What happens when a social worker becomes a futurist?

What does it mean for a social worker to become a futurist?  What can social workers add to futures frameworks, strategies and thinking? (You can read more about what futures/foresight practitioners do here.)

In fact, I think we have a unique and powerful analytical perspective (focused on equity, justice, and well-being to name a few) and related skill sets that prepares us to be robust contributors and facilitators for new kinds of conversations about the future, but this is terrain that is seldom written about or explored in our profession.   I want to energize such a dialogue among fellow members of my social work community.     Recently, I’ve been able to complete training as a “foresight practitioner” with the Institute for the Future and I couldn’t help but think about the impact, the intersection and the implications for what comes next in my thinking and my work as a social worker and a burgeoning futurist.  I look forward to having other members of my profession join me in contributing explicitly to futures dialogue. And for this piece, I thought I’d speak directly to other social workers to describe what it has been like so far.

I have been energized (deeply) by the sense of hope, creativity and possibility that a futures lens can bring us – even as insodoing, we must confront possibilities of futures that are difficult and disturbing.    I believe strongly that as social workers, our work, our philosophy, our intellectual terrain, our social science, our hope and our ethics all belong in these spaces – to expand them, and to open new possibilities within our own social work lenses.  The way that we participate in changing social norms and push forward new ways of thinking in terms of social justice and equity is needed.    As we imagine futures full of artificial intelligence, “smart” products – and even body parts, blockchain, the meaning of “equity” in the future – where will we stand? (Other entries in this blog explore an array of futures ideas and terminology…) How do we imagine ourselves to be part of the story of how justice and well-being will prevail? These are questions for future facing social workers.

I believe futures frameworks have great potential to energize and refresh our own thinking about our future as a profession at a pivotal time in our history.  I have never felt so stretched into places that are not “traditionally” social work practice (hello artificial intelligence and deep machine learning), but neither have I ever been so intrigued about the juxtaposition of what could go right with new technologies – and what could go wrong. Where are we investing in the kind of learning that will challenge us in these ways?  

So what happens when a social worker becomes a futurist/futures practitioner?  

We bring our profession.   I am a social worker.   I specialize in addictions work (theory, practice, research and policy).   I am an academic (have served as center director, professor and dean).  I am a person who has grown up in professional spaces and thus, have a sense of the sociology of professions…how they have formed, their strengths, their challenges, their limitations, and their importance to a functioning society.   Being a futures practitioner means I bring new eyes to some longstanding challenges in most professions – how do we (all) truly remain relevant, be of use, keep up with the tsunami of change that the world presents?    How do we revise ourselves, revise our mental maps of our risks and opportunities without losing the core of what we bring to the table?  Some of us are already “out in front” in terms of innovation and future-facing ideas and practice. Colleagues are offering a wide array of new approaches involving technology in social work practice and education and/or being responsive to climate change in ways that are particular and unique from our social work perspectives.  That said, more of us need to join in this thinking and as a profession, we need to organize more spaces to challenge ourselves, each other and our students.

Being a futures practitioner means that I bring tools to help my profession(s) be thoughtful, careful and reflective even as we become more agile and responsive to the changes around us, within our own spaces.  Being a futures-facing social worker means that I’m thinking about, anticipating and strategizing about concepts of power and vulnerability and what they mean in the future – and thus – how our work and strategies might need to change to be effective.

We bring our ethics.   Social work has a code of ethics which is a cornerstone of what we do and how we operate.    As we navigate complexity, uncertainty and change, a code of ethics allows us to have a “rudder” to gauge and calculate our next steps.    Our code of ethics allows me to look at new technology and seek to understand what ethics guide new tech developments, as well as advocate for developments to be responsive to ethical concerns – especially in places where vulnerable people are involved, or e-racism is suspected.  My social work ethics give me a “hard stop” to rigorously think through unintended consequences for vulnerable people and to think through how differential impacts may befall various groups in society in alternate futures scenarios.  Just as importantly, our code of ethics gives me a way to assure my colleagues that we have a lot of co-learning to do as we move into an uncertain future – our code of ethics may sometimes be a puzzle in the future.   Like every profession in the 21st century, we’ll have to stretch and argue about what is an isn’t ethical as we journey into the future – new ethical challenges will present themselves.       But we have a strong foundation to work from and that is an asset.

We bring our questions and curiosity.   The future is full of opportunities AND it is full of risks.   This is especially true for the vulnerable people and groups with whom the social work profession stands.   With environmental and economic uncertainty, with climate change, with increasing pressures to be more responsive to racial/ethnic and other identity-based injustice – social work is a profession that is in a constant process of questioning why?  Why are things arranged the way that they are and how can the future accelerate what is not working, or alternatively, provide new openings and new possibilities for progressive advances?    Right now, the most important thing for future facing social workers to do is to learn and engage.  At first notice, a social worker may not think that block chain or emerging biotechnologies are relevant to them – but when a social worker becomes a futurist, it is clear that these new areas of science, economic development and activity – will have enormous impacts on the world.   As a futures facing social worker, I hope to encourage more and deeper conversation and collaborations to make these advances human- and justice-centered, as we develop and study our efforts.  We have the capacity to generate, develop and execute innovative and impactful practice as well as research – the SW Grand Challenges is an example of this kind of effort. 

We bring our interdisciplinary networks.   Many have suggested that the future is interdisciplinary.   Indeed evidence is growing that most sectors – the current and future challenge faced by society are not going to be “solved” by any one profession.   As a social worker, I have lived through an era where we worked mostly in like groups to a dynamic present where we are comfortable, knowledgeable and competent working in predominantly interdisciplinary settings.   What is most helpful, speaking in futures terms, about this evolution – is that interdisciplinary settings naturally produce new kinds of questions, courses of actions and solutions that are beyond the scope of any one group and only possible through the dynamic intellectual and professional interplay among different points of view.   In these settings, social work also might be among the first professions to advocate that “community” or “consumer” voice also be a central feature of these interdisciplinary approaches so that partnering with impacted individual, groups and communities is always the aspiration as well as the practice.   The future of our work will undoubtedly about engaging with social, technical, biological, economic problems, many of which we can’t yet even name.  Our strengths as interdisciplinary partners prepares us for the most robust and effective contributions.  

We bring our biases and our limitations.  I’m proud of how hard social work has worked on itself to increase its ability to be reflexive, to address its “white savior” roots, to challenge its profession-wide and directly related to our own (my own) individual attitudes and practices as social workers.   That said, we have more to go – we are not done with this work.  We continue to live in a deeply racist, classist and otherwise biased society despite our richly growing global and national diversity.  Our news demonstrates on a daily basis that “isms” remain pervasive, dangerous and destructive.     As a futurist social worker, I must check myself (continuously) and encourage others to do the same to wonder aloud and on purpose if the discourse is being dominated by privileged groups (there are increasingly diverse voices at the table of futures discourse), if voices are missing, if other futures lenses are possible other than those that are increasingly popular or dominant, if those most impacted by the future (youth in particular) shouldn’t have a larger voice in the discourse associated with futures practice.   

We bring our personal histories.   In fact, I’ve ALWAYS been a person who was interested in the future.   As a child, I used to draw pictures of people in dramatic future settings and in high school, I was activated intellectually by reading Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” by my visionary high school studies teacher Dr. Karl Keener.   I found the idea of futures thinking to be intriguing, creative, and an application of social imagination that ultimately formed a foundation of each and every academic and professional activity that I have ever done.  Many futures practice folks have similar backstories.  And many social workers, though they might not describe it explicitly this way, chose the career path because they saw social problems and believed things could and should be different.  …That a better future was possible if people joined together to do the right thing.   I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the future…but implicitly.  I think going on the record as a “futures practitioner” means I make this focus explicit, and the joining with my social work toolbox makes it especially interesting and valuable.   

I also bring my identity as a white, female, cis, straight, upper middle class, first generation college graduate, academic increasingly dedicated to the equity and justice frameworks.    I am a wife.  I am a mother.  I am a daughter.  I am a friend and a colleague.   I am an American.  I am an artist. This personal history and this work, shapes all I do – with both its strengths and limitations. At times, I will need to speak up from my position and present ideas and perspectives – and at times – I will need to assure that other voices, more clearly relevant, need to speak about the past, present and future in ways I cannot know.

Finally, we bring our anger, our humility, our imagination and our love.  It is clear that many decisions locally, nationally and transnationally, are not being made with the future in mind.     Each day the news can be harder than the next.   But all that said, as a future facing social worker – I feel compelled to translate real anger about “the state of the world” into professional determination to do what I can from whichever seat I occupy, and to join (urgently) with others who do that.    We can’t give up – future generations are counting on us.    Let us be inspired by Sweden who actually created a “Minister of the Future” position to guide the entire country’s efforts in this area.      There is no magic wand to fix or control the course of events that will unfold “in the future.” But we can do is use our collective intellect/ability to analyze and ready ourselves and our communities for multiple/possible/intersecting futures, our collective imaginations, and in truth – our love – for our planet, for each other, and for future generations to best shape our preferred future, and defend actively against more dangerous ones.     As a social worker journeying into this space, I’m humbled by this famous quote from Crazy Horse (with a respectful nod to the Indigenous voices who predate all modern futures work with the deepest possible futures convictions): 

“I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will be one circle again.”

Please join me and add your unique voice as a social worker/change agent – what will you bring to the future? I welcome your ideas and urge you to become part of a social work futures dialogue.

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