Why Social Workers Should Be Futurists – A Love Letter to the Future

(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.

Epistemic Injustice: An Annotated Bibliography About the Role of Equity, Diversity and Resistance – A Primer for Futures Practice

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?

While I’m still formulating how this all shakes out (specifically) for me as a social work futurist (more to come!), as is my practice, I’ve organized what I found in an evolving annotated bibliography on the topic of “epistemic injustice” and a related concept “epistemicide.” Both are extremely relevant, urgent and powerful ideas for any meaningful study of the future.

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.

New Words in Futuring – Emerging Vocabulary for Social Workers #8 – September 11, 2019.

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…

Civic Hacking – this is a term that refers to the creative, dynamic and emergent practice of using data in unexpected ways to solve civic problems and/or challenges. Those involved come from a variety of formal and informal locations – but all are united in thier desire to use data for good and to harness the dual powers of data technology and democratic community activism to make the world a better. place. There is a great definition with some history here. There is actually a national “civic day of hacking” (it’s coming up September 21 this year.

Here’s a recent(ish) academic article about the phenomenon and practice.

Cyborg Anthropology

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.

Deep Fakes

This has really popped up quite a lot in recent media. A deep fake is moving image/film-like document that appears real, but is in fact, manufactured with great technical precision to fool the viewer. Because of our extraordinary talent-base in movies and the technical aspects of creating special effects – many people are somewhat familiar with the idea that we can make anything look (somehow) like anything else. But concern has grown recently because of use of these technologies outside of entertainment spaces, and of particular worry, emerging potential for them to be used in politically unstable situations to complicate and/or weaponize communications. This is part of a broader set of concerns about “disinformation campaigns and warfare” (see below). Here is a brief popular journalistic overview. Here are some more articles specific to political/national security concerns about the technology and it’s use. Lastly, here’s a TED talk to break it all down.

Information Warfare/Disinformation Campaigns

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.

As early as 1996, people watching the playing field, were very much aware of the potential for “cybersecurity” and information warfare to become increasing challenges in the world of ahead. This is kind of an interesting historical document that summarizes these ideas of that day. Here’s a more recent historical document that provides a historical overview of the U.S. military’s efforts to develop and guide security in this area. The definition of information warfare is literally when two or more parties use (mis)information as a weapon to divide and take political advantage in a conflict.

A related but distinct topic is that of “disinformation” which is similar to but slightly different than propoganda. Disinformation is the catch all term that describes how variations of information (sometimes variations of accuracy) are systematically deployed in a conflictual situation with the intention of confusing or misguiding people. Here’s a nice overview (and toolkit for fighting disinformation) developed from the UK.

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 against disinformation (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. )

Resilience Hubs

This is my new favorite thing. I recently ran across this model and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it – found it most inspiring! What if everyday places that people just normally spend time in, became explicit “community resilience hubs” to assure readiness for significant challenges particular to that region and/or as the community themselves determined? In fact, my guess is that resilience hubs are already everywhere, sometimes just unrecognized. But in truth, so many of the answers to community challenges are best and likely found close to home. This is a fundamental social work value. What if every social worker were a “community resilience hub booster?” This link provides a wonderful guidebook to invite communities to consider and experiment with this framework. These authors were inspired by hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico – but they want to boost this signal to expand into all kinds of places where resilience is needed. Bottom line: I want to be in a future where this is happening more and more and more.

Techlash

This article defines techlash as: (noun) The growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents. It was a word of the year late last year…but I’ve only recently learned about it. It certainly fits a (continuing) trend internationally – and very real fears about the speed of change, the need for change, the motives for this acceleration and the well-being of all involved in the process. Certainly there has been growing critique of the need for more rapid expansion of explicit ethics in the tech world. I devoted a recent post to a “round up” of ethics articles and resources that provided a good foundation for social work (and beyond) to help to ground our thinking and work to help us navigate this complex matter. There is no way for us, as professionals, to simply “opt out” of this important conversation as if it doesn’t effect us. The truth is, tech influences and impacts everyone at this point in history. We have an ethical obligation to be both ethical innovators to advance the common good in our sphere of influence and interrogate/critique when harm is being done.

Futures Ethics Round Up – An Exploration and Overview for Social Work and Beyond

(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.

Social work has well-known ethics scholars who have wrestled with and guided our profession regarding tech ethics for some time. And we also have emerging ideas and voices entering the dialogue as well, exploring how technology is changing social work practice, how to guide our profession towards meaningful use of technology, how mental health and related social work practice areas are considering and evolving ethically, and how to build ongoing learning collaboratives to continue to grow our ethical capacity intentionally. A few more resources round out an overview (just a sample) of social work thinking on tech ethics from recent years.

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.

General

UNESCO’s page for Science, Technology and Ethics

Omidyar/Institute for the Future’s Ethical Operating System (Ethical OS) (and a little article about how/why it was developed here).

Open Data Institute’s Data Ethics Canvas Toolkit

Should this exist? The ethics of new technology (2019)

Deep ethics: The long term quest to decide right from wrong (2019)

Ethics of the future (on the importance of not hurting future people) (2019)

2019 is the year to stop talking about ethics and start taking action (2019)

Tech ethics issues we should all be talking about in 2019 (2019)

Embedding ethics in the computer science curriculum (2019)

Facial recognition tech raises some real ethical dilemmas (2019)

List of TED talks related to a new era of ethics issues/concerns

Who will teach Silicon Valley to be ethical? (2018)

Future Ethics – the book everyone in tech should be reading now (2018) . Note: Here’s an online lecture by this author Cennyd Bowles.

Black mirror, light mirror: Teaching technology ethics through speculation (2018)

The battle for ethics at the cutting edge of technology (2017)

Equity

Gender, race and power in AI (2019)

Two major concerns about the ethics of facial recognition software and public safety (2019)

White supremacy and artificial intelligence (2019)

Futures, power and privilege (2019)

Algorithmic Transparency, Bias and Justice (2019)

Health

Rethinking medical ethics (2019)

What are important ethical implications of using facial recognition technology in health care? (2019)

4 reasons why healthcare needs a digital code of ethics (2018)

The ethical intersection of health and technology (2017)

The ethics of the health related internet of things (2017)

On the ethical implications of new health technologies and citizen participation (from the EU) (2016)

No time to waste: The ethical challenges created by CRISPR (2015)

The Future of Work

Take it from a futurist: How Chief Ethics Officers should approach AI issues (2019)

HR – Can we please discuss ethics in the future of work? (2018)

Future of Work and Ethics – European Commission (2018) also Future of Work/Future of Society (2018)

Assistive Technologies

Entire issue of journal “Ethics and Behavior” dedicated to the ethics of assistive technologies. (2019)

Ethical design of intelligent assistive technologies for persons with dementia: A descriptive review (2018)

Assistive technology and people (2018)

Assistive technologies for persons with disabilities – focus on blindness and visual impairments, deafness and hearing impairments, and persons on the autism spectrum (2018)

How does assistive technology benefit people with disabilities (2018)

Ethical considerations for use of assistive technologies for persons with dementia (2017)

Controversy: Do new technologies put pressure on people with disabilities (2017)

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.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence: The global landscape of ethics guidelines (2019)

Are we ready for artificial ethics? AI and the future of ethical decision making (2019)

From what to how: An overview of AI ethics tools, methods and research to translate principles into practices. (2019)

What should a code of conduct for AI include?

AI and the future of ethics (2017)

Top 9 ethical issues in artificial intelligence (2016)

Smart Cities Ethics

The ethics of smart cities (2019)

Cities face up to facial recognition ethics (2019)

Smart cities pose fresh ethical challenges for open governance (2018)

Citizenship, justice and the right to a smart city (2018)

Three scenarios show we have to think carefully about ethics in designing smart cities (2018)

Design Ethics

Ethically aligned design: A vision for prioritizing human well-being with autonomous and intelligent systems (2019)

How to Design with Ethics (2019)

The future of humanity depends on design ethics, says Tim Wu (2019)

Dear Designer: The Happiest Design Ethics Article You Will Ever Read (2019)

Design justice: Towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice (2018)

Design Justice, AI, and Escape from the Matrix of Domination (2018)

Ethics can’t be a side hustle (2017)

New Words in Futuring – Emerging Vocabulary for Social Workers #7 – August 15, 2019

My explorations of late have resulted in another of my “occasional” posts related to emerging terminology from the futures world. You can glance at the other entries here.

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.

Design Fictionemergent discipline related to use of narrative and story to provide structures, supports, challenges and provocative possibilities to guide human thinking towards a range of futures. Creative, disruptive and dynamic…this is a really interesting and helpful set of people, practices, and literature-based methods that have deep roots in the futures world. Of course it has deep connections to the world of science fiction…but is more likely to be explicitly engaged in futures practice than exclusively delivered as a work of “art.” Here’s a helpful overview and “how to” piece. It’s connected to and a variation of “speculative design” working in some of the same spaces. I’m imagining how these techniques could help us imagine futures of social welfare and/or social problems that might expand the range of creative possibilities we might discover/consider as a result of said explorations! MIT Media Lab has a whole project dedicated to this approach . Or as is evidenced by Afrofuturism (which I’ve written about previously on this blog…), these methods open deep possibilities for deepening our collective abilities to see, hear, and respect various identity-based expressions of possible futures.

Neuro-technology – perhaps you’ve been hearing about this via the Elon Musk story about his goal of linking a human brain to the internet? While experts agree it is not yet ready for prime time, the mere fact that it is getting this much press says much about our curiosity and eagerness to explore more of what is possible in this space. So too, does this possibility inspire neuroethicists to converge on the topic (appropriately and just in time) to help us all figure out how to wrap our minds around (pardon the expression) what an ethical application of this possibility might be. Here are a few pieces I found that bring this topic to life in some interesting ways.

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.

Update from previous entries in this series:

Fourth Industrial Revolution – I have covered this in a previous entry in this series – but here’s a terrific new and very clear/well-written article defining this complex and important topic.

Download from The Future of Nursing Meeting at the National Institute of Medicine/Science/Engineering, July 30, 2019 – Washington,D.C.

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.