A Futures Lens for Covid-19 – Resources for Social Workers, Change Agents, Educators and the Helping Professions

My last blog post was an opportunity to link what is happening with Covid-19 to a futures lens in the social work profession.

In the subsequent weeks, it becomes more clear than ever that the coronavirus will be a powerful teacher in ways that stretch our collective sense of what is possible.

For many reasons, I’ve been reflecting on a futures game that I was asked to develop by the Dean Goutham Menon last April for the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work meeting that spring. In this game, I came up with numerous scenarios for social work educators to consider – both utopian and dystopian – and some in between.

The relevant question to the players was – which of these scenarios is most likely to happen, and which is social work as a profession most ready for? One of those scenarios was a global pandemic, based on my own work tracking plausible futures noted by practicing futurists and the disaster preparedness communities. But certainly, no one could have predicted how quickly this would become relevant if not dominant in our thinking and our lives. Since then, I’ve had the chance to play the game with hundreds of other social workers, social work educators and community members. Each time we played, we used our imagination matched with our intellect to meet the challenge presented and considered how our profession might need to reach, to grow, to change to meet the moment should it present itself. Futures work, as I’ve said previously on this blog – is about cultivating collective imagination, agility and intelligence. If you’d like to explore and/or play the game yourself – you can download it here.

Lately, there have been numerous social and historical commentators discussing the degree to which pandemics throughout history have changed the world – important contributions. This has led me to consider how social work itself as an idea, as a project, as an institution, as a profession – might itself change due to what is happening.

Perhaps this is a pivotal moment in the history of social work as we know it.

How will Covid-19 change the social work profession? Expand us, evolve us, strengthen us, test us, challenge us, improve us, threaten us, force us? Let’s allow this moment to envision what our evolution might look like to best meet the times we live in.

What do you think? Futures thinking invites us to dedicate a part of our work to these questions even as we respond to the urgent and immediate needs of the communities we work with.

For those that are teachers are learners, I’ve continued to gather social work-relevant links and items here. They include a hearty dose of covid/pandemic-specific futures thinking. All of these resources link us to thinkers, reporters and scholars who are exploring or doing work in areas I think are relevant to and useful for social workers. They can help us inform and explore…what comes next for us and for the things that we care about.

This document will soon be transitioning to a crowd-sourced living resource so that we can continue to strengthen learning networks and communities that help us grow and be responsive to the challenge of our times. Stay tuned.

As noted previously, also follow me on Twitter at @lauranissen for more information and search the hashtag #SWcovid19 for additional ideas and resources.

Ingredients of Futures Agility – Learning Organizations and Communities of Practice. Are we ready to take our collective learning to new heights? Can we afford not to?

It has been said, that we might as well be “starving at the banquet” of the information age.

So much to know, to decide, to act upon…with the stakes increasingly high to GET IT RIGHT. And yet…how are we doing learning together in our organizational contexts to prepare for these endeavors? How do we integrate good information, new trends, results of signal scanning and mapping? How do we calibrate a changing basis for the way we determine cause and effect in the increasingly complex world around us?

As often as not, so many report feeling mostly overwhelmed – with data, with information, with ideas…. How do we keep up with all there is to know for now, let alone how to prepare for what is next? How do we make sure that our plans and actions are not merely “reactions” to what is happening around us, or the result of our fears, but rather the result of the collective learning that we are each engaged in? How can this knowledge we are generating be better pooled, organized, and focused for the good of all? Does this result in both power and agility? I would strongly suggest that it does. And commitment to boosting our organizational learning, as well as our commitment to communities of practice, can help us get there.

Along the way of learning about, and working with groups and organizations about future readiness, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the loosely related topics of “learning organizations” and “communities of practice” are essential concepts and frameworks for our success moving forward. Yet surprisingly, there is an absence of urgency in the way we talk about it – almost as if these ideas are luxuries rather than keys to competitive advantage or successful community building (depending on your perspective).

The truth is the way we learn together needs to be revised to afford us the kind of capacity, creativity and energy that is needed to result in the necessary agility required by the future and what’s required to succeed in the “VUCA” world.

This is true of both of the organizational settings I’m most connected to – social work practice in both private and public settings, as well as across higher education.

Yet because of our level of “busy-ness” our shared learning doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. I look with fascination at organizations that have committed deeply to this idea by positioning a “chief learning officer” whose literal job it is to assure that a) learning is happening that is strategic and intentional and b) that this learning is shared and focused and directly embedded into larger strategies of the organization. I’m sad to say, these kinds of positions don’t often show up in the places where I’ve worked – this role is often earnestly distributed among many and prioritized by almost no one. Without a deeper commitment, this gap inhibits the kind of ideas, energy and potential that we need right now. I believe learning together is our most vital investment for the future – and that it should be prioritized.

There is truly pressure on everyone to “plan strategically” for what comes next. I would suggest that every bit as important as planning can be – equally important is to focus, amplify, reinforce and strengthen the ways that we seek, consume, share and apply what we are learning. This includes “sharing the learning load” and “cognitive overwhelm” we are all experiencing by organizing ourselves better not just as an “implementation team” as so often happens in busy organizations, but as “learning teams” to make sure that our implementation is regularly, indeed inherently, well-informed along the way. This isn’t about just “learning more effectively” in episodes, but rather changing up what we do so that work and learning are so deeply intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable.

The concept of the “learning organization” was first introduced in 1970 by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline.” He defines this as the organizational quality of continually seeking new information by the members, and using this knowledge to intentionally evolve and transform. Senge suggests that there are five qualities including systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. There have been numerous iterations, variations and evolutionary versions and applications since the introduction of this durable model – and it was prescient in terms of implicitly anticipating how the complications of the coming years, would require new ways of operating.

Futures thinking and evolving towards future readiness – combines these ideas in ways that keep a keen eye on what lays ahead. Futures thinking is a practice that requires learning- not just a philosophy. Increasingly, I look at boosting our “organizational learning quotient” as among the most important organizational survival skills for whatever comes next.

Can we really afford NOT to be a learning organization at this point in history? In my estimation – our ability to learn effectively as well as collectively, and evolve accordingly based on our learning – is among the most important ingredients of the agility much discussed as a hallmark of “future readiness.”

Additionally, I’d suggest that understanding “communities of practice” is a way to understand broader and evolved ways of thinking about how within-organizational learning, as well as trans-organizational learning occurs in the modern world. While definitions vary somewhat, most definitions of a community of practice is a collection of people who intentionally learn together – whether in a shared organizational space or, generating even more bandwidth, beyond it. This is aided by technological reinforcements and connections that boost intelligent networks among interested learning partners whether near or global. I believe that these complex learning networks are increasingly demonstrating new ways of solving problems collectively (think about the new to our decade term “crowd sourced” as a cursory example), and that we’ve only begun to see what they will accomplish in the years to come.

Futures readiness means getting serious, disciplined and intentional about engaging in reflection and committed restoration about our organizational learning capacity and beyond.

To advance dialogue on these concepts, I did a search and put this list together for study and conversation. As always, it is in process and more will be added. For my own practice, getting clear about these ideas was essential.

Let’s keep learning together – and let’s help our organizations and learning networks greet the future with a new capacity for embedded and focused learning.

World Futures Day – March 1, 2020 – Opportunity to Get Involved

Please note!!

Join 24-Hour Round-the-World Conversation to Celebrate World Future Day, Hosted by the Millennium Project

FEB 27, 2020

Join 24-Hour Round-the-World Conversation to Celebrate World Future Day, Hosted by the Millennium Project

Press Release (ePRNews.com) – WASHINGTON – Feb 27, 2020 – World Future Day is March 1. This will be the seventh year that futurists and the general public will conduct a 24-hour, round-the-world conversation on the future on March 1 at 12 noon in whatever time zone they are in. Each year, total strangers discuss ideas about possible worlds of tomorrow in a relaxed, open, no-agenda conversation. Futures research is shared, collaborations are created, and new friendships are made. 

The Millennium Project, a global foresight participatory think tank, will host this conversation on the future in collaboration with the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), Humanity+ UNESCO’s Global Futures Literacy Network, the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS), and the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF).

“Anybody can pull up a cyber-chair at this global table and join the discussion on ZOOM at: https://zoom.us/j/9795262723,” says Jerome Glenn, CEO of The Millennium Project. “Whatever time zone you are in, you are invited at 12:00 noon in your time zone. People drop in and out as they like. If people can’t come online at 12 noon, they are welcome to come online before or after that time as well.”

Each year, for the past six years, global thought leaders have shared their views about governing artificial intelligence, inventing future employment, building space elevators to orbital cities, reducing climate change, guaranteeing safe water and energy, fighting transnational organized crime, developing future forms of democracy, countering information warfare, incorporating global ethics in decisionmaking, enforcing safety standards for synthetic biology, and the future of humanity. Who knows what will be discussed this year? Comments can be added at #worldfutureday.

“This year, we will be joined by Vint Cerf, Internet Pioneer at 12 noon Brussels time,” according to Glenn.  

Members of the press are most welcome to join the conversation asking questions to this diverse group of future-oriented people; however, ​Chatham House Rule applies: you can quote, use material, but not cite the source. “So,” Glenn continues, “come online and join the conversation with others working to build a better future.”

Co-sponsoring organization contacts:

Association of Professional Futurists: Jay Gary jay@jaygary.com
Humanity+: President Natasha Vita-More, natasha@natashavita-more.com
UNESCO’s Global Futures Literacy Network: Riel Miller r.miller@unesco.org 
The Millennium Project: CEO Jerome Glenn, Jerome.Glenn@Millennium-Project.org
World Academy of Art and Science: Chairman, Gary Jacobs garry.jacobs@worldacademy.org
World Futures Studies Federation: President, Erik Ferdinand Overland, secretariat@wfsf.org

PRESS CONTACT: +1-202-669-4410 Jerome Glenn, The Millennium Project or email contacts for organizations above.
Source : The Millennium Project

Heres the link.

Big Ideas for Social Change Champions – Idea-Palooza!

I think inspiration matters. Where do our big ideas for change come from? Often they come from frustration or anxiety about things we see around us that we know should be different. Sometimes they come from history – and the lessons of those who advanced progress but didn’t yet “solve” the challenge. As scholar of social innovation (my dissertation back in the day was about macro level creativity and innovation in social work), I continue to be fascinated by how to build our inventory of innovation spaces that reflect our social work values, ethics and priorities. This is part of why a futures/foresight approach has been so valuable to me. These spaces are full of possibility. They can honor context, values, culture, history – but they inspire deeper types of questioning and more expansive ways to anticipate, explore and create with regard to what comes next, and building the requisite knowledge and power in co-creating the futures we want.

One of my favorite teaching/consulting tools is to look to “innovator” communities to scan and be nourished by good work going on in these circles. Looking through these kinds of links – refreshes my sense of how problems are framed and how solutions might be built. I’ve been building a list of some of my favorite “go to” spark-worthy sites and happy to share it here. What are some of your favorites? What inspires you? Has there ever been a more important time to reinforce our own and each other’s sense of hope and possibility for a better world?

Here’s the link!! Come explore!!

Recent Ideas from Twitter – Social Work Futures – February 26, 2020

This is part of a regular series of posts that track a few notable things I find on Twitter that reflect signals and/or futures thinking I think will be relevant to social workers and/or folks in higher education. You can view previous posts in this series here.

23rd World Futures Studies Federation Conference this September in Mexico City.

Here’s a link to explore one of the largest futures conferences in the world – this will the first held in Latin America. I’d love to go if I can make it happen – worth checking out just to see the extraordinary and global range and reach of futures thinking and applications.

Global Population News

The Pew Research Center published (in 2019) a piece about changes in global population which I think have not been widely noted in social work. “For the first time in modern history,” it states, “the world’s population is expected to virtually stop growing by the end of this century, due in large part to falling global fertility rates,” (Cillffo and Ruiz, 2019). This is a powerful signal about a variety of issues related to the future of humanity, the planet and more. Worth reading.

Social Workers Doing Important Future Facing Activities

It is a joy to get to know some social workers and social work academics who are active and advancing new approaches to stretch social work’s fluency and capacity to use new media, explore new frameworks and new approaches in our field. Here are a couple of examples!

Terrific article interviewing Dr. Desmond Patton, Social Work Faculty Member from Columbia University regarding data and context – including a window into his fascinating and innovative research.

Check out Dr. Courtney Cogburn’s appearance on this recent CBSN episode discussing her work in virtual reality and her VR film experience the “1000 Cut Journey” gives viewers an experience of racism throughout the life of a black boy and then man. Dr. Cogburn is a social work faculty member at Columbia University.

Dr. Melanie Sage, faculty member at University at Buffalo School of Social Work, was awarded an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and Amazon to improve AI fairness in foster care.

A wide variety of notable future-linked articles on a range of topics in a recent issue of the journal Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance focused on Navigating Complex Frontiers: Introduction to the Special Issue on “The Future of Human Service Organizational and Management Research.” Worth browsing – some excellent information here. Edited by Social Work faculty Drs. Bowen McBeath and Karen Hopkins.

Economies of the Future

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing from and getting to know, economic historian turned ethnographer, Alexa Clay, from the Royal Society of Arts, who spoke about a National Geographic Project she’s been part of creating about “Misfit Economies.” She’s a remarkable speaker and creator of “sparks” in terms of innovative thinking and visioning. She got us all thinking some big creative thoughts about the future of the economy and the global signals that aren’t typically being tracked in what we discuss when we generally hear about this subject in the news. Take a look at the trailer for the film here.

This is a well-done article asking the question: who benefits from the emerging data economy? Short version: It’s pretty much what you expect, but will contribute to deeper and deeper economic disparities.

Climate Change

New report out from McKinsey and Company on climate change – physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts. (Thanks to Lakeya Cherry, MSW for sharing this with me.). Extensive information all very relevant to social work practice, research and macro planning/thinking in this area.


Regular readers of this blog know that a while ago, I did a deep dive on the topic of neo-liberalism as part of my desire to increase my own sense of current events and its relationship in particular to trends in higher education (as well as increasing austerity related to human services). You can view that survey here. Recently, I ran across this fine piece which I’ll add to that general overview. Very interesting piece with a historical lens on the issue of how and when neoliberalism “took hold” in the modern era and how it continues to erode human rights along the way.

Future of Work

I also enjoyed getting to hear from Maggie Wooll who is the Director of Research at the Deloitte Center for the Edge speak about the future of work recently. This report is among the most concise and clear overview of this topic I’ve run across recently – very helpful and offers numerous implications for social work as well as so many places and systems with whom we interact. The question of how the future of work will shake out is very much in process – it is up to all of us to jump in and advocate to assure it evolves in a way that creates just and equitable pathways for all.

The Future of Higher Education

This recent article by the BBC does a good job of providing an overview of the emerging push to increase “micro-credentials” and challenge traditional higher education inventories of offerings.

Here’s an interesting article describing changing faculty roles in medical education. I think they tackle some of the ecosystemic and institutional norms challenges well in terms of trying to articulate and intentionally modernize academic medical education. This has numerous implications for social work education:

Bellini, Lisa M MD; Kaplan, Brian MD; Fischel, Janet E. PhD; Meltzer, Carolyn MD; Peterson, Pamela MD; Sonnino, Roberta E. MD. (2020). The defintion of faculty must evolve: A call to action. Academic Medicine, available at this link. As academic medical centers and academic health centers continue to adapt to the changing landscape of medicine in the United States, the definition of what it means to be faculty must evolve as well. Both institutional economic priorities and the need to recalibrate educational programs to address current and future societal and patient needs have brought new complexity to faculty identity, faculty value, and the educational mission. (From the author abstract.)

Equity Work

I loved this article entitled “The Language of Anti-racism” and as I read it, I reflected on how much of this language is now part of “mainstream” discourse in social work and beyond. I reflected on how powerful it can be to introduce language that precisely names complex realities that are not widely understood and then observe how this naming process can change the world. Language as activism, language as power, language as the future – an anti-racist future requires a new way to talk about our world and what equity means. Here’s a good signal that this project is moving ahead. I’m imagining what the next iteration of this article might be 10 years from now, realizing that signals of its evolution are all around us, and hoping to play some small part in its emergence!

Artificial Intelligence

I have a couple of items here that are interesting and provocative – both surprised and intrigued me in the last few weeks.

This article proposes that the real measure of artificial intelligence is if it can admit when it doesn’t know something. Imagine!

These articles are focused on the work of Dr. Julia Mossbridge who is a fellow RWJF grantee and a cognitive neuroscientist. She’s an accomplished artifical intelligence expert and focused (currently) on the question of – can artificial intelligence experience love – and specifically, unconditional love. This will stretch your sensibilities in interesting ways – but check out her work here and here.

Clinical Matters

This is a concerning but illuminating article on the rise (and underworld) of the world on online therapy systems. Definitely relevant in our social work circles – should be discussed widely in our classes with special attention to the ethical compromises that are possible in these spaces. There are some really wonderful and well-developed services out there…but not all online supports and services are alike. Important read.


Obviously – news of the coronavirus is on most of our minds. If you haven’t seen the new Netflix series “Pandemic” – it might be a good time to catch up. Excellent overview. See the trailer here. Additionally the author of numerous books and recipient of several awards for her work on pandemics, Laurie Garrett has written this recent piece in Foreign Affairs to offer her analysis of our current level of readiness to address the impending health crisis related to this virus.

Hiring Social Work Faculty that are “Future Ready”

The term “future ready” is popular – one sees it frequently in day to day life. But what does it mean for social work faculty and for Ph.D./D.S.W. students currently intending to make higher education – and the preparation of the next generation of social workers their careers?

This past year, I had a number of occasions to explore this topic with faculty and a variety of doctoral students at various levels of their preparation. Given consideration – one can imagine that a brand new doctoral degree who is looking at a 30 year career ahead simply must assume disruption, complexity and challenge that is unprecedented in the history of the academy – and in social work. If I were hiring right now, I’d be looking for people have been thoughtful, analytic and curious about these types of dynamics and first and foremost – are committed to being rigorous lifelong learners.

I thought I’d share my developing ideas here in the blog. I welcome the opportunity to continue to develop these ideas – because of course the process of getting ready for what comes next is ALWAYS a work in progress and never really done.

High priority for “future ready” social work faculty:

  • Clear orientation towards a practice/research ecosystem that is undergoing significant and systemic turbulence.   A prospective future ready faculty member would have the analytic capacity to identify how these trends (economic, climate, migration,  technological and others) would impact vulnerable people now and in the future with related courses of research and/or practice to remedy/address without compromising social work values and ethics. An ability to articulate risks/opportunities in the future with regard to his/her/their practice area. 
  • Clear orientation towards a higher education ecosystem that is undergoing significant and systemic turbulence.  A prospective future ready faculty member would be prepared and engaged in efforts to simultaneously preserve important elements of the traditions of higher education with ideas, experiences and accomplishments that indicate capacity to participate in intentional systemic evolution without compromising social work values and ethics.
  • Skills related to educational, analytic and/or communication technology in higher education.  A demonstrated ability to positively contribute system-wide in this area.
  • Orientation towards “cognitive load management” given the influx of competing demands.   A prospective future ready faculty member would have skills and an ability to articulate how he/she/they manage competing demands and “noisy” educational/practice settings (given that this dynamic will likely increase not decrease in the future).
  • An ability to articulate and apply social work values and ethics in new kinds of practice challenges (e.g., artificial intelligence, increased use of technology) with a specific eye towards emerging and potentially ill-defined equity challenges of the future.    Orientation towards the need for and commitment to continuing to evolve social work ethics given 1 and 2 above.
  • Ability to articulate frameworks for and skills with 21st century equity work with developed sensibilities about how equity work will change in the future (esp. as related to technological and political variables) in both higher education and social work practice settings.  This may include but is not limited to concepts of “tech design justice.”
  • Ability to articulate plans for and articulate desire to manage going learning and personal career-long development with an understanding of, respect and passion for being impactful given 1 and 2 above.
  • Ability to span local to global (and back again) in new ways as the interconnectedness across geopolitical boundaries increases in the years to come.
  • Ability to work in interprofessional contexts and contribute meaningfully in interdisciplinary settings.

Special thanks to Dean Eddie Uehara and Dean Nancy Smyth for guidance and input on these ideas.

I’ve posted a PDF here if you’d like a copy of these ideas – and they are shared with a Creative Commons 4.0 license.