Connections: Not So Tidy Change

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle November 2016, Vol. 57, No. 10, p. 37

Change is only tidy in hindsight. In the process, it is one big confusing mess. The straight lines and the clear trends that you read about in history books don’t convey the feeling of chaos at the time. Take the changes now occurring with organics as an example. It seems clear that at some point in the not very distant future it will be recognized that every ton of organics we have must be used. And as a soil scientist, and having seen the wonders that these materials can do in various applications, the straight line leads right to the dirt. Using these materials on soils is the clear answer and obvious solution.

What specific applications, you ask? So many it is hard to count. Organics are the answer for roses and rhododendrons, maples, oaks and firs. They work for tomatoes and lettuce and you can even use them to grow the grain for the bread and to feed the pigs to make a BLT. They work in cities, on highways, and on farms. They can be used on football fields, golf courses, and city parks. Seems so obvious. So why do many composters have a glut of finished product that they can’t move?

Let’s just say for the sake of this column and the health of our soils that I am correct. The question then becomes how to turn this vision of the future into a clear trend that moves material now. We know our “stuff” is great. How can we spread this information?

Knowledge Diffusion

It turns out that there is a whole field of study devoted to this very topic. One focus has been on how knowledge is transferred. There are two fundamental models of how knowledge is disseminated and new systems or technologies are adopted: Centralized diffusion and decentralized diffusion. An example of centralized diffusion is the Extension Services arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With equal funding for research and dissemination and a focus on real world applications for scientific research, the Extension Services became a model of how R&D is transferred through a linking system (Extension Service) to a user system (farmers).

This diffusion system is top down and highly structured, and was able to accelerate adoption of new technologies on a large scale very effectively. It helped that there was a real need and a clear target audience. The extension agents worked as the connector between the scientists and the end users, in this case the farmers, often directing feedback that resulted in product modifications from the bottom up.

But knowledge is not always spread from the top down. An alternative model —decentralized diffusion — has also been viewed as effective. Here knowledge is spread sideways, e.g., within a community garden or in a neighborhood. Experts here are one and the same as the people using the innovations, meaning that they take part in their creation and evolution. Solutions are developed based on local needs and reflect modifications tailored to address them.

Top down or centralized systems are best for innovations that require high levels of expertise whereas horizontal or decentralized systems are more appropriate for straightforward solutions. In decentralized diffusion, local experts replace those with the PhDs both in terms of knowledge and credibility within the community.

Adoption Process

From here the next step is to realize that whether you are top down or upside down, not everyone who could potentially take advantage of these innovations will, and those who do, do so at different rates. The description of the spread of new information or new technologies follows an S shaped curve (Rogers, 1986). The process starts with the innovators. It then spreads to the early adopters. If all things fall into place the change then spreads to the early majority. By this point you start seeing the late majority buying in and finally the laggards, who may or may not make the switch. While this S shaped pattern may be clearly visible from 10,000 feet or 15 years from now, on the ground level it isn’t always so easy to see.

So how can you take all of this diffusion and innovation and move some recycled organics? A few examples can provide some order to the chaos. Ryan Batjiaka wrote the cover story in last month’s BioCycle about increasing use of compost by the Washington State Department of Transportation (see “Compost Use By State Transportation Departments,”). He also looked at how use of compost became the norm in Texas and California. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is currently the single largest user of compost in the U.S. with over 4 million cubic yards applied. In 2000, that number was 500.

In each of the three states Ryan examined, experts within the agency set about disseminating information about the benefits of compost. An internal expert with a top down model of knowledge diffusion is how this relates to the discussion above. In the Texas example, a clear problem was identified. Erosion and poor vegetation establishment had cost the agency and no effective solution had been identified. Barry Cogburn and Scott McCoy were the two internal experts who set about disseminating the efficacy of compost throughout the agency. They developed a comprehensive specification for compost that provided the blueprint for correct use, identified appropriate compost feedstocks, raised funds and did a lot of education and training. Here the knowledge diffusion was similar to the Extension Services model in that it required a significant sum (time and money) for dissemination.

It is also a model of decentralized diffusion as the team would come to a problem site with compost and blower trucks once the local engineer had promised to bring at least 20 local stakeholders to the demonstration. The efficacy of the product was clear. This mixed model of centralized and horizontal diffusion has made compost use a no brainer within TxDOT in a relatively short period of time.

We are currently witnessing the growth of decentralized composting facilities run by local “experts,” sometimes in the absence of, sometimes with the assistance of, the associated municipalities. This is clearly an example of horizontal diffusion. I’ve had the opportunity to meet two of the best known of these experts — Will Allen from Growing Power and Pashon Murray from Detroit Dirt. In both cases, they are making compost in the absence of municipally run systems. They have started their programs based on the recognition of a local problem with a solution developed to meet local needs. In both cases, the composts produced are used to grow food for the community.

The visibility of both Allen’s and Murray’s efforts suggests that they are working in a bottom up fashion of knowledge diffusion. It would also appear that each is making progress along the ‘S’ curve. I met both at a workshop on soils held in Washington, D.C. that led to a White House call for innovations in soils. These are examples of local programs, many of which have been featured in BioCycle, all instances of horizontal diffusion of information. It would seem that we are now on the verge of transitioning on the ‘S’ curve from innovators to early adopters. But only time will tell.

Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.

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