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