Why social work belongs in the future – and some ideas about how to get there!

Over the last year, I’ve had a LOT of conversations with social workers and social work educators around the country (and beyond) about “the future,” and futures frameworks to guide/expand our thinking about what our future roles might be. In an effort to stimulate a discourse, I’ve put together a lot of posts on this web as a precursor to a book I’m writing on this topic (bounce around to follow the journey), as well as put an annotated bibliography together for social workers to learn about/consider how futures frameworks might enhance our practice. I built a game for social work educators , and have done a number of presentations to social workers nationally on features of futures thinking/practice and introduced how these models might increase our impact. On my sabbatical next year, I’m also excited about the chance to put a “social work futures” course together. I’m grateful that CSWE saw fit to explore this issue in the last few years as well with a special task force on the topic.

As much fun as it can be to learn about essential futures frameworks as a starting point, it is also important to focus in on WHERE social work is most urgently needed in spaces where in many respects, the future is being “decided,” “developed” and “deployed.” What does it mean that these evolutions are in play without us (and the values/skills we bring) and we are not participating nor contributing in a major way?

Here are some starting places where the future is being developed that may/may not (sadly often do not) include social work voices/presence. These are places where SOCIAL WORKERS BELONG!! We are learning that we may not always be invited…so sometimes we just have to invite ourselves and begin contributing. Given how “interdisciplinary” these sectors are, so far, folks I know who have been engaged have found these spaces to be welcoming of our ideas, methods, values and presence. So jump in – here’s some ideas!!

  • Tech for social good hackathons
  • Social enterprise and the role of the private sector in social good
  • Algorithmic transparency, justice and bias work as the evolution of social justice/anti-racism work*
  • Universal guaranteed income and the future of the economy/alternative economic models
  • Smart cities and democracy*
  • The future of work and how to transition vulnerable workers to it
  • Technology access as a human right*
  • Use of big data for social good* (including in policy-making and/or helping communities have access to interpreting/using big data for their own purposes)
  • Development, testing and/or evaluation of apps for mental health and/or other social determinants of health, family well-being, etc.*
  • Technology and health – including access to more equitable distribution of access to health resources, tech-related supports for disabilities, state of the art treatments, etc.*
  • Immigration/relocation issues – relevant to both international immigration/relocation as well as climate change related relocation
  • Disaster/emergency preparedness work
  • Use of technology for community organizing and the future of democracy*
  • Each and every practice area we work in is also on a path to its own “future” – for example, the future of child welfare practice, the future of mental health practice, the future of addictions practice, the future of interpersonal violence, the future of aging practice, the future of homelessness, the future of anti-racism practice and on and on and on. At the VERY least, each of us has an ethical responsibility to learn to track and engage in guiding how our issues are conceptualized, reinforced with best practice, aided by tech where possible, and improved.
  • Futures/foresight learning spaces – like the “foresight practitioner” training offered through the Institute for the Future where I’ve just become a research fellow. (There are other organizations offering similar training – but I’m most familiar with and respectful of this one…!)

*These topics are increasingly coalescing around a new area of practice called “public interest technology” which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog.

That said, I want to give a shout out to a burgeoning group of social workers and social work educators/researchers who are active in these circles (for example I’m putting together a separate blog post about social workers who develop apps for social change/social good). The folks who are currently doing social work in these spaces are our guides – but as a whole, I believe we need to do a lot to elevate, celebrate and study their work to grow both their impact and those that will learn from and follow them. IF YOU ARE A SOCIAL WORKER OR SOCIAL WORK ACADEMIC WORKING OR DOING RESEARCH IN THIS SPACE – please get in touch. I’d love to highlight your work in what I’m gathering, add you to my growing data base and “boost your signal” to others in our field!!

But I also want to suggest (supportively as well as with a critique) that these topics are seldom covered in a meaningful way in our social work curricula. We need to move more quickly to meet and create the future that we want to see. Our “gaze” needs to lift up to observe, imagine, challenge and move into new spaces, new opportunities with new allies and partners if we hope to have impact in the ways we envision. The world is changing quickly – are we ready?

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