Approach

The Death of Expertise?

Many would agree our recent elections have revealed deep and troubling divides in our country. Though there are certainly several contributing factors some have framed and perhaps foretold this as part of a larger global populist wave rejecting what many perceive as elitist experts and technocrats out of touch with the values and needs of ordinary citizens. For those who seek to support evidence based decision making contributing to the long term well-being of society this presents a fundamental and possibly existential challenge. This is particularly true for our publicly accountable Land Grant system, requiring us to more critically reflect on how our research, learning and outreach mission and theory of change can be more responsive to the perceptions, motivations and lived reality of communities we serve.

Robert Allen, Founder & Strategy Director of UK based RedFox Strategy wrote about this anti-expert, anti-intellectualism phenomenon last June in his blog post Brexit & the Death of Expertise. He provides a suggestion those of us whose position and authority rests on our expert “branding” would be wise to heed lest (when?) the pitchforks come for us:

So the Expert Authority brands need to change their tone, their message, and their proof points. They have to be less patrician, and more persuasive. They need a new style of leadership. I suggest that subtle, nudging ‘leadership by partnership’ is the right tone.

Leadership by Partnership

This idea of leadership by partnership is certainly not new to many of us working within the Land Grant system, particularly within Cooperative Extension.  Our own Extension system at Cornell states as much in its mission, declaring “We bring local experience and research based solutions together”. Yet as I highlighted in a previous post many have concerns about system rigging similar to those raised in our election, seeing our Land Grant system as favoring certain classes of individuals and interests1.

Returning to our roots : the engaged institutionIn fact for quite some time many have been calling for more collaborative connections between our on and off campus communities. Between January 1996 and March 2000 the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities held numerous meetings and produced six reports to build awareness among public universities of the need for higher education reform. A 1999 report, Returning to our roots: The engaged institution (Kellogg Commission, 1999) called for Land Grant Universities to move beyond a one-way transfer of information and technology to communities and be more “sympathetically and productively involved with their communities” (emphasis added).

Since that time concerns have continued to be voiced from both within and outside of Land Grant institutions regarding their ability to fulfill their knowledge with a public purpose mission. Several have suggested that practitioners and public stakeholders must be more actively engaged in the knowledge co-creation process, with Land Grant institutions reducing their emphasis on prescriptive recommendations and embracing a more facilitative or catalytic development model better leveraging local resources and networks in support of local solutions. Those voices have been perhaps most loud within the context of agrifood systems efforts seeking to address concerns around economic equity, social justice and inclusion, and environmental sustainability, with some suggesting we become “leaderful catalysts for change” (Colasanti, Wright, & Reau, 2009).

Reimagining the People’s Colleges in a Networked Era

Scott Peters, a Land Grant scholar at Cornell has been one thought leader in this area. In 2013 Cornell’s Mann Library hosted a panel discussion moderated by Peters looking at how Land Grant institutions might learn from past mistakes and better honor our Lincoln legacy. This coincided with the rerelease of Ruby Green Smith’s 1949 book The People’s Colleges, a history of Cornell University’s extension work. In it she states:

There is vigorous reciprocity in the Extension Service because it is with the people, as well as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It not only carries knowledge from the State Colleges to the people, but it also works in reverse: it carries from the people to their State Colleges practical knowledge whose workability has been tested on farms, in industry, in homes, and in communities…Mutual benefits result for the people and for the educational institutions they support.

That conversation was extended nationally via a year-long series of guest blog posts on the Imagining America -Extension Reconsidered site. In one post asking Where does “legitimate” knowledge come from? Craig Hassel from the University of Minnesota suggests:

Cooperative Extension [should provide] leadership in… creating space and building the trust needed for interfacing academic and non-academic forms of human knowledge.  Trust-building, deep listening, cognitive frame-shifting, open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, self-reflective and critical thinking [are] key skills and dispositions in learning from community how to navigate the sometimes challenging cultural terrain and complex knowledge commons.

John Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming at the University of Massachusetts, goes further, stating:

New communications technologies coupled with the emergence of societal networking and community-focused action groups will continue to erode the monopoly universities hold on advanced learning… universities must adapt quickly if they are to thrive in a world of rapid, interactive information flow… The pattern of increasing competition, public distrust, and declining support is likely to continue unless a new defining vision for public universities emerges… The next phase in the development of the public university will be a community-focused learning network that extends access to all citizens through university outreach and online instruction in the communiversity of the 21st century… public universities able to build on the land grant ideal, re-engage with the larger community, and take advantage of communications and societal networking technologies will thrive in the 21st century.

Creating a New “Environment of Connectivity”, Locally and Globally

My own work has been inspired by these and similar calls to action in the library world, including R. David Lankes’ vision of libraries as platforms helping unlock the potential of our communities, supporting knowledge creation through conversation in those communities. As an Outreach and Engagement Specialist at Mann Library for many years I brought on and off campus communities together for such conversations through a wide range of collaborative programming including an award winning Connected Minds, Resilient Communities series. I’ve also contributed to and helped catalyze a variety of capacity building efforts with civic/non-profit groups engaged in agriculture and food systems work.

Much of that incorporates what community development practitioner Bill Traynor calls a “network-centric” approach. In the article Building Community in Place: Limitations and Promise (Traynor, 2007, drawing from his experiences leading the successful CDC Lawrence Community Works) Traynor states:

To effectively attack the challenges of building genuine community, means investing in opportunities and space for peer-to-peer connections and resourcing the information infrastructure –literally the roads and trails of opportunity today… a functional civic infrastructure that optimizes the aggregate contribution of all residents and stakeholders… facilitating the cumulative capacities for collective decision-making, problem solving, mutual support, collective action, information sharing, and the creation and exchange of value” [e.g. time, goods, services, knowledge]

Central to LCW’s theory of change is creating a new “environment of connectivity” where residents can more easily connect to information, opportunity and each other. One of the challenges I’ve had in applying this to my boundary spanning work with those outside of the library is building understanding and active ongoing support for what knowledge management specialists recognize as a sociotechnical systems approach. Some of these difficulties are associated with linking relatively narrow, shorter term outcomes/logic models of resource constrained programs and organizations with longer term systemic change efforts, justifying investments in shared infrastructure supporting both including collaborative platforms.

Growing interest in Collective Impact approaches from many of the groups I work with has helped make the case for this work. First popularized by John Kania and Mark Kramer in their 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Collective Impact approaches seek to realize large scale social change through broad cross-sector coordination. Its worth noting how these efforts deal with the issue of expertise mentioned in the beginning of this post: complementing the insight of subject experts, Collective Impact initiatives also include “context experts” with lived experience relevant to the issue they are seeking to address. Kania and Kramer suggest five conditions that together produced greater alignment and collective impact: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and supporting and connecting the others, backbone support. Information and communications systems are an important part of the backbone support role.

Resources like the Knight Foundation and Monitor Institute Community Information Toolkit and their advocacy for building stronger communities through information exchange via “Community Information Ecosystems” have also helped make the case for such infrastructure needs.

Knight Commission, 2009,
Knight Commission, 2009,

In my work with agriculture and food systems initiatives I’ve extended this ecosystem model as part of necessary code-switching away from technical language toward more earth-based, biologically oriented metaphors. One I’ve had the most success with is equating these systems to what Paul Stamets has called the “Earth’s natural internet“: mycelium, underground fungal networks supporting the exchange of nutrients and “information” (e.g. communicating to neighbors that pests may be in the area, signaling a chemical defense response) via mutually-beneficial mycorrhizal partnerships with (and between) around 90% of land based plants. That includes their role in supporting healthy resilient agroecosystems as “agro-ecosystem engineers” (Cameron, 2010). Some have used this metaphor in suggesting a move away from higher commitment membership based communities of practice (Engeström, 2007) toward more loosely bounded mycorrhizal learning networks, echoing Traynor’s call for a shift away from membership focused movements.

I’ve found this metaphor useful in international contexts as well, most recently favored by colleagues in Australia. After several of them attended a presentation of mine at the 2014 National eXtension Conference in Sacramento I was invited there this spring, as a Visiting Fellow hosted by the State of Victoria’s Agriculture and Rural Division. There was interest in how they might apply these networked approaches in their own knowledge management work. Lacking an Extension system as we know it2 they are looking for ways they can still “collaborate across institutional and jurisdictional boundaries, enabling the emergence of a national innovation system through public knowledge management” (Vines, Jones, & McCarthy, 2015). While there I was able to learn about interesting work being done across the state, including the Birchip Cropping Group, an innovative farmer-based RD&E entity, as well as eXtension type approaches being explored in Australia. After returning to the U.S. I co-presented with one of my Australian colleagues Richard Vines at the National eXtension conference in San Antonio and continue to draw from this fertile and collaborative exchange in my current eXtension sponsored Land Grant Informatics fellowship3 (which this blog series is a part of).

Acknowledging Our Biases and Drives

Of course none of this capacity building work happens in a vacuum. Personal and organizational capabilities, perceptions, biases and motivations play an important role in shaping these socio-technical “environments of connectivity”, how or whether they are utilized (for good or otherwise), and whether they represent a level playing field. I touched on some of those issues in my last post, including various forms of bias at the individual, organizational and systemic level, and how the principles of self-affirmation theory should be recognized in addressing those.

By Christina Donelly, Jtneill -
By Christina Donelly, Jtneill –

Self-determination theory (SDT) also tells us there are three innate universal human drives: the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Daniel Pink’s book Drive adapted research from this for the business world following similar themes, autonomy, mastery, and purpose, while lacking an emphasis on relatedness. SDT holds that we are most deeply engaged and do our most creative work when we feel that we’re acting according to our own will on goals we find meaningful. When all these are experienced, through our “inherent growth tendencies” nurtured in part through social environments, there are positive consequence (e.g. well-being, growth and innovation).

Working Out Loud offers one way of expressing those growth tendencies.  Many of the initiatives I and my Community, Local and Regional Food Systems CoP cohorts work on or with are clear expressions of these as well. These are framed internally and externally in various ways, using terms like Collective Impact, civic agriculture, food security and food sovereignty, often concerned with cultivating not just food but valuable assets like self-efficacy and social capital.

Yet when these universal drives are thwarted, potentially by a variety of factors including some outside of one’s individual control, there are negative consequences. Reading Chris Arnade’s recent article in the Guardian it’s easy to see that many who voted in the recent election are behaving in accordance with the principles of both self-affirmation and self-determination theory. This suggests some critically important work to be done by those of us dedicated to public service.

Our Work Ahead: Cultivating Smarter Communities through Network Weaving

As Harold Jarche often articulates, networked approaches can support self-determination, at work and beyond. That includes (drawing in part on David Ronfeldt’s Tribes-Institutions-Markets-Networks Theory illustrated below) networks as an evolutionary step of societal organization. According to Ronfeldt all four of these forms can (and ideally should) co-exist as we enter the next evolution of society, but networks will dominate. Yet each form is ethically neutral, and can be used for good or ill. So for example, the tribal form, which can co-exist with the network form, can foster communal solidarity and mutual caring, as well as narrow, bitter clannishness.

Tribes-Institutions-Markets-Networks (TIMN) Evolutionary Forms (from
Tribes-Institutions-Markets-Networks (TIMN) Evolutionary Forms (from

In a June 2016 post on the “Network Revolution” I mentioned David Weinberger’s urging in his book Too Big to Know for us to “build networks that make us smarter”. It’s worth noting here that the rest of that quote includes the following: “especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider.” One of the things he and others refer to is the power of echo chambers –the ability to surround ourselves with the voices of others sharing the same experiences, values and biases. With confirmation bias selectively allowing in information reinforcing those while dismissing any dissonant messages, this can lead to positive feedback loops amplifying those over time. So the question still to be answered is if we can harness these tools in a way which allows us to embrace difference as he suggests below…

The Net lowers the barriers to encountering and interacting with that which is different. The barriers that remain are not technology’s but our own. We have lost every excuse not to embrace difference… Perhaps our hyperlinked infrastructure will give us a self-understanding that makes it easier for our curiosity and compassion to overcome our self-centered fears.

Many are already helping lead the way calling for more networked (Blay-Palmer, Sonnino, & Custot, 2016; Lubell, Niles, & Hoffman, 2014; Nelson, Coe, & Haussmann, 2016), resilient (Anderson, 2015) knowledge systems necessary for realizing sustainable, secure, just and self-determined agrifood systems (Colasanti, Wright, & Reau, 2009). In Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving, Valdis Krebs and June Holley provide more generalized suggestions relevant to the work of many Extension educators:

Communities are built on connections. Better connections usually provide better opportunities. But, what are better connections, and how do they lead to more effective and productive communities? How do we build connected communities that create, and take advantage of, opportunities in their region or marketplace? How does success emerge from the complex interactions within communities?

This paper investigates building sustainable communities through improving their connectivity – internally and externally – using network ties to create economic opportunities. Improved connectivity is created through an iterative process of knowing the network and knitting the network.

If we’re going to address increasingly wicked and interwoven problems like climate change, food security and growing wealth inequality I believe Cooperative Extension and the Land Grant system as a whole must more fully acknowledge the increasingly networked nature of our world, and both the challenges and opportunities that presents. In my next post I’ll share some specific findings and recommendations for how we might enhance our “socio-technical capabilities” in support of such network-centric approaches to realizing healthy people, farms, communities and food systems, by reimagining our Land Grant system as a networked knowledge commons.

In the meantime, those who would like to learn more about how these approaches can be applied to food systems work can check out the North American Food Systems Network (NAFSN) Good Food Talk webinar led by Curtis Ogden Nov. 16th, on Collaborative Pathways to Change: Tools for Just and Sustainable Food Systems Networks4, as well as past webinars on their website.

And as always, comments and feedback always appreciated here or offline.


  1. In its report Public Research, Private Gain: Corporate Influence Over University Agriculture (Food and Water Watch, 2012) the Food & Water Watch calls attention to how the funder effect can corrupt the public research mission of Land Grant universities, inhibiting their ability to effectively and equitably help farmers improve their practices and livelihoods.
  2. For a historical overview of Extension in Australia, I refer you to Warren Hunt, Colin Birch , Jeff Coutts & Frank Vanclay’s 2012 paper, The Many Turnings of Agricultural Extension in Australia, The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 18:1, 9-26, DOI: 10.1080/1389224X.2012.638780. Some might find their perspectives on cyclical change (reminiscent of a panarchical view) useful in seeing our own CES in a historical light. They frame historical changes in terms of four reoccurring cyclical “turnings”: crises, highs, awakenings and unravelling. Perhaps relevant to current conditions, Unravelling, a downcast period of weakening institutions as older orders decay, is followed by Crisis, a decisive period of upheaval, where a sense of urgency drives deep institutional transition.
  3. This Solving for Pattern series represents one effort to learn and work out loud as I pursue an eXtension supported “Land Grant Informatics” fellowship, exploring ways we might more effectively link people, technology and information in support of our Land Grant mission and communities we serve.
  4. The eXtension Community, Local, and Regional Food Systems CoP is partnering with NAFSN on a Food Systems Development Certificate, and my hope is we can work with experts like June Holley and Curtis Ogden on developing a network literacy and leadership competency framework as a part of that.


Anderson, M. D. (2015). The role of knowledge in building food security resilience across food system domains. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences5(4), 543–559.

Blay-Palmer, A., Sonnino, R., & Custot, J. (2016). A food politics of the possible? Growing sustainable food systems through networks of knowledge. Agriculture and Human Values33(1), 27–43.

Cameron, D. D. (2010). Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi as (agro)ecosystem engineers. Plant and Soil, 333(1–2), 1–5.

Colasanti, K., Wright, W., & Reau, B. (2009). Extension, the land-grant mission, and civic agriculture: Cultivating change. Journal of Extension, 47(4), 1–10.

Engeström, Y. (2007). From communities of practice to mycorrhizae. Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, 41–54.

Food and Water Watch. (2012). Public Research, Private Gain: Corporate Influence over University Agriculture.

Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation ReviewWinter 2011

Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities., & National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. (1999). Returning to our roots : the engaged institution. Washington, D.C.: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, Office of Public Affairs.

Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age. Community Information Toolkit. Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute, October 2009,

Krebs, V., & Holley, J. (2006). Building smart communities through network weaving. Retrieved from

Lubell, M., Niles, M., & Hoffman, M. (2014). Extension 3.0: Managing Agricultural Knowledge Systems in the Network Age. Society & Natural Resources27(10), 1089–1103.

Nelson, R., Coe, R., & Haussmann, B. I. G. (2016). Farmer Research Networks As A Strategy For Matching Diverse Options And Contexts In Smallholder Agriculture. Experimental Agriculture, 1–20.

Smith, R. G. B., & Dillard, H. R., A2-Peters, Scott J. A.PY-2013. (2013). The people’s colleges : a history of the New York State extension service in Cornell University and the State, 1876-1948. Ithaca: Fall Creek Books.

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