Futures Questions for Social Workers – An Ongoing Exploration

The futures literature (and its related companion areas) are fascinating, shocking, inspirational, scary, stimulating, creative and far-reaching – sometimes all at once! As I read, consider, evaluate, examine and imagine – I return to the idea of how my own profession of social work “relates” to concepts like artificial intelligence, the future of work, block chain and beyond. I think about our social work education “competency-based” turn (requiring evidence of not just knowledge gained, but competencies demonstrated…) – and consider what does it mean to be a competent (let along talented) social worker who is future facing and effective? To stretch in this area – I’ve been working on a thought experiment which has involved simply accumulating questions that I think social work education should wrestle with if our intention is to be ready to meet the future as prepared as we might be. Feel free to offer any additional suggestions – this list is only a start.

Wouldn’t this be a fun list of questions to use in a class just to get conversation going with a group of social work students to help them think “bigger” about our current and future roles, as well as the dynamics most likely to impact the communities we serve? Please try them out – and let me know how the questions work in practice? I’d love to hear back from you!!!

  • How will climate change impact vulnerable populations in my geographic area? What role might I play in preventing/mitigating this and/or engaging vulnerable populations to play a role? How does this issue of climate change consideration “fare” when up against such concerns as poverty, homelessness, health care access, etc.?
  • How will “the future of work” impact vulnerable people in my geographic area? What jobs are disappearing? What does displacement related to this look like? What opportunities exist/should exist for displaced workers?
  • Is access to technology and/or technological resources a social justice issue? What should be done to center it as such?
  • How is increasing monitoring and information/data collection likely to impact vulnerable populations? What levers exist to examine, build ethical guidelines, and get them utilized?
  • What technology is emerging that will likely a) put vulnerable populations at greater risk, or b) empower and engage vulnerable populations? How do issues of “trust” and “privacy” play in spaces where social workers work and vulnerable people have limited resources/power given increasing use of these technologies?
  • What is the future of “my issue” – e.g. child welfare, addictions, mental health, homelessness, social justice, and others? What emergent strategies are considered cutting edge (e.g. guaranteed income/asset building) and where are they being tested and to what end?
  • How will social organizing, political engagement, social change work be impacted by emergence of new tools and are we learning/taking advantage of these new options?
  • What is the future of equity work and how can new technologies and artificial intelligence contribute to or exacerbate equity in our communities? How has expression of racism (and other isms) shifted in a more technologically connected world and who is tracking/addressing this? How? What are the future of these strategies?
  • What is our role in interrupting the work of powerful stakeholders who ignore future impacts on vulnerable people/communities? How can we use state of the art advocacy tools and/or join with others to do so?
  • How can governmental agencies/nation-states who are using futures models influence possible policy targets for us in our practice communities?
  • What role are my national associations and accrediting boards imagining, strategizing and incorporating well-conceptualized and rigorously debated alternate futures to ensure not only success of our profession, but effectiveness in our roles?
  • How will “the future of work” impact social work of the future? How will we partner with artificial intelligence? How will we play a role in designing/testing/challenging/scaling possible technologically-anchored interventions of the future? What technologies do we need to learn/develop fluency in to be ready to achieve our goals while we simultaneously guard our values?
  • Is development of our code of ethics evolving to meet the inevitably complex practice landscape that we will find ourselves in, in the future? What are the most important emerging “cutting edges” of ethics work and how might I consider how they impact me as a social worker?
  • How will technology change the way that health care, legal services, and other key professional services are deployed and how does that have the potential to assist/harm vulnerable people?

This is only a partial list – but you can glean the complexity, risk and opportunity. Here’s to learning, exploring and building answers to as many of these questions as we can!

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