RSDP Happenings - Focus: Extension Reconsidered at design conference
By Sinda Nichols, program director, Minnesota Campus Compact
Sinda Nichols presents the findings of her design thinking group's prototype for the future of extension at the Rural Design Conference at University of Minnesota Crookston on July 31. Also pictured are Kamana Dhakwha (College of Design research fellow) and Kathy Draeger (RSDP statewide director)
Over 120 people convened at the University of Minnesota Crookston for the Rural Design Conference: Thriving by Design II, on July 30th and 31st, 2014, focusing on meeting challenges to Minnesota's rural communities through design techniques. I was pleased to attend the Extension Reconsidered conference track as a staff representative of Minnesota Campus Compact (MNCC), a coalition of 38 colleges and universities including all five University of Minnesota campuses, committed to promoting civic engagement in higher education.
We at MNCC share Extension's values and goals related to campus engagement with communities, as well as an investment in the future of campus-community partnerships across the state, so we are interested in the Extension Reconsidered initiative in Minnesota. Both a track at the conference and a broader statewide effort led by RSDP, Extension Reconsidered is tasked with envisioning Extension's role in our state through the next 100 years. We at MNCC have also partnered with many of the national organizations involved with the wider, 13-state Extension Reconsidered initiative.
Tom Fisher, Dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design, gave a keynote address to frame the convening. He talked some about the design process, which we then used throughout the conference. What was most interesting to me, however, was the power of the metaphors he used. For example, he spoke in terms of webs, networks, nodes, and cycles. Those images, and the idea that design is not just a process but a language and way of seeing the world, stuck with me and the other participants over the course of the conference.
For the final design challenge of Extension Reconsidered, we were asked to create physical prototypes depicting Extension's future form, as we hoped it to be. The models were made of zip ties, clay, puffy fuzz balls, surplus plastic manufacturing bits and pieces, and a range of other objects that could have taken any number of forms. As our five teams presented their models, however, the prototypes had a lot in common. Most employed some element of the design-thinking language we'd heard the day before. Teams used phrases like: "conduit for outreach and in-reach," "horizontal multidirectional system," "spiral of iterative experimentation," and one group explained, "We are the nodes, we are the web." Here are three common concepts that I saw conveyed about Extension's role through our spiraling tubes, play-dough paths, and webs of straws:
- Mutual exchange of knowledge: Most of the models were non-hierarchical and featured cycles, circles, and webs. All models showed information flowing both from the university to communities and from communities to the university, leaving behind evidence of mutual influence. Neither the community nor the university were seen as the sole possessor of wisdom.
- A focus on process: The models showed processes, such as pathways, chutes, spirals, rolling balls, and waterways, to depict Extension as performing a process function, not simply housing content. Many portrayed Extension's expertise as facilitating communication across systems. Even when models addressed content outcomes, they still emphasized process, e.g., helping communities discern just, equitable solutions to problems, or conveying high-quality, credible information.
- Responsive engagement: Many of the models emphasized Minnesota's varied communities and were designed to be responsive to specific contexts. One model was globe-like, with a thermometer at the center. It was intended to "take the temperature" of a community and adjust accordingly. This model was also modular and mobile, able to be constructed and reconstructed again and again in different contexts. Most models emphasized in some way that one of Extension's strengths is its adaptive structure.
As the Extension Reconsidered conversation continues, the University of Minnesota and its partners will work to further define the desired outcomes of Extension's work. Based on this project, it seems that one of the most valued outcomes may be hiding in plain sight. That is, its most distinctive role may be Extension's ability to cultivate effective processes for responsive mutual exchange of knowledge across the state. The content of Extension's work will likely change significantly in the next one hundred years as our communities and economies change, but our design process suggests that the way Extension does business is an important niche in and of itself.
This approach resonates with Minnesota Campus Compact's commitment to asset-based community engagement, a process that shines light on the contributions of all in the collaborative construction of our shared futures. With this in mind, we look forward to cultivating innovative ways to live out our complementary civic missions in the unfolding century.