Macro Social Work, the Future and Foresight Practice

Futures, Foresight and Macro Social Work

Social work has a long tradition of social planning – an implicitly future facing endeavor.  Social planning that looks at important intersections of community needs, resources, policies and practices all combine to be a perennial focus of macro social work.    Futures and foresight work represent the evolution of this work.

Scenario planning was an intermediary step in this evolution.   Based in the idea of catalyzing a group or community’s shared sense of multiple possible futures became popular in the mid-80’s public sector as a planning technique.  It was also implicitly future oriented, but urged people to pick scenarios that most aligned with their goals and visions and assist them to develop strategic plans that were believed to be most likely to achieve the envisioned goal.      During this same time, a variation of this work had been developing that focused more explicitly on the future.   Termed “foresight,” it had much in common with scenario planning, but more intentionally utilized methods of tracking “signals” in the changing socio-political and cultural ecosystem.  Increasingly influenced by strong currents and change dynamics due to the influence of technology on modern life and climate change as well as other global dynamics, foresight and “futures” practice involves a set of methods designed to:

  1. Intentionally engage in cross-disciplinary learning about sectors beyond one’s own with special emphasis on emerging issues and their connection and likelihood of complicating historical trends and current realities
  2. Use scenario and speculative design methods to build out possible futures
  3. Increase collective intelligence, agility and imagination across diverse community sectors and identities
  4. Develop plans that reflect all of the above

These methods recast and enlarge the idea of what “readiness for the future” means.  Rather than having a detailed step by step traditional plan, often cast as an elaborate “to do” list, a foresight exercise helps organizations and/or communities to have a broader, engaged and agile set of goals about the future, in a well-guided and more expansively informed set of possible risks, opportunities, careful attention to unseen spots and unintended consequences, and a deeper and more creative sense of actions based on preferred futures.    Foresight work compels organizations and communities to respectfully engage in how a changing world will likely impact them and how they envision success for themselves given the often surprising and turbulent practice ecosystem in play.

For social work, the technological, climate related, and geopolitical shifts present a number of unprecedented kinds of new risks, opportunities, concerns and challenges to our profession.  A sample set of questions in this light for the future of social work might include the following.

How shall social work prepare for:

  • Utilization of artificial intelligence in ways that fully conform to our ethics and values?
  • Increasing climate- and geopolitically related increases in migration and immigration (as well as climate-related health and mental health distress)?
  • A changing health landscape powered and influenced increasingly more by technology yet not necessarily accessible to all and/or using technologies that contain racial, gender or other forms of bias?
  • New types of mental health treatment that involve a) technology in the forms of “apps” and non-in-person service delivery and b) new types of grief, transition-related trauma, and anxiety currently measurably on the rise due to climate change and other “rate of change” related disorientation due to rapid social change?
  • Community supporting and advocacy-oriented approaches to smart cities and increasing use of technology for surveillance of the most vulnerable?
  • An era of anticipated large-scale “technological unemployment” among low-skilled workers in the US, already economically vulnerable, and create economic safety nets that seek to prevent dramatically increased suffering?
  • New forms of inequity based on technological access and/or development that “leave out” central voices and avenues to power in algorithms and subsequent infrastructure resulting from their use?
  • An era in which the laws and protections that citizens rely on are thought to be inadequate to protect and preserve human rights and basic civil liberties given such rapid technological change and complexity?

Two important notes.  First – there are social work scholars and practitioners around the world and within the U.S. who are currently venturing into these important areas and their work is to be commended and taken seriously.  Secondly – many of these readiness questions are actually already in play for practicing social workers – and in this sense – the future is now.  Consider emerging use of tech in mental health, AI in child welfare, increases in smart cities technologies in places where social workers operate, unanticipated and unethical shifts in US immigration policy.   How comprehensive has our assessment, study, preparation and advocacy planning for these and other developments been?  Are we ready for what is (already here) and coming next?   A futures lens and agenda for social work, which is also beginning to emerge,  can help to connect these important innovations, explorations and innovations to the historical traditions of our profession and help us be more comprehensively future-ready. Social work integration of these futures frameworks require adjustment in the form of more explicit power analysis, equity analysis, and careful integration (and potentially even the expansion) of our code of ethics.

Professions such as medical doctors, nurses, lawyers, journalists and many other professions are actively engaged in a focused and committed processes to prepare themselves for the future.   Evolution of our times requires our profession and our tool kits to encourage an intentional, thoughtful and reflective “upgrade.”  Futures practice can be a valuable tool in helping to achieve this goal.

A Social Work Futurist Goes to the Exponential Medicine Conference – November 2019 – Meeting Download

I had the pleasure of attending the recent “Exponential Medicine” gathering in San Diego, CA last week. For four days, I was surrounded by some of the brightest physicians, researchers, nurses, inventors, investors, health educators, and health administrators I’ve had the privilege of meeting.

This particular image is borrowed from one of the presentations (Dr. Lucien Engelen). He used it to describe the changes that are coming to the entire health care space. And changes that we are not universally prepared for. It was a meeting that was interchangably inspiring, exciting, intense and worrisome. Of course I found myself thinking – how can create pathways for more and deeper interdisciplinary thinking and work with social workers as we navigate these complicated times and opportunties? How can we (as a profession) be part of making sure these extraordinary health breakthroughs are made accessible to all?

This blog post and meeting download is a step in that direction. Fellow social workers – let’s talk about exponential medicine! I would love to hear your reactions to what I’ve put together about my experiences.

This is a long debrief document (you are not gonna be able to read it on the run…you might want to get a beverage and settle in…LOL) – I included slides from photos I took – so this makes the document a little longer, but I was endeavoring to make you feel like you got a taste of all there was to learn. Social workers belong in these spaces too…we have much to offer from our valuable perspectives.

Enjoy – and here’s to an incredible, complicated future.

Social Work, Artificial Intelligence and Child Welfare – an Ongoing Scan of the Literature

Last week, while at the Exponential Medicine conference (full download to follow soon), I heard about the involvement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in U.S. child welfare practice. This was new to me – I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about it.

I immediately went to a colleague who I knew was very active in this space, Dr. Melanie Sage, and asked her if she knew about use of AI in this way. She had a great many resources, ideas and connections in this area. Together we put together a resource list and annotated bibliography for scholars, teachers, community members, and students might be interested in (Melanie’s contributions are based on her scholarly work in this area, mine are based on never-ending curiosity and my futures activity). We both believe we’d like to see more social workers getting curious, getting creative and applying their knowledge, values and skills as social workers to make sure these approaches are used with the highest ethical dimension possible. In truth, there is no indication that artificial intelligence is going away – and all signs point to greater expansion with these tools. We are literally watching the path being built while we walk on it. We both agreed we’d like that building process to be one informed by the literature – so here’s a place to start.

Where and how can tools like artificial intelligence be used to support positive outcomes for families and children in the child welfare system? We are just beginning to find out. There are opportunities to truly revolutionize outcomes for the better – developing analytic capabilities we have never had before using information in all new ways to improve our practice. And there are risks to use of these tools that are also covered in the literature and well-documented. Come learn with us and let’s use technology to make a better world.

Want an overview of the fundamentals of AI? Check out a previous blog post covering the basics!

Regenerative Culture and Design – Tools and Ideas for Futurists and Designers

In the last few months – I found numerous mentions of an emerging framework called “regenerative design.” It has been around for a while but seems to be gaining traction of late. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to spend time doing a futures presentation with some designers recently (thank you friends at Nike!!), and it has motivated me to pull together more of what I’d been running across here on the blog.

Definitions vary but among my favorites all coalesce around the idea that (honoring Indigenous perspectives) it is humanly possible to design, function and succeed in ways that support life in regenerative ways that renew a balance and future life for all creatures and living systems on the earth. What an important futures principle!

The key to this particular line of the thought (and the ways that it grows from but goes in a slightly different direction) is the DESIGN part. How do we engage designers, makers and innovators to use new ways of thinking to create a better world and future? Can and should designers be activists? (Guess what they are!) And what might this look like? (It looks like this, and this, and this, and this!) Much has been written about what we need to stop doing to rebuild the world…this information guides thinking towards what we might START doing.

Imagine a future where consumption was regenerative and sustainable, and where justice was the communication and social driver. The idea is that designers possess a skill set and vision that can help get us there faster if they embrace new ways of thinking about design goals and principles. These ideas comprise that set of regenerative design frameworks.

In the words of writer Daniel Christian Wahl Regenerative practice is about unleashing the potential of people in place by listening deeply into the story the land and its people want to tell. It is about finding ways to manifest the unique bio-cultural essence of each locality in ways that meet human needs while enriching and healing the wider biological community we are embedded in” (2019).

As a futures conceptual framework/touchpoint, this is a useful part of our toolkit. We need new ways of imagining how to create the future in ways that can bridge our “production” society to one that is about sustainability and survival (and maybe even some joy!!).

Here’s a list of links to explore further.

A glossary of regenerative culture (2019)

What is regenerative culture (2019)

Models for collaborative regeneration, transformation and co-creation (2019)

The Biomimicry Institute

Cindy Gilbert’s University of Minnesota Course in Biomimicry as Sustainable Design

Design justice principles

Earth-centered design principles (2019)

Can regenerative economics and mainstream business mix? (2019)

Ecological design, complexity and system health (2019)

Regenerative leadership (2019)

Podcast with Daniel Christian Wohl on designing with regenerative principles (2019)

The unacceptable collateral damage of overconsumption (2018)

Sustainability is not enough, we need regenerative cultures (2018)

Creating a regenerative future (2018)

Review of the book “Designing Regenerative Futures” (2018)

17 organizations promoting regenerative agriculture (2018)

Daniel Christian Wahl – What is regenerative design? (2017)

Five Indigenous farming practices enhancing food security (2017)

Does nature hold the answers to sustainability? Biomimcry as ecological innovation (2016)

Proceedings and links from global conference at Notre Dame called “Sustainable wisdom: Integrating Indigenous know how for global flourishing.” (2016)

Learning from nature and designing as nature: Regenerative cultures create conditions conducive to life (2016)

Regenerative design and a science of qualities (2016)

Biological approaches to design: Biotechnology, biomimicry and biophillic design (2014)


As long as grass grows: The Indigenous fight for environmental justice from colonization to Standing Rock

Designing regenerative cultures

Regenerative design and development

Indigenous sustainable wisdom: First-nation know how for global flourishing

Designing for hope

Biomimicry in architecture

Biomimcry resource handbook: A seed bank of best practices


5 Design approaches to start a new creative project (2019)

Seeds of bioregional regeneration (2019)

Regenerative design confronts higher education with hard questions (2019)

The unified theory of human centered design (2019)

Some New and Emerging “Futures” Vocabulary – November 5, 2019

While I was at the Institute for the Future Annual 10-year Forecast meeting a couple of weeks ago (meeting download post to come…), I gathered up a few “new to me” futures terms. Thought I’d share them here and then add them to my larger “Futures Vocabulary” resource posted earlier.

Let’s go!


Imagine agricultural practices that were rooted in ecology and implemented with a keen eye and ethic of gentleness to the earth and sustainability. That is what “agroecology” is all about.

Agroecology is concerned with the maintenance of a productive agriculture that sustains yields and optimizes the use of local resources while minimizing the negative environmental and socio-economic impacts” (Miguel Altieri).  More information here.

Calm Technology

Ever get the feeling that the noise of technology is becoming too dominant, that it interrupts our attention and actually makes us less productive and more anxious? Welcome to the idea (and true design principle) of calm technology. This is a growing movement.

“Calm technology or Calm design is a type of information technology where the interaction between the technology and its user is designed to occur in the user’s periphery rather than constantly at the center of attention.” Amber Case

Amber has a book about her work which you can read about here. She shares some of her principles and ideas here.

Climate Gentrification

This terms refers to the gentrification that occurs when wealthy people are able to escape the effects of climate change by relocating from less desirable to more desirable land even if that means displacing others. It can also refer to the simple changes in value that occur as climate change predictably or unpredictably changes the value of real estate – more easily absorbed by people of means than people without resources. You can read more about it here and here.

Data Exhaust

This is a common phrase referring to “the data generated as trails or information byproducts resulting from all digital or online activities,” Technopedia. This includes cookies, and other digital by products of online activity. More and more companies are looking to mine this information as it thought to have value that is going unappreciated.

Email Apnea

This is an actual “thing” where people actually hold their breath just before or intermittantly while reading their email. It would definitely be a modern problem…which makes you laugh until you realize you might be doing it too! You can read about it here.

E-waste Villiages – Places in the world (generally places that are economically disadvantaged) where computers are discarded, dissassembled and mined for parts. Time magazine did a photo essay about one such community in China. The waste is often toxic, and children are often involved in the work associated with this process posing signifiant health risks to all involved. One artist has actually created an immersive art experience about this phenomenon. Other artists have taken to drawing attention to the problem of e-waste and how to recycle it more effectively and humanely.

Global Brain – is a term referring to the “distributed intelligence emerging from the internet” (Heylighen & Lenartowicz, 2017). The idea that a global consciousness could guide humanity towards more interconnected and sustainable functioning is regarded as being impeded by power and politics (Rosenblum, 2017).

Soft Robotics – refers to a subset of robotics that are made out literally “soft” materials on the surface, which lends them to usability as prosthetic or medical devices – or devices which require flexible and more natural. These are most often inspired by nature, and involve multiple types and levels of computer and other design knowledges to create and apply to robotics challenges. You can read more about them here.

Weak Signal – futurists often say that the future doesn’t arrive all at once fully formed…we have to shape it. Further they say (and most futures methods involve) efforts to identify, catch, combine and analyze “signals” in the digital and physical world that may indicate that things are changing in ways that may or may not seem clear all at once. They may indicate a pattern. Futurists look for signals. Strong signals may be stronger indications that things are changing in a pretty consistent and widespread way (everyone is getting personal cell phones!!!). Weak signals are particularly quirky and modest evidence that others might overlook. But a futurist might “collect” them and get a sense that something is changing by careful and creative analysis and tracking. Sometimes these feel little more than a hunch. Here are a couple of interesting pieces about what “weak signals” are all about.

Happy Birthday Internet! Here’s Some History and SW-Friendly Resources to Celebrate (and Use)!!

The internet is 50 years old today. This seems like a good time to do a round up some interesting/helpful history about this powerful relatively new part of our “social environment,” as well as to shout out to some links and resources for social workers to show how creatively, professionally and resourcefully, we are responding to ways of utilizing technologies to heighten, widen and increase our impact. And we’re only getting started.

History of the Internet

Fun brief film story from NBC on the history of the internet (2019)

The global internet is disintigrating: What comes next? (2019)

The fight to keep the internet free and open to everyone (2019)

Why is there so little left of the early internet (2019)

24/7 – Group of UK Art Exhibit on the Impact of the Internet on Society (2019)

What would a post about the history of the internet be without a Wikipedia entry about this? Check it out here.

The Internet/Digital Rights and the Upcoming Presidential Campaign in the U.S.

Digital Bill of Rights formulated and sent to presidential hopefuls (2019)

Where the 2020 Presidential candidates stand on the future of the internet (2019)

The Future of the Internet

Pew Research overview of the next 50 years of digital life (2019)

The future of the internet – a discussion with its inventor (2019)

The future of the internet (World Economic Forum) (2018)

The Internet and Human Rights

Amnesty’s International’s resource page on the Internet as a Human Right

International Centre for Law and Democracy report on the Internet and Human Rights (2016)

Brookings Institution report on the Internet as a Human Right (2016)

Helpful infographic from the Association of Progressive Communications on the issue of the Internet and Human Rights (no date)

Internet Society presentation on human rights and the internet (2016)

What are your digital rights? (2015)

Racism on the Internet – and What to Do About It

As responsible citizens, here’s what we can all do to reduce racism online (2019)

This is how racism is spread across the world on the internet (2019)

The internet is a cesspool of racist pseudoscience (2019)

Racism on the internet: A research agenda (2018)

Combating hate and white nationalism online (2018)

6 Creative Ways to Use the Internet to Fight Racism (2017)

Internet Safety

17 Experts Offer Internet Safety Advice for Families (2019)

Internet safety guidelines from the US Federal Communications Commission

Symantec’s Family Guide to Online Safety

Children and media tips for technology from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2018)

The Internet and Democracy

UN makes “declaration of digital interdependence” with new report (2019)

Weaponizing the digital influence machine: The political perils of online ad tech (2018)

Needed: A bill of rights for the digital age (2018)

The human consequences of computational propaganda (2018)

Social Work-Specific Internet and Tech Resources

(Social Work practice and education colleagues – please dm with additional resources you’d like to share/boosted in this space and I’ll continue to revise!)

A group of intrepid and groundbreaking social workers and social work educators from throughout the United States have been using a Twitter hashtag #swtech for a number of years now. Please search this hashtag on Twitter and explore the innovative things happening in this space.

Review of new book called “Teaching Social Work with Digital Technology”, Iverson-Hitchcock, Sage and Smyth (2019)

#SWTech – An introduction and history of an online group (2019) and #SWTech: The beginnings of an online community (2019)- at Dr. Laurel Iverson’s wonderful SW Education Blog.

Future of technology in social work practice article (2018)

SafeLab at Columbia University – groundbreaking work in social work doing research in social media and internet spaces

CSWE’s Future of Social Work Task Force Report (2018) – Tech featured strongly in this report.

Grand Challenge “Harnessing Technology for Social Good” resource page

Technology in Social Work Education – Iverson-Hitchcock, Sage and Smyth/University of Buffalo School of Social Work (2018)

Ethical standards for social workers’ use of technology: Emerging consensus (2018)

NASW Standards regarding use of technology in practice (2017)