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
Some futurists got together and put a very visually satisfying “periodic table of mind-blowing tech” together. It is quite a fun rabbit hole of a site with endless opportunities to explore the tech that is coming!
Beautiful story about “planting trees as resistance and empowerment.” This article is empowering, energizing and hopeful. How much difference can individual people working together make to tackle climate change? This article will inspire you!!
Here’s a new article (and report) about “bias” in artificial intelligence is really about human bias “baked into” algorithms and processes. This report further underscores the need for creators and coders of the future need to be grounded in some of the same lenses, skills and ethics that social work is built on. Equity principles and skills matter – in artificial intelligence spaces and everywhere else.
These stories make me wonder how long it will be before adoption and/or medical social workers will find themselves in situations that include some of these dynamics – and if we will be ready when that happens? Where will we stand? How will we advise? How will we draw the line between ethical and unethical practice in the midst of such rapid evolution in this technology?
Want to Go to the International Space Station on Vacation?
Words are fun aren’t they? You may recall that as I gather up some vocabulary that is new to me in my “futures” journeys…I put together a periodic post about them. (You can see the other posts along these lines here.) New ways of thinking involve new terms that stretch our sense of what is possible and introduces us to new ways to be in the world, take action, resist and function in all that is evolving. Here’s a new batch I’ve been gathering as I study!
Techno-optimist – In spite of the many kinds of bad news about the state of the world and the risks of losing ourselves to technological troubles – there are those among us, who generally feel pretty positive about the likelihood of technology to do more good than harm. They do have some guidelines though! And guess what, some folks want you to know this isn’t really a good idea. Their perspectives are here.
But of course no real exploration of futures topics most impacting the practice of social work in the years to come would be complete without a thorough look into current literature related to climate change.
Climate change as it relates to mental health and environmental justice are essential aspects of futures- and foresight-oriented social work practice. Social workers and social work education has long been committed to including this topic in our “canon” of focal areas, and issues of climate well-being are increasingly topics faced, discussed and included in social work practice and research. This effort has recently culminated in inclusion of climate change-anchored research and practice in the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative. And yet, though we’d all agree this is an urgent and relevant issue…have we gone far enough to assure that climate change competencies become part of how we think, research, collaborate and practice? What might be involved in going even further to assure that social work maximizes our impact in this space?
One of my most central reference points in this area, has been the work of Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice.” I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few times. If you are not familiar with his work, I highly recommend a deep dive. You can start here. This link will take you to a long-form lecture that Dr. Bullard did recently.
These are sobering areas of study – yet in each area there is reason to hope. Against the odds, there are scholars, activists and communities who actively seek to redirect the climate change trajectory from one of destruction, to one of revitalization and healing using a wide variety of strategies and tactics. As is said frequently within the futures practice world – the future is open, not fixed – and what we do now still very much matters. No where is this more true than related to the issue of climate change.
Whether it’s helping to de-code and assist people in naming and surviving in the face of climate change, or putting new levels of energy to bear in reversing and/or stopping climate change, this is another particularly urgent area of deep learning and relevance for social workers who have an eye towards the future!
As is my practice, I organized recent literature on this topic. For those that might wish to join me on a quick tour of “what’s new” in these combined area of practice (climate change as it relates to mental health – and – environmental justice) – you can link to the annotated bibliography and sector scan here. It is always in development. My goal is to boost the degree to which social workers can benefit from the best emerging information available. Let’s put it to good use and protect each other and our planet!
New technology for social justice field scan published in 2018 called “More than code” by a coalition of organizations concerned with intersections of tech, equity and ethics. Excellent resource – good reading and important set of ideas and resources for us in social work.
Artificial intelligence, work and the future of inequality is a piece that dives deeply into the intersection of these three issues. Imagining a world in which the meaning, availability and compensation for work is changing so dramatically should be something we are tracking in social work – potentially impacting many areas of our practice.
Ran across the work of Lorraine Chuen while scanning for data justice information. Her presentation indicates she’s a tech designer, researcher and writer in this space. She has some excellent information on the interplay of design thinking and tech justice. My favorite part of her presentation are some “design justice principles” which I have sensed are truly a missing piece in the design thinking frameworks I’ve seen increasingly being utilized in social work spaces. These include:
We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.
We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.
We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.
We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.
We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.
We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.
We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.
We work towards sustainable, community-led and controlled outcomes.
We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and each other.
Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.
This is a fun and creative piece that is not wholly against tech – but does challenge the reader to be discriminating about what is happening when we engage – and continue to develop evolving and deepening “digital literacies for our own well being. I loved the format – most engaging. This is relevant not only to us – but challenges us to think about the role we might play in digital literacy/empowerment/agency with vulnerable people that we work with.
The future of health care
This piece is an excellent and thought provoking piece about trends related to the future of health care. As social workers – these are exciting frames to imagine what is possible in terms of delivering new tech and medical breakthroughs to reduce human suffering, and extend both the length and quality of human life. That said, I found myself wondering throughout the article (as often happens) how these advances will be distributed, who will have access to them and who will not, how privilege will play out? It doesn’t diminish the richness of the evolution of this science, but it does challenge us to keep an equal eye on ground level public health and improving conditions for those least likely to access high end breakthroughs.
The next big technology revolution (well one of them…)
I’m considering starting a regular feature on these blog entries called “OK this will just blow your mind.” This is a resource that is in that category. A former MIT president, Dr. Susan Hockfield (a neurobiologist) has a new book just out called “The Age of Living Machines.” She suggests that the next big revolution will be (and is) the convergence of machines and biological elements. Essentially technology built out biological parts. See what I mean – mind blowing! Many interesting applications that can improve the quality of human life – and probably put us at risk too. Hello ethics progress – I hope you’re coming along on this journey. Here’s an overview of her work and insight into her book. Interesting tidbit woven into this piece – the world’s energy needs are expected to double by the year 2050.
Futures Thinking Frameworks
Here’s an article that invites the reader to consider a framework called “critical uncertainties” to anticipate impacts of artificial intelligence in the future. The author describes this as a framework that “…allows us to consider a few plausible futures and become more resilient to the challenges they hold. It reduces the risk of blind spots and unwelcome surprises. It can also help us identify ways in which we can proactively shaping the future.” (Woeffray, 2019). I’m always interested in exploring new ways to think about things – and find that this ongoing scanning and consideration of ideas like this can be one of the most valuable parts of getting social work as a profession to simply “try out” some methods and frames that might stretch our sensibilities.
Earlier in this blog, I noted the need for social work and social work educators to understand the past, present and future of higher education. My previous work included in this space was an indepth review of resources associated with the concept of neo-liberalism in higher education.
As a profession, new social workers and social work knowledge is produced in the academy. Our ethics and values dictate that this knowledge grows out of real world dynamics and partnerships in real communities. Social work knowledge has found its primary home in university and college spaces – and our “home” is undergoing some powerful evolution. Some of it is important and good – some of it is deeply challenging and concerning.
That said, there is a whole sector of futures practice that is focused on the future of higher education. Many challenge that it is in a particularly dynamic state of change, increasingly precarious, and at risk of growing instability as fiscal, legal, and labor issues continue to become more complex. Trend analysts describe plentiful signals regarding shifts in play and on the horizon – and most of these predict growing closures and/or mergers of colleges and universities. Change, they say, is coming.
I’ve been building this resource list for some time as I navigate my own futures journey. I have a particular affinity for emerging knowledge on the future of public higher education, and I’m not alone. If you haven’t become aware of it, there will be a national gathering this fall to explore the future of public higher education on the east coast.
THIS resource list is not specific to the public sector – it is a gathering of a broad array of items focused on both public and private higher education issues.
As with my other resource lists, this bibliography is ever in a state of evolution and revision. As is our strength as social workers – my aim is to prepare social work educator leaders to understand the deeply contextual nature of our work as generators, leaders and protectors of social work knowledge, emerging research and education.
If our goal is to thrive in the social work education practice environment of the future – we will need unprecidented levels of creativity, agility, collective intelligence and FORESIGHTFULNESS. We should resist the urge (and sometimes incentives) to compete, but rather seek pathways to elevate and collaborate for a greater good in the future of our knowledge and our professional workforce, even as we continue to innovate.
A special note, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I’d like to offer a reminder that this resource list is not, and is not intended to be, and indepth review of the literature. Rather, this is a horizon-based sector scan focused on relatively recent resources in the academic, practice, trade press, and popular press on the future of higher education. There are a couple of these that I find very valuable and may “agree” with in terms of my predispositions – others less so. The greater value is in scanning what is here and thinking through what these mentions reveal as a whole about what might be happening, what might be coming. Futures practice involves looking for and finding patterns that imply a trajectory we may yet have the power to influence.
Do you ever wonder to yourself about what social scientists, social workers, app developers, related professionals and researchers are exploring with regard to what is happening with mental health technology, and how ethics are playing out in their application to urgent mental health challenges in world? Melanie Sage and I have been thinking about this very thing – and we gathered up some of our resources to share them with you here.
Being future ready, means that we have a sense of how technology, ethics and the needs of the people we work with and for – intersect. Many people are doing work in this space. Let’s contribute, exchange ideas, debate and explore.
Do you have other favorites you might want to share with us? Please be in touch – the more we grow our shared capacity to learn, develop deeper capacity and spread the best use of ethical tech in mental health practice – the better for all!
This event was billed as an “ethical tech summit” in downtown Seattle. I was excited to participate – though was surprised that it was less “hackathon” and more “thinkathon!” Lots of great community and learning in play.
All Tech is Human’s welcome goes like this:
“You are part of something special happening today. We individually understand the promise and peril of technology, yet collectively struggle to better align its development and implementation with our aspirations as a society. The people in this room are actively working to find a better way. YOU are part of the solution! All Tech is Human aims to co-create a a more thoughtful future towards technology. We say co-create for good reason, as the future depends on a more inclusive process that taps into a diversity of knowledge that can better inform the politics of innovation, including the ever-changing ecosystem of technology product design and development. The dirty truth is that there is no magic bullet for ‘fixing tech.’ Instead, perpetual debate is as important as it is inevitable. Everyone who is impacted by technology should be heard loud and clear as we together explore how we might move forward and create a better tomorrow. Let’s turn up the volume.” David Ryan Polgar
The day started with an overview of the “challenge” of finding our way in a complex new world of technology. Speakers opened the day (Rob Girling and David Ryan Polgar) with remarks and observations of how “tech has altered the human condition” in ways that are not likely to roll back any time soon. The challenge, as it was laid out, is about how to insert more thoughtfulness and humanity in the present and future trajectory of how technology occupies space in the world – and how people (not corporations) can best drive it.
There was lots of discussion about the tensions between computer engineers’ roles in tech (Can I?), the ethicists (Should I?) and the legal experts/lawyers (Must I? Can’t I?). There was discussion of the tension between tech “solutionism” (for every tech problem, there is another (better) tech solution, vs. government “solutionism” in which elected and/or govt. officials declare some aspect of technology out of control and bring out new regulations to try to reign in the “problem.” This led to additional conversation about the politics of tech – and a rationale for how solutions require a “broad, inclusive and multidisciplinary” approach. Finally, there was discussion of how citizens can and should have a role in interacting with those designing, improving and regulating tech so that it truly works for and with people.
The rest of my download will be an assortment of interesting/noteworthy things I learned that I just want to keep track of!
Di Dang, a Design Advocate at Google (@dqpdang) gave the best brief overview of “machine learning” I’ve ever heard: “Computers that can evolve to see patterns without being programmed to do so.” She works in a research group within Google that seeks to use human-centered design to make AI work better for people. Trust was discussed. I worked hard at keeping an open mind, and was aware at how hard it can be not be cynical about the idea of social good and big tech…but I was interested in what she had to say. Here’s their research group. I have some more exploring to do. I’m guarded, but willing to be teachable. I remain worried at how this will all impact the most vulnerable, and it will be hard to move me from that position.
Reid Blackman, who is a founder of a group called Virtue, is a tech ethicist. He sits on a committee for “methods to guide ethical research and design” for artificial intelligence-related technologies. It is heartening to hear folks diving deep on the issue of defining ethics for a new world – but concerning what a political struggle it is to see how much of a struggle it is for these frameworks to take root. You can read more about this work here.
Delany Ruston is a physician and filmmaker who made a film called “Screenagers” about raising kids in a screen-filled tech world. I appreciated the degree to which she’s trying to calm/educate/support worried/frantic parents who feel like they are losing their kids to technology and screens. I haven’t seen the film so can’t comment on it at this point – but I’d like to check it out and may report back later. This is a slippery issue isn’t it? There is a lot of chatter that automatically has a kind of “anti-tech” tone for kids across the board – and I don’t know if that is always helpful. I prefer something that is a little more nuanced – as some are saying…appreciative that there are lots of kinds of screen time. From what I heard, she seems to be embracing of this nuance…but I need to investigate a little deeper before recommending.
My favorite of Mr. Narayan’s quotes: “It’s a false dichotomy to say that tech and social good can’t co-exist. We are just doing a particularly bad job of getting there.”
Steve Schwartz, Director of Public Affairs for Tableau Software and Tableau Foundation spoke about their efforts to help government and business see, understand and use their data more effectively. This is a software that has a free version that seems to be popular among many in the social sector. I haven’t used it yet, but based on the talk – I’ll definitely explore. You can learn more here. I do think we can and must do better when it comes to understanding and using data to tell the stories we are trying to tell in social work. Those of you who are doing more with data analytics, infographics and the like are my heros. In a visually competitive world – stories with images are powerful. This COULD be a tool to help us.
Another speaker was Amie Thao, who is a Civic Designer for the City of Seattle. Her work involves design-based information and data analytics to tackle civic challenges and advance mayoral priorities including racial equity, affordability, and youth economic opportunity. You can see a little more about her work here. I was super intrigued about what this job is like…she’s the only person in city government who brings her unique combination of tech and civics expertise.
Because I was in this series of sessions, I couldn’t attend another set of sessions that were held simultaneously on “designing tech for inclusion and accessibility.” I’ll list the speakers here so you can explore along with me!
Alexandra Lee (@leejayeun) who spoke about her work at a place called the Civic Design Lab in Oakland, CA. She was sharing about her efforts to apply design thinking, racial equity lens, and system thinking to solve civic resiliency challenges in urban environments.
Anna Zivarts, Rooted in Rights (@annabikes) who spoke about disability/accessibility issues in tech.
Later in the day, I attended sessions about ‘Tech for Good: the Rise of Public Interest Technology.’ Heard from Renee Farris (@farrisra) who works at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (one of the largest philanthropic institutions in the U.S.). Interesting to hear about their work, and the creative approaches they are using.
Also heard from George Aye (@GeorgeAye), co-founder of the Greater Good Studio in Chicago. They use design principles to tackle community challenges of all kinds. His talk was terrific. His philosophy was clearly stated that when considering community and/or organizational change, “people adopt the change they are part of making.” He shard that there are three principles of good design: Good design honors reality, good design creates ownership and good design builds power. He said designers should study anthropology, social work and organizing as much as traditional design. George emphasized the need to engage those most impacted by the problems we are trying to solve – and who generally have the least amount of power in a traditional sense.
Finally, the last particularly powerful presentation I attended that I wanted to include here was from Yana Calou (@YanaCalou) at CoWork.org which is an organizing group specialized in work with the tech sector. Her presentation was really gripping discussing what has been happening with a gradual “awakening” of tech sector workers about their rights and their need to begin to communicate, organize and work together for a more equitable and transparent workplace. I had not been aware of all that has been happening in this sector, but I’ll list a few articles here that outline much of what she spoke about. We all need to be watching this space closely – the workers in tech are revealing some serious concerns that should cause us all to pay attention. Primary issues are sexism in the workplace/sector, loss of worker control over their own work product, and loss of worker autonomy/privacy.
This event was held at a design firm that does work at the intersection of equity/sustainability and community – Artefact.
This is truly only a fraction of all that was discussed, but gives you a flavor of the diverse and complex viewpoints presented. I do think there is a lot of room for improvement in how diversity/equity is actually actualized in these kinds of spaces. While there was some diversity present in the crowd – most folks who were there would agree they have a long way to go.
I met a few folks from venture capital firms, as well as a number of other wonderful people who gathered here because they are curious, unsettled and determined to figure out how tech can do a better job of contributing to a positive future for all. I met a fellow who is getting his Ph.D. in nursing who is doing his dissertation on how VR can help with the healing process. I’m glad I went. I think we have some things to learn about bringing this “civic design” sensibility into our social work spaces and activities. We are strong in many elements of community engagement/organizing, but this additional layer of design frameworks can offer a lot of new energy/possibilities.
Here’s a couple of additional sites/resources I include just for perusing value: