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?
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.
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.