Solving for Pattern: Reimagining our Land Grant System as Networked Knowledge Commons, Part 1

Part 1: Knowledge through Conversation

It’s always a pleasure reconnecting with and learning from colleagues at eXtension conferences. Last March’s in San Antonio was no different, which included convivial meals along the River Walk and several stimulating workshops.

Zone of Complexity
Slide from UMN Extension program leader Nate Meyer’s presentation using a “Stacey Matrix” to illustrate zone of complexity.

One workshop led by my Network Literacy CoP cohorts included this video by UMN Extension program leader Nate Meyer. In it he encourages Extension to embrace its role cultivating social learning within networked innovation spaces known as “zones of complexity”. Identifiable in a variety of fields and circumstances (including health care), this can in turn create shared pools of collective knowledge which can be drawn on in response to wicked problems and grand challenges which no individual, program or institution can address on its own. [Net Lit CoP co-lead Bob Bertsch writes more about this in his highly recommended blog post Extension 2050: Working Within Networks]

There were also several inspiring keynote speakers at the conference, including John Stepper, author of Working Out Loud. A key strategy of WOL is cultivating relationship networks to enhance self-efficacy and work/life satisfaction by “leading with generosity”, providing insight and assistance to others without expectation of immediate return. Another keynote, Paul Pangaro, spoke about the importance of Extension “designing for conversation”, so the learning spaces we create might better support collaborative, innovative problem solving.

The Grand Challenge: Coordinating Knowledge Infrastructure to Unlock the Potential and Passions of Society

Participatory Networks: The Library as ConversationBoth are aligned with similar ideas in the library world promoted by individuals such as R. David Lankes, who believes our primary role is the creation of knowledge in and with communities, through conversation. Because we are “in the conversation business”, and technology and particularly the internet is changing the role, form and location of conversations, we must now consider how to provide conversational, participatory network infrastructureMore recently, Lankes has been so bold as to say that THE grand challenge (defined as a societal-level problem that is solvable and has high potential rewards) for librarianship is “coordinating the knowledge infrastructure to unlock the potential and passions of society”. [See my previous blog post for other ideas related to networked knowledge creation, and eXtension’s investment in that capacity]

These approaches are all relevant to the work I and others do at Land Grant libraries like Cornell University’s Mann Library, in support of our diverse communities of inquiry and practice. They’re also related to a “Land Grant Informatics” research fellowship I’m currently pursuing with support from Cornell University Library and eXtension, exploring ways we might more seamlessly and effectively link people, technology and information in support of our Land Grant mission, the communities we serve, and timely, adaptive responses to complex problems. For my fellowship I’ll be focusing on healthy food systems, and issues such as climate change and food security.

This investigation is being informed by my colleagues, mentors and networks, as well as decades of front line experience in farming and food systems work before entering academia 20 years ago. Along the way I’ve been influenced by a number of practitioners and thinkers, including National Humanities Medal recipient Wendell Berry, who through his writings has helped me better appreciate the value of culture in agriculture. He’s also highlighted the importance of a systems perspective in preventing and solving wicked problems. In Solving for Pattern (Chapter 9 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agricultural, North Point Press, 1981) Berry writes:

To the problems of farming, then, as to other problems of our time, there appear to be three kinds of solutions, [those which]…

1. Cause a ramifying series of new problems… that… arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution…

2. Immediately worsen the problem it is intended to solve, causing a hellish symbiosis in which problem and solution reciprocally enlarge one another…

The Community Club, from the 1918 publication “Farm knowledge… the farmer’s own cyclopedia”, available at

3. It is not until health is set down as the aim that we come in sight of the third kind of solution: that which causes a ramifying series of solutions… [with] a concern for pattern, for quality [based on and reinforcing] relationships of mutual dependence.

As part of my own efforts to work out loud, over the next several months I’ll be sharing insights and reflections from my fellowship, as I explore how we might better “solve for pattern” within, across and beyond the Land Grant system. I’ll end this post with the image to the right, from a 1918 publication, The farmer’s own cyclopedia (available from one of Mann Library’s digital collections). In many ways I see Extension and eXtension at its best as modern versions of the “Community Club” illustrated here. My hope is this series itself will encourage and provoke ideas, information and inspiration from others, including those working outside of Extension and the Land Grant system. Please feel free to add your own thoughts and experiences operating in the zone of complexity below!