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.

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