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, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @lauranissen
Have you seen the film “The Social Dilemma?” In a previous post, I shared a couple of fine reviews specifically concerning the lack of diverse representation in the film – particularly when it comes to breakthrough thinking, practicing, research and imagining about the future in tech and beyond. Most concerning is the lack of inclusion of the voices of Women of Color who have been conducting important work in this space for many years. Of course the issues in the film are important. But the way the story is being told is incomplete from where I sit. This post is singularly dedicated to amplifying the voices and work of some of these extraordinary people that I have been learning from on my own futures journey. It is by no means exhaustive. But no study of the future, or equity, of imagination and of shared possibilities in tech or beyond it is complete without their collective vision, intellect and passion. I offer this list with gratitude and admiration.
This is an essential learning space for social workers committed to future readiness and the expansive and equity-centered thinking that is required to thrive there.
Kishonna L. Gray, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Communications and Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Illinois. Author, researcher and game developer – expert in equity and inclusion in gaming. Presentation of her work.
Alondra Nelson, Ph.D. – Professor, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study. President of the Social Science Research Council, science scholar. Author of “The Social Life of DNA.” Presentation on “Society after Pandemic.”
Followers of this blog know I am a scanning machine – always looking around on Twitter and beyond, gathering and comparing signals of change or interesting bits of information with other futures practice colleagues. This blog has had a running series on these scans since it started. This is a central idea in futures practice – and best done in community!
In the last six months, I’ve run across a number of great academic articles that I haven’t featured previously. These are listed in alpha order with the authors – and run the gamut of all kinds of topics. What they have in common – is that I think they’ll be of interest to future facing social workers. They show how futures thinking looks in action across our profession – and in other professions that we might intersect with. I found them all fascinating, thought provoking and/or inspiring. They spark thinking as powerful ideas so often do! They are mostly brand new (and just published online) – but a couple are just new to me and within a few years of being written. Hopefully these are the kinds of articles that will find their way into social work courses, research, continuing education – and as importantly our informal co-learning and the shaping of our profession. To meet the future with new levels of readiness…we have to learn together in new ways.
If you have or know of a future-related academic article you’d like me to consider featuring in a future blog post – please share at email@example.com.
The rapid proliferation of health informatics and digital health innovations has revolutionized clinical and research practices. There is no doubt that these fields will continue to have accelerated growth and a substantial impact on population health. However, there are legitimate concerns about how these promising technological advances can lead to unintended consequences such as perpetuating health and health care disparities for underresourced populations. To mitigate this potential pitfall, it is imperative for the health informatics and digital health scientific communities to understand the challenges faced by disadvantaged groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, which hinder their achievement of ideal health. This paper presents illustrative exemplars as case studies of contextually tailored, sociotechnical mobile health interventions designed with community members to address health inequities using community-engaged research approaches. We strongly encourage researchers and innovators to integrate community engagement into the development of data-driven, modernized solutions for every sector of society to truly achieve health equity for all. (Author abstract.)
‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ is a required reading in many graduate programs to explore technofeminism, transhumanism, and studies of science and technology to explore notions of gender, race, and other minoritized identities. However, in this essay, I note the ways that Haraway’s pieces still exacerbates categories of difference, and my own difficulties and critiques of the cyborg identity. I encourage readers not only to consider its importance, but also limits the cyborg identity, and how the concept of cyborg itself is fraught with a Western, patriarchal violence that cannot be ignored in the greater context of technology and technological innovation. Although useful in imagining a departure from traditional categories of difference, I inquire as to whether it upholds the very things it purported to dismantle, and explore other scholars’ works in challenging the concepts. Ultimately ‘cyborgs’ are not outside fof the politics within which they exist, and must be interpreted in relation to other identity categories without upholding whiteness and Western epistemologies as the center. (Author abstract.)
The child welfare system disproportionately harms Black children and families through systemic over-surveillance, over-involvement, and the resulting adverse outcomes associated with foster care. Ending this harm will only be achieved when the forcible surveillance and separation of children from their parents is no longer viewed as an acceptable form of intervention. This paper describes the upEND movement, a collaborative movement aimed at abolishing the child welfare system as we know it and reimagining how we as a society support child, family, and community safety and well-being. (Author abstract.)
The interplay between race and technology has captured the attention of scholars in sociology, communication, media studies, and beyond. Previous research has focused on a range of topics including the centrality of race to the structure and function of the Internet, critiques of digital divide studies, and the phenomenon of Black Twitter. Although a robust history of critical race and digital studies exists, there has yet to be a definitive overview that traces the development of this important field. In this review, I fill this gap by delineating a genealogy of critical race and digital studies by mapping the intellectual terrain of the field. To do this, I begin with a broad overview of the history of Internet studies before reviewing key areas in the field of critical race and digital studies, including colorblind studies of the web, digital divide studies, and Black Twitter. I conclude with a focus on the ways that this body of literature can be brought forth to critically understand the implications of emerging areas of academic debate on studies of race and technology. (Author abstract.)
Degrowth is a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being. Over the past few years, the idea has attracted significant attention among academics and social movements, but for people new to the idea it raises a number of questions. Here I set out to clarify three specific issues: (1) I specify what degrowth means, and argue that the framing of degrowth is an asset, not a liability; (2) I explain how degrowth differs fundamentally from a recession; and (3) I affirm that degrowth is primarily focused on high-income nations, and explore the implications of degrowth for the global South.
This article focuses on the implications of the work of two artists on discourses of temporality and Indigenous futurity. I analyze the work of Skawennati and Bonnie Devine, with particular consideration of their resistance to the hegemonic temporality of extractive and capitalist lifeways and what Mark Rifkin calls ‘settler time’ [Rifkin, Mark. 2017. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Durham: Duke University Press]. Skawennati provides a spiraling narrative of Indigenous pasts and futures in her machinima series, TimeTraveller™. In her sculptural installation, Letters from Home, Bonnie Devine calls upon the viewer to consider the stones from the Serpent River First Nation as elders. The casts of these stones are framed as texts, and viewers are encouraged to learn how to read these lessons, collapsing the divide between deep time and the present. Ultimately, I argue that these artists use emerging, experimental, and established media as a method of creating ruptures in Euro-Western notions of time, providing an embodied experience of a temporal otherwise and glimpses into decolonized futures. (Author abstract.)
This paper looks at the case of transgender Britons who tried to correct the gender listed on their government-issued ID cards, but ran up against the British government’s increasingly computerized methods for tracking, identifying, and defining citizens. These newly computerizing systems show some of the earliest examples of transphobic algorithmic bias: explicit attempts to program trans people out of the system can be seen in the programming of the early Ministry of Pensions computer system designed to apportion benefits to all tax paying British citizens. Transgender citizens pushed back against these developments, attempting to hack the bureaucratic avenues and categories available to them, laying the groundwork for a coalescing political movement. This paper argues that uncovering the deep prehistory of algorithmic bias and investigating instances of resistance within this history is essential to understanding current debates about algorithmic bias, and how computerized systems have long functioned to create and enforce norms and hierarchies. (Author abstract.)
Conditions of abjection are increasingly viewed as problems to be managed with surveillance. Across disparate domains, bodies that challenge normalized constructions of responsible neoliberal citizenship are categorized, monitored, policed, and excluded in dehumanizing and often violent ways. This paper explores the role of surveillance in such processes. The registers covered include everyday abjection (welfare systems, battered women’s shelters, and homelessness), criminalized poverty (police targeting of the poor and emerging ‘poverty capitalism’ arrangements), and the radically adrift (the identification, tracking, and containment of refugees). In each of these cases, surveillance is yoked to structural inequalities and systems of oppression, but it also possesses a cultural dimension that thrusts marginalized and dehumanized subjectivities upon the abject Other. Therefore, I argue that in order to critique the gendered, racialized, and classed dimensions of contemporary surveillance, it is necessary to take seriously the mythologies that give meaning to surveillance practices and the subjectivities that are engendered by them. (Author abstract.)
“What if, instead of solely looking for the best AI talent, tech companies and startups created a Chief Social Work Officer? This is the question Greg Epstein posed to me during our conversation about why AI needs more social workers. My response: The social work difference is that from inception, when considering why or if AI should be created or integrated in society, we would ask: Who should be in the room making that decision? Social work thinking underscores the importance of anticipating how technological solutions operate and activate in diverse communities” (p. 86).
This article analyses three distinct child welfare data systems in England. We focus on child welfare as a contested area in public services where data systems are being used to inform decision-making and transforming governance. We advance the use of “data assemblage” as an analytical framework to detail how key political and economic factors influence the development of these data systems. We provide an empirically grounded demonstration of why child welfare data systems must not be considered neutral decision aid tools. We identify how systems of thought, ownership structures, policy agendas, organizational practices, and legal frameworks influence these data systems. We find similarities in the move toward greater sharing of sensitive data, but differences in attitudes toward public-private partnerships, rights and uses of prediction. There is a worrying lack of information available about the impacts of these systems on those who are subject to them – particularly in relation to predictive data systems. We argue for policy debates to go beyond technical fixes and privacy concerns to engage with fundamental questions about the power dynamics and rights issues linked to the expansion of data sharing in this sector as well as whether predictive data systems should be used at all. (Author abstract.)
In professional disciplines, gaps often exist between research and practice. This occurs because of a lack of information exchange between stakeholders about various knowledge of problems and solutions. Implementation science offers systematic strategies for addressing gaps. One potential way to close gaps is by using professional collaboration networks (PCNs), which are technology-mediated, user-centered relationship constellations designed to enhance connections and professional opportunities. These participatory networks are goal-specific, extending across disciplinary and international borders. PCN users can keep current on empirical developments, disseminate knowledge, connect to others for collaboration and mentoring, and expand in-person networks. They allow social workers to contribute their unique knowledge of social systems across interdisciplinary contexts and contribute to conversations about social. This article explores the development of PCNs as a tool for social work researchers, practitioners, and students. PCNs in social work education are explored, including relevance to lifelong professional learning and enhancing research impact. (Author abstract.)
Despite the ubiquity of health-related communications via social media, no consensus has emerged on whether this medium, on balance, jeopardizes or promotes public health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has been described as the source of a toxic “infodemic” or a valuable tool for public health. No conceptual model exists for examining the roles that social media can play with respect to population health. We present a novel framework to guide the investigation and assessment of the effects of social media on public health: the SPHERE (Social media and Public Health Epidemic and REsponse) continuum. This model illustrates the functions of social media across the epidemic–response continuum, ranging across contagion, vector, surveillance, inoculant, disease control, and treatment. We also describe attributes of the communications, diseases and pathogens, and hosts that influence whether certain functions dominate over others. Finally, we describe a comprehensive set of outcomes relevant to the evaluation of the effects of social media on the public’s health. (Author abstract.)
This article provides a history of private sector tracking technologies, examining how the advent of commercial surveillance centered around a logic of data capitalism. Data capitalism is a system in which the commoditization of our data enables an asymmetric redistribution of power that is weighted toward the actors who have access and the capability to make sense of information. It is enacted through capitalism and justified by the association of networked technologies with the political and social benefits of online community, drawing upon narratives that foreground the social and political benefits of networked technologies. I examine its origins in the wake of the dotcom bubble, when technology makers sought to develop a new business model to support online commerce. By leveraging user data for advertising purposes, they contributed to an information environment in which every action leaves behind traces collected by companies for commercial purposes. Through analysis of primary source materials produced by technology makers, journalists, and business analysts, I examine the emergence of data capitalism between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s and its central role in the contemporary information economy. (Author abstract.)
Computational social science methods provide a better understanding of how social work education programs use Twitter. Data mining and sentiment analysis of 2,509 tweets were conducted using the Information, Community, and Action conceptual framework. Programs primarily tweet content related to the theme of Information and the tone of the tweets are mainly positive. Statistics such as the number of followers, number of tweets, types of hashtags (#) used, and when tweets are shared during the day are also provided to illustrate how programs use Twitter. A composite score was also developed to highlight the top 10 social work programs on Twitter. Implications for social work education are given along with suggestions for programs in developing a social media strategy. (Author abstract.)
The week before last, the Institute for the Future (where I have a Research Fellowship affiliation) had their annual “Ten Year Forecast” meeting. It is always a robust, engaging – and sometimes unsettling gathering. I learn so much every year – thought I’d summarize the high points I took away.
There are many important things to think about and focus on in foresight practice: the future of politics and government, the environment, the future of work – and many others. But on balance – a focus on the future of children ranks among the most urgent. And this is especially true of those of us who study and work on social and community problems born of gross inequalities, racism and structural disadvantage.
My work is to urge and prepare social workers and other youth workers to be thoughtful, determined, visionary and foresightful about their practice in the months and years to come. We hold and utilize many tools to accomplish our goals. We provide and/or help create many essential services towards healing and restoration and we continually revise and reform our services – sometimes so much so, we feel it is important to take them down and reimagine them. We conduct advocacy and resist. We try to address our own shortcomings both personally and systemically – to assure that we ourselves are not part of the problem. But persistent questions – and questions of the future – continue to present themselves in our complicated practice ecosystem. What should shift most urgently, and in what ways, in our world on behalf of the well-being of children? What should not shift at all? What is shifting now in ways we are barely tracking? Who is making those decisions? What is their agenda? How can we better question and challenge our assumptions about what is and isn’t possible? How creative can we be in co-creating better immediate and long-term futures for children and youth around the world…and how ready are we to do just that?
In order to do this, not only do social workers benefit from getting good foresight training and preparation, but they need to look at current trends around us…and…just as important, imagine and engage in foresight to think through what is just around the corner from them. What is our preferred future? How can conceptualizing and building that vision be as democratically anchored as possible? I would suggest that there is almost no more important ethical imperative for social workers committed to the well-being of children, and to cultivate a futures eye and related skills. As the song says, we are already late. To love children, is to commit to a future in which they can flourish. Let’s get to work.
I’ve gathered an assortment of reports, articles and links to other resources that will spark your thinking and connect you to big ideas related to how many important facets there to this vital question “what is the future of children?” This is a tool kit for the future – use it well! One last point – I’d especially like to highlight below the section on youth activists. A quick review of the landscape of youth activism affirms how deeply their focus and impact is growing – and how much we as adults have to learn from them, with them.
Practicing foresight involves a variety of additional steps to imagine preferred futures, consider undesired ones and how to avoid them, and stay open to possibilities beyond what we might be able to consider at this moment in this rapidly changing practice landscape. The goal of foresight is to inform our actions in ways that have maximized our collective intelligence, imagination and agility. Learning and thinking across categories and levels (what Futurist Bob Johansen calls “Full Spectrum Thinking”) is required. This page is a start in that process — to stretch open our thinking with each other and imagine both intersections, options and pathways. Other information about foresight can be found throughout this blog and with a host of great organizations such as IFTF and others.
The first report listed below “A Future for the World’s Children” – co-sponsored by Lancet, WHO and UNICEF is perhaps the most important of them all. As covid-19 has disrupted so many things – the well-being of children of young people surely is one of the most dire.
This comprehensive and groundbreaking internationally focused document prioritizes the following steps to center children’s well-being in the future:
– Put children at the heart of our vision for a sustainable humanity
– Stop predatory commercial advertising and marketing practices
– Reduce carbon emissions that threaten the future of children and young people
– Boost investment in the health and wellbeing of children and young people
– Work across all sectors to deliver child-friendly policies
– Ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard
I look forward to ongoing gathering with advocates, social workers, families, policy makers and children/youth themselves to engage with the essential work of future building. There has never been a more important time.
Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on gaming (2010) – thought this is ten years old now, it is a must watch for anyone interested in the well-being of youth and gaming. Still packs a wonderful punch and still very relevant.
(One) Love this news from Helsinki and Amsterdam – a public interest technology approach to the algorithms that operate in public spaces/public services. I can definitely see a future in which social workers are meaningfully involved in this kind of accountability- and equity-building civic and democratic structures. This is a future I like. A related piece explores “how democracies can claim back power in the digital world,” and another tackles the intersection of algorithms and fair housing laws. The idea of interrupting the power asymmetry that is so ubiquitous in the “tech vs. anything” equation is important in all spaces – but especially so in civic and/or government functions. This article is a concise overview to increase your civic tech literacy. Finally, a related new report from researchers Sasha Costanza-Chock, Diana Nucera, Berhan Taye Gameda, Matt Stempeck, and Micah Sifryis called “Pathways Through the Portal” gathered expert advice from field leaders, including data scientists and technologists, artists and activists, researchers and policy advocates about how an ethical, equitable and democratic tech future for communities might be possible.
(Two) Serious question: “Who owns your face?” While it seems like a silly question – with the increasing use of facial recognition technology, what rights do individual people have to their own image? This issue is related to police powers, privacy and a host of other concerns facing contemporary communities including storage of such images. This brief recorded piece about this topic – and makes some suggestions about future policy related to facial recognition. Here’s another piece on the same topic. Here’s yet another example of the related equity issues/racism that pops up each week with use of this kind of tech.
(Eight) The future of families is among the most important issues for the future. Here’s a couple of recent pieces that explore the burnout that so many families are facing during times of covid-19 and other related disruptions. In a related publication, the Institute for the Future has a fine new report out just in the last few weeks on the future of families.
(Nine) What happens after Covid-19? This blog has collected a variety of resources related to forecasts and various future-related interpretations of post-covid life. I especially love this new map – also from IFTF – which touches on some of the deeper issues that have been revealed (racism, deep inequality and more) that must be addressed in order for recovery to occur. Another important article hails from scholar Dr. Alondra Nelson drawing creative, complex and urgent ideas together about what recovery might look like.
(Ten). Many folks are talking about the new Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.” It is an important critique and I’ve heard that many are finding the film thought provoking, but based on my own review, I’m concerned about lack of inclusion of many important voices and experts of Color (mentioned previously on this blog) including Dr. Ruha Benjamin, Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble and Dr. Joy Buolamwini. I liked this review which highlights some of these missing pieces, as well as this one. A new film coming out this fall is called Coded Bias, and delves deeply on the subject with special effort to include such experts – largely women of Color – and racism embedded in algorithms influences equity in everyday contexts. You can view the trailer for the film here. It will be a must-see for social workers.
This is part of a regular series of posts that track a few notable things I find on Twitter that reflect signals and/or futures thinking I think will be relevant to social workers and/or folks in higher education. I’m recalibrating this feature and will start a slightly different format where I just run through 10 things of value I come across. You can view previous posts in this series here.
(One) Of great interest in the future of tech world is the issue of facial recognition technology proliferation in cities. Portland, Oregon (my home town) just passed among the most rigorous facial recognition bans in the country. For social justice tech activists – this is a very good thing. Most agree that there are many more down sides and risks – all hinging on serious concerns about embedded and dangerous surveillance racism. You can read about it here, here and here is an ACLU statement about recent legislation introduced on the same issue at the national level. Here are a couple of other pieces that lay out a variety of important points too. This will continue to be an important space for social workers focused on human rights and urban planning to be active and attentive.
(Two) This is a really powerful and important article about how Covid-19 has revealed even deeper and more complex rifts in the digital divide in the world. “As the Covid-19 pandemic has forced millions to remain in their homes and restricted the capacity of public spaces, people have turned to online spaces to continue all forms of social interactions. However, despite being heralded as a means to overcome social inequalities, the new “digital public spaces” have continued these inequalities.” Increasingly, access to full participation in society is digital – how are social workers incorporating and accounting for this increasingly relevant and urgent issue? This article underscores that covid-19 has exacerbated this dynamic . Social workers will need to gain even more tools and skills to attend to this divide – and to advocate effectively for equitable access.
(Three) Will civic unrest escalate as the covid-19 and other equity movements continue in the coming months and years? A recent study which looked at 57 historic pandemics suggests that it will. It’s a thought provoking piece – and it says that uprisings have occurred more because of how those epidemics heightened social tensions. As our communities continue to work for change – there is clearly a sense of readiness for evolution.
(Four) New(ish) article about using virtual reality as a tool for behavioral health. This article discusses increasing availability of the technology, challenges and opportunities in integrating with behavioral health practice. This is a great piece for introducing VR to social workers and provides some helpful analysis of the practice ecosystem.
(Five) Numerous times in this blog, I’ve discussed items related to the future of the economy – globally and in the U.S., including topics such as “post-capitalism” and other emerging discourses. One of these is referred to as “de-growth.”This new article provides an indepth introductory look at this approach and offers it as a viable framework as an alternative to capitalism worth considering.
(Six) Dr. Jose Ramos is a favorite futures scholar – here’s a new piece related to yet more imagining of what Covid-19 will teach us and what might come next using the symbol of the chrysalis as a set of opportunties related to social transformation. It is a thoughtful and insightful set of ideas worth exploring. “We are living in Epic Times, historic times imbued with personal and collective meaning and logic. For each of us this story will be different, however we all have a part to play in the drama we see unfolding. Who we are, how we act, what we do, makes a difference. The era is calling forth new selves and new patterns from us. What does our world, its challenges and transition, want from us? What thinking, innovations, methods, feelings, movements? What could emerge from the Chrysalis?”
(Seven) Another writer I enjoy reading is Douglass Rushkoff (well often it aggravating but that is just because he does a good job of identifying the cracks in the machine…). This article is called “The Privileged Have Entered Their Escape Pods,” reminding us of grotesque inequality during the times of Covid-19 – and the absolute and total truth that we are definitely not all in this together. As noted previously in this post, such brutally apparent injustices through awful times are not sustainable and will likely increasingly be a point of focus in continuing dialogue about the future of democracy, community and equity. Here’s a point of reference regarding gross inequality regarding health outcomes from Covid-19.
(Eight) Well, how about the future of sex? Here’s a great little “TED” type talk with sex-tech expert Bryony Cole talking about how sexuality and the sociology/psychology of sexuality are changing in the modern world. This is relevant to social work explorations in the future of relationships, families and coupling.
(Nine). This past month, a new wonderful Afrofuturist volume of edited stories has been released. It’s called “Black Freedom Beyond Borders: Memories of Abolition Day.” It’s a powerful collection of stories set after police abolition has occurred with Afrofuturist sensibilities. There is a rich and insightful webinar that was part of the launch where various authors read their work. You can see it here and download the entire book for free here. It is inspiring!
(Ten) This article is called “The world deserves a good ancestor: Will you be one?” Using the frame of colonization the author offers: “Humankind has colonized the future. We treat it like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste – as if nobody will be there.” Building on the harms from other colonization This frame powerfully accentuates the need to consider power and responsibility to future generations. This image is included in the piece and speaks volumes.
Although we have been busy getting things ready behind the scenes for months – our official start is a little later than intended. In preparation for those wishing to get involved/apply – I’ve pulled some futures-oriented creative thinking resources together to stimulate idea building! Stay tuned for more to come – but in the mean time – please explore (most of these have appeared on this website in the 18 months, but have been revised for this entry). Watch this space for news and announcements including the launch a new Social Work Health Futures website and application process.
What if social workers – dedicated to improving well-being and health in all its forms – were futurists? What would we do? How would we do it? What tools, techniques, theories or frameworks would we use? How would we balance the so often urgent needs we encounter and are often responsible for addressing – with longer term horizons and a deep responsibility to not only react to current events, but to work in community to shape a better future for all?
Soon, we’ll have a chance to explore these questions and many more. For now – dive in and think about your own social work practice. What is the future of (your) area of focus? Who gets to decide that? What is the future of social work itself?
Looking forward to continuing to learn together and building what comes next.
This is part of a regular series of posts that track a few notable things I find on Twitter that reflect signals and/or futures thinking I think will be relevant to social workers and/or folks in higher education. You can view previous posts in this series here.
To say it has been an unusual couple of months would be the understatement (literally) of the century. Numerous voices have described our times as the reckoning with the “dual pandemics” – covid 19 and racialized violence at the hands of the police.
This entry begins with an overview of the current crisis of racialized police violence – through a futures lens. (Previous posts have provided extensive information specifically related to a futures and/or social work perspective on covid-19.)
This is an enormously important time for the social work profession as it debates, explores and considers the ethical and practical dimensions of how to practice in a way that truly contributes to a future of equity and racial justice. I support the dialogue and believe we are on the verge of some incredibly deep revisions and transitions in how we think about and practice “public safety” in the years to come. I would suggest that these debates and dialogues as deep developmental spaces for our entire social work enterprise…and I believe that a futures lens could help to inform and guide these dialogues to new places not only to reconcile the past and the present, but what vitally important emergent issues (like the drum and expansion of surveillance technology) absolutely MUST be considered when forming a change and equity agenda for the years to come.
A futures perspective would assert that considering not only the past and the present is necessary, but what is emergent and what may be just beyond the range of our ability to observe is equally important. In her book “Race Against Technology,” author and scholar Ruha Benjamin suggests that technology is accelerating a kind of policing that doesn’t necessarily involve actual human police – but rather algorithms, surveillance and acceleration in related infrastructure as commerce and entwined in governmentality that should be of great concern to human rights and equity advocates. Other scholars such as Safiya Umoja Noble have already extensively noted the deep racism embedded the way that the internet functions – and influencing a number of related emerging technologies. They symbolize that simply “increasing” or “decreasing” the number of police or amount of funding in an of itself will not necessarily change the trend of over-policing via technology, just as it is not possible to make technological systems “race neutral” at will without deep and significant examination and exposure of the race-related power dynamics that are too often embedded into emerging technologies. The idea of “digital policing” is a very real and emergent part of the evolution of the way law enforcement is conceptualized, along with other technological deployment. The very real emergence of artificial intelligence in the policing space involves a very particular set of risks and concerns. Issues such as the growth of and related equity concerns related to facial recognition technologies exemplify and illustrate these complexities that should be of concern to social workers, as well as to society at large.
For my part, I continue to watch, with admiration, entirely new ways of approaching justice such as the commitment that Austrailia has just made to a “truth and justice process” concerning recognition of ongoing injustices against Aboriginal people. I continue to imagine what such a process might look like here in the U.S. and what a future might look like in which creative and transformational work of this nature might be like.
These discourses have huge implications for a number of large systems where social workers practice and underscore the importance of us being ready for new challenges and new forms of old problems as we continue and evolve our profession. Being “future ready” means that we gain the knowledge, skills and ethics to positively impact not only the social problems and challenges in front of us but those that are around the corner. Ideologies both of policing and of futuring must be unpacked and democratized in new ways…now and tomorrow.
Covid-19 and the Future
This is a really thoughtful and interesting piece about the speed at which covid-19 is expanding the creativity and imaginations of humanity in the midst of the pandemic. Author Kim Stanley Robinson says: “What felt impossible has become thinkable. The spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change as a civilization.”
This article is a creative take on how cities may continue to evolve to meet the challenges of covid-19 and beyond.
Another great take on the pros and cons of futures thinking (and its variations – some of which are more corporatized than others) comes from Dr. Devon Powers. This piece carefully and thoughtfully navigates the meaningful from the fluff of futures thinking and discourse.
This article asks the provocative question “who owns your face?” I’ve been in a number of futures sessions in which the idea of “copyrighting your own face” has come up partially in jest, and partially seriously. It introduces the reader to the world of “data brokerage,” and though the piece is a couple of years old now, it is even more relevant now. The ongoing complexity with which our personal data moves beyond what is visible should be considered by social workers as part of our reading and understanding of the contemporary ecosystem we live and work. This is especially relevant to people and communities who have been exploited and/or marginalized.
Here’s another of these thought-provoking lists of “ways technology will change the world by…” (insert year here…). I must confess I always click on them… Generally I find their value in groups (the end/beginning of the year is always a good time for a fresh batch) and like to try to get a “meta-sense” of what they are revealing as a group. This particular list is more thoughtful and imaginative than most – though in no way complete or exhaustive. Important note: Sometimes these types of lists can be heavy on the “used” or “official” futures (those futures suggested by powerful entities pushing a particular agenda aligned with economic or political forces). That is always a risk. My own commitment as a futurist, as is the case with many futurists I admire and follow, is to go deeper to uncover ideas and images of the future that may be emergent, uncomfortable, complicated and not necessarily easily managed by the market or dominant political forces. Of course, as a social worker I have many questions, and they all revolve around these core concepts: Who will decide if these futures come to pass, who will win and lose in these types of futures, etc.? All that said, as I continue to invite folks to consider the future either in social work or interdisciplinary spaces – with these provisos, this is the kind of list that can be great fun and very useful to unleash some bigger and unbounded thinking. This is particularly true when working with students.
Here’s a wonderful piece about a speculative imagination project led by Olalekan Jeyifous and an Afrofuturist turn for Brooklyn, New York.
Futurist Vanessa Mason shares this creative and lively post about the importance of imagination to move through the dual pandemics of covid-19 and racism in our world to build toward the future we collectively want. (Note – she includes a terrific shout out to Columbia University Social Work Professor Dr. Courtney Cogburn and her VR Film “The 1000 cut journey.”)
Note: I just had the privilege of finishing up the Institute for the Future’s Design Futures course last week. It was fantastic for many reasons – I’ll be doing a post soon to do a download. You can find out more about the training here. Special respectful shout out to trainers Dr. Jake Dunagan and Jacques Barcia. Learned a lot and have so many ideas about how to engage social work in some “next level” creativity in our thinking and our work vis a vis these tools and ideas.
Systems Science, Chaos and Complexity
This article does a fine job of reviewing these important concepts – not only essential knowledge for futures work but increasingly relevant for cutting edge macro social work.
In a slightly different but important and creative turn, I found this piece by Dr. Deepa Iyer to be a wonderful overview of “social change roles.” It both acknowledges the complexity and range of roles that communities of change agents might use to best arrange their resources to best achieve their objectives.
Universal Basic Income – Getting Ready
Covid-19 has caused more discourse and consideration of UBI than at any other time in recent history. This article is a good review of some of the fundamental issues and complications. It even considers some cryptocurrency possibilities as part of its coverage. Could it happen? Not clear yet…but if it could…social work might well be part of making it so, and making it work. Another interesting initiative (connected to previous U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang) is called the Data Dividend Project which aims to use class action law to develop direct payments to individuals based on large scale use of data by a number of well-known corporations. I’m not endorsing (haven’t studied it deeply enough to do so yet) but in general I find the spirit behind this kind of thing relevant and fascinating.
Crip Technoscience Manifesto
As I’ve had the pleasure of attending a variety of futures gatherings the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from many medical and technology experts seeking to find cures and/or restore life and functioning from a wide variety of degenerative diseases, conditions or injuries. It is a truly fascinating time to be alive to see the ways that technology can intersect with human need. That said, it is also very complicated to assess who decides what should or should not be considered a disability, what corrective or restorative solutions should be available or what they should be like. I recently ran across this article (Crip Technoscience Manifesto) and it seemed a really important part of ethical and critical framing of these kinds of issues. Through its centering of power and voice of people living with and experiencing disabilities as an essential element – I found it both incredibly inspiring as well as useful in navigating how to think about, interrogate and move among a great deal of activity happening in this space.
There is a lot going on in the world and plenty to think about regarding the past, present and the future – and the ways they all intersect in very real ways right now. I salute and support important reading that we can all benefit from doing this summer regarding race and equity – and many fine lists have surfaced in recent weeks.
Numerous readers of this blog, have also asked for a “futures favorite” reads that explore topics especially relevant to social work and social change activities. So as promised, I prepared one here! These intertwine issues of power, imagination, equity, social determinants of health, identity, race and economic justice – as well as the role of technology, climate, the economy and other social drivers undergoing rapid transformation in the world around us.
This post is intended to acquaint readers, change workers and fellow social workers to Afrofuturism. While it remains as important as ever to learn about antiracism in the here and now*…a futurist perspective would suggest that futures thinking/practice can give a fresh view, new energy, new perspectives and new possibilities for both problems and solutions in the present day. These resources are gathered and offered with gratitude and respect to the Afrofuturists collected to expand our thinking and our practices. This is an evolving post – so updates may follow.
Afrofuturism can connect the problems we experience now with the past, our current reality and futures yet to be determined, but vibrant, living and robust.
“The liberated futures we want don’t exist as untouchable distant points out of our reach. When we focus on collective action, mutual aid, self-determination, centering the leadership of the marginalized, we defy linear time. We pull those futures into the present. Let’s keep pulling the liberated futures into the present over and over again, until that’s all there is.” Walidah Imarisha
This framework inspires deep and imaginative possibilities for other ways of thinking, operating and interacting with the world. It challenges “whiteness,” colonialism, heteropatriarchy and other “isms” by intentionally operating beyond them. By creatively expanding assumptions, boundaries and histories – Afrofuturism creates new kinds of possibility spaces and power. These very kinds of spaces are essential in generating post-normal solutions to contemporary challenges – and are guided by Black voices and imaginations.
In addition, since the original posting of this information, I’ve also found an MSW Thesis from social worker, Kayla Huddleston, MSW entitled Afrofuturism as Applied to Self-Perception: an Experimental Vignette Study which appears to be the first use of these frames in social work. It’s a terrific piece worth exploring – and it will inspire creative thinking about what might be possible.