Exploring how social workers can increase their impact through futures frameworks – All content developed by Laura Burney Nissen, Ph.D., LMSW, CADCIII, Portland State University School of Social Work, Portland, Oregon, USA
(This is an accepted proposal for an upcoming “TED”-type talk I’ll be giving at the Council on Social Work Education meeting in Denver on October 26, 2019.)
Ever get the feeling that the future is coming on faster than we can make sense of it? Do the challenges ever seem like they are multiplying? In some respects they are….but so are people, communities and possibilities for positive change that are tackling these challenges in intensely creative and future facing ways. Some suggest – our very survival as a planet depends on our ability to harness “the best” of who we are to navigate and co-create the future in new ways. The truth is, being “futures literate” is an acquirable skill…and while it doesn’t mean a person can predict (with absolute certainty) or control the future, it does mean that we can enter the future better prepared to deal with whatever comes. This practice is called “foresight” and it is being practiced all over the world. Foresight is being used in a variety of private and public sectors. It is a “big tent” community full of technologists, ethicists, scientists, artists, gamers, equity workers, inventors, engineers and policy wonks (to name a few). But social work is only beginning to explicitly engage with this body of knowledge and set of practices. While in many respects – everything we do in social work is implicitly “for the future” – there is so much more possible. Our value propositions, skills and tools as social workers can enhance futures practice – and futures practice can challenge us to think bigger across our profession. Come learn about the ideas, methods and fascinating world of this global community and practice that can build collective imagination, intelligence and agility to deepen our impact, increase our effectiveness and help to build the world we want to live in. Should every social worker be a futurist? YES. We belong and are much needed in this movement and in the future (as are the people and communities we work and stand with). Come learn more!!! Let’s build a better future.
As part of my own development as a futures practitioner/scholar, I have felt it very necessary to map out and cultivate a deeper set of learning aspirations to guide me and to provide the foundation for my own scholarly work in this space.
I first became aware of the term “epistemic injustice” at a social work research conference a couple of years ago – from Drs. Bonnie Duran and Roberto Orellana. Their deep wisdom and sharing of information about Indigenous ways of knowing, about assaults towards (and even more troubling – attempts to eliminate) Indigenous ways of knowing, was extremely inspiring and has stayed with me. I have continued to gather, study and reflect on what role these frameworks have to play with futures thinking and practice.
Terms like “diversity,” “equity,” and “social justice” matter and increasing tools and focus promote progress in many ways across a variety of sectors. Increasing discourse focuses on “white supremacy culture” and these frameworks are helpful in combatting inequity. That said, at this moment – I’ve found these epistemic injustice concepts the most fruitful to my own work and thinking.
In its most simple terms, a central question is: Who gets to decide what the future is? Whose dreams, aspirations, preferences, values get prioritized? Who gets to forecast what comes next – and who gets heard? Is this happening with attention and dedication to equity?
The “futures world” can (fortunately doesn’t always…) lean towards an innovation bias, a “new”-ness bias, and modern/neoliberal rhythms that can and often do, leave out many voices. While what is new is ever fascinating, it mustn’t obscure (or even more damaging – eliminate) the complex interpretations and ways of understanding what has been, what is and what comes next in the world. Epistemic injustice models deepen, complicate and strengthen social justice and equity frameworks, and as Afrofuturists, Chicano Futurists, Feminist Futurists, Queer Futurists and Indigenous Futurists (and others) are already demonstrating/practicing – diverse voices make for richer futures.
I hold these ideas with much reverence, gratitude and humility. Explore, enjoy and share. Let’s keep building a better world together.
If you’re interested in perusing previous posts covering new words in futuring, you can see them all here. And stay tuned, because to celebrate my upcoming 1 year blog-iversary, I’m going to put them all together for easier access. Here we go…
This is totally fascinating. Cyborg anthropology is the study of how technology is impacting and changing human behavior. This brief TED talk by Amber Case is really interesting and asks a simple question: “Are we already cyborgs?”
Here’s a great site that has collected and defined Cyborg Anthropology and does a good job of organizing topics by various areas of interest. Here’s an additional article and book on the subject (I just ordered it – very intrigued). I’m guessing this is an area of practice that is going to continue growing.
Back in December of 2018, I shared a term called “computational propaganda” (scroll down) in this ongoing vocabulary list project that is related to the idea of the idea of a particular way of weaponizing false information internationally with significant geopolitical implications.
Given our commitment to democratic political engagement, and given the rise of concern and activity to understand these concepts and join many around the world who are actively resisting/fighting againstdisinformation (often led by journalism), this is an important issue for social workers to have foundational working knowledge about.
(Special note: I wish to underscore that I’m far from an expert on this topic, and the previous one on deepfakes…but seek to provide some beginning definitions as I’m learning about in this blog. Inclusion of information in these entries is not intended to imply endorsement of the content – rather to simply amplify a variety of ways of looking at and understand the issues so we can continue to learn and debate about these issues together. )
(Image above is from “Ethical OS” referenced below.)
There is SO MUCH going on in spaces associated with tech ethics and related ethical guidelines (or lack thereof) with regard to a host of futures issues. Among all of the urgent concerns calling from the future – few are as important as more actively advancing our sense of ethics about the choices we are making (and that are being made for us) in our lives and world.
I thought I’d just pull from my own growing list of readings/resources and see what they look like all together. I urge you to cruise through and explore with gusto, those places and/or titles that attract your attention. This is a list that is ever growing/changing and not intended to be exhaustive. Note of warning: This isn’t a “quick read” kind of list…each of these resources is complex. But I’ve found the time spent surveying these worth it in stretching my thinking and helping me build a better ethics foundation, as well as prepare to write more on futures topics. As always, I’m building my own library for my own study – just sharing so that other interested folks can jump in!
Of course social work is not absent in dialogue about ethics and tech, but I would also suggest we are not done evolving and keeping up with all the rapidly changing dynamics in the tech ecosystem. This is not a project that is probably ever done.
My perspective is generally: Let’s learn faster shall we? Ethics study can accelerate our readiness and increase our positive impact in the future – though it won’t remove the degree of ethics challenges we are and will continue to face. This list is a way for us to stretch and consider some ideas “just outside” of our typical practice/scholarly spaces.
Note: If you haven’t heard of it yet, the term “design ethics” is emerging quickly and worth a look. These resources are included at the end of this overview.
Note: I have not had a lot of success finding strong critiques of the assistive technology world. Seems there is a lot of “pro” literature, but little in the way of constructive critique…(see last entry for a good one I found). If you are a reader who is knowledgeable in this area, I’d love/appreciate suggestions.
There have been lots of fascinating things (as always) floating around online to spur some new thinking and inspiration related to futures work and study!
If you follow this blog, you may know that I do regular posts about things I find that relate to areas of interest – future of government, well-being, social problem/solution-building, higher education, ethics in tech, and other related topics. You can scroll through some previous posts along these lines here. I curate this for those who are in my particular field of social work education – but also for others that may have common interests. This is a way that I personally/professionally track “signals” that I see, compare, combine and consider about what may be coming!
Excited to share that earlier this summer, I became a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA. I’m very intrigued and inspired by the work they do there, and the varied and diverse fields of practice that their team includes. My sabbatical should provide some needed time and space to delve into so many of the interesting projects and explorations they have in play. If you’re interested in learning more about them – they have a fantastic conference once per year (called a 10-year Forecast Summit). This year the theme is about the future of power…a timely and vital topic. Information about the gathering is here. I will be there!!
Intriguing, inspiring and important piece by the BBC on “the perils of short termism” as our planet’s greatest threat. This idea is frequently discussed in futures work – and in many respect – foresight is the opposite of, or anedote to, this limited set of perspectives.
Just finished reading “Fix the Future” by Andrew Keen. I liked a lot of things about it! Thumbs up. Here’s a review. Will probably do a review at some point.
Also just finished reading “Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code” by Ruha Benjamin. Huge thumbs up on this one! Will definitely be doing a review with strong implications for social work. I would go so far as to say social workers and social work scholars should run out and get this book ASAP. Important and significant implications for our work and scholarship. Here’s a review.
A few months ago, I did a review of the highly impactful book “The Future of the Professions” on this blog (which I continue to recommend to anyone who will listen). This past month, I had occasion to meet with an attorney who was most interested in the future of the legal profession and on her way to becoming trained as a futurist here in Portland. After getting together, I came back to do a little searching about what I could find to help her get started on her journey. Dr. Susskind is back at it with some specific scholarship and thinking about the legal profession. Here’s a talk he gave at Harvard Law School on this topic (from 2017), an article, and a review of a new book he’s written on the future of law and the legal profession. All of this has enormous implications to help other professions (and for the purposes of this blog – social work) understand how the changes occurring in the world are indeed changing and evolving professions, whether the professions themselves are attending to this or not. I found these resources to full of sparks, insights and linkages to lots of futures topics.
Geo-engineering. This terms is related to ways to slow down the deadly and destructive impact of climate change. This once purely science fiction-level set of ideas, but increasingly plausible proposed practices involve sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to trap less heat – and – reflecting sunlight away from the planet. These ideas are also referred to as carbon renewal or negative emissions technologies. You can learn more about it here.
Panopticon – actually an older concept of a form of architecture generally associated with prisons, that means everything can be “seen” at all times. Gradually coming into contemporary use associated with a society that is increasingly enacting digital surveillance. Here are a couple of pieces that drill down into this set of ideas. This concept has far reaching implications for social work practice…and the degree to which it is frequently argued that vulnerable populations are already more heavily (and frequently unfairly) surveilled more rigorously, multiplying their vulnerability and powerlessness. Truly – these ideas will impact all of us in so many ways.
What happens when a prestigious foundation brings together nursing experts from across the United States, mixes representatives from other related fields, and invites an internationally well-known futurist to guide them through some brave and complex thinking and exploring about the future of the nursing profession? Well…I got to find out last week when I was invited to participate in exactly this opportunity in Washington, DC.
This event was part of a multi-year engagement in exploring, amplifying, strengthening and preparing the profession of nursing for the future – co-sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and numerous other nursing education and practice leader groups. You can read some of the national consensus panel work that preceded this gathering here.
Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist, a Professor of Strategic Foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business, and Executive Director/Founder of the Future Today Institute in NYC, who has written numerous books on complex futures topics – one of which I reviewed here in this blog (The Big Nine). Another of her notable books is called “The Signals are Talking” which was used for this meeting. This book is very much a primer on futures thinking and her method for actively preparing for it. She notes that “forecasting the future requires a certain amount of mental dexterity,” (p.34). Amy describes the futures field as one that is interdisciplinary and “combines mathematics, engineering, art, technology, economics, design, history, geography, biology, theology, physics, and philosophy,” (p. 10). If you are not familiar with her annual “Tech Trends” report – now in it’s 12th year, you will want to explore this broad and dynamic resource. It is truly fascinating how emerging technologies are most likely to impact our shared future (sometimes in unexpected ways) – and positions/challenges all of us to push for ethical and reasonable evolution in these spaces. If you’d like to watch her in action, you can do so here! “The Signals are Talking” is a textbook on her method which includes six steps: 1) Find the fringe (which are the spaces where changes are most likely initially occurring), 2) Use CIPHER to uncover patterns (contradictions, inflections, practices, hacks, extremes and rarities), 3) As the right questions, 4) Calculate the ETA, 5) Create scenarios and strategies, and 6) Pressure-test your actions. These comprise the building blocks of a facilitated group process which mapped to our day.
Of particular interest to me is Amy’s approach to organizing how to look for and begin to map trends and “signals” about change that is in the air and in motion…and how they may impact the issue you care about and/or interact with one another to create additional ripples of change. This is a handout which lays out these “disruptive sectors” – and I thought quite helpful in organizing our thinking about all the intersecting factors that drive change in the world around us.
The purpose of this gathering was to invite a broad array of key informants to widen and deepen the collective imagination and intelligence to advance and elevate the future of nursing. Our day was spent in small and large group dialogue in which we mapped out relevant signals potentially impacting the future of the nursing profession in all of these areas.
Just a few of the questions we considered included:
What are the social determinants of health that will help decide future well-being?
What are the new challenges to achieving equitable access to quality healthcare within the next 10-20 years?
Who will be involved (other professions or sectors)? How will roles and expectations change (specifically nurses, physicians, and community health workers)?
We were encouraged to map out all kinds of strong and/or weak signals about possible connections and impacts to what nursing practice may look like in the future. Once we were done with this, we used these maps to identify those we thought were most compelling and then, using a method Amy shared with us (identifying axes of uncertainty related to economic shifts, technological progress, social changes and/or politics/activism), strategically create scenarios based on these insights to imagine even deeper possibilities and unexpected turns. As she said, we were trying to “see around corners” in our collective effort. Many fascinating possibilities were identified and created in our shared space. Folks were literally “all over the map” (a good thing!!!) in terms of which they thought were more and less likely to occur – and why – but that was part of the beauty of this process. We were navigating lots of uncertainty and disruption in the way we perceived what kinds of things might happen next in the nursing ecosystem – technology, politics, advances in practice – and emergence of new and more complex health challenges to name a few. We were literally building a shared sense of collective intelligence as we debated and navigated these conversations. It felt productive and definitely got to several levels deeper than typical, more superficial “conference chat.”
After spending time considering some of our scenarios, we were invited to prioritize those we most desired collectively – and used a technique called backcasting to think through what kind of strategies would most valuable to achieve this set of aspirations, being mindful of how many disruptions were likely along the way. We were attentive to the risks of the undesirable scenarios as well…and the degree to which we might have to also consider preparing to defend and/or strategize against them too.
The ideas developed from this day will be used by Amy and others involved in this effort – from RWJF and the Institute of Medicine Consensus Panel leadership – to write a follow up report to guide their ongoing work and planning.
It was a most interesting day. It was a valuable experience – and was terrific to get to see/meet/learn from Amy directly after being such a fan of her work from afar. She’s super smart and delightful!!! Grateful to have participated!! Can’t wait to share many of these lessons with my fellow social work folks!! Let’s build a better future!!
Thanks Amy and RWJF!
Bonus new term to me: Exponential Medicine. This is how futurists in medicine talk about what they are doing. They have an annual conference to share the broad range of what is happening – you can explore more about it here.