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.

Happy Birthday Internet! Here’s Some History and SW-Friendly Resources to Celebrate (and Use)!!

The internet is 50 years old today. This seems like a good time to do a round up some interesting/helpful history about this powerful relatively new part of our “social environment,” as well as to shout out to some links and resources for social workers to show how creatively, professionally and resourcefully, we are responding to ways of utilizing technologies to heighten, widen and increase our impact. And we’re only getting started.

History of the Internet

Fun brief film story from NBC on the history of the internet (2019)

The global internet is disintigrating: What comes next? (2019)

The fight to keep the internet free and open to everyone (2019)

Why is there so little left of the early internet (2019)

24/7 – Group of UK Art Exhibit on the Impact of the Internet on Society (2019)

What would a post about the history of the internet be without a Wikipedia entry about this? Check it out here.

The Internet/Digital Rights and the Upcoming Presidential Campaign in the U.S.

Digital Bill of Rights formulated and sent to presidential hopefuls (2019)

Where the 2020 Presidential candidates stand on the future of the internet (2019)

The Future of the Internet

Pew Research overview of the next 50 years of digital life (2019)

The future of the internet – a discussion with its inventor (2019)

The future of the internet (World Economic Forum) (2018)

The Internet and Human Rights

Amnesty’s International’s resource page on the Internet as a Human Right

International Centre for Law and Democracy report on the Internet and Human Rights (2016)

Brookings Institution report on the Internet as a Human Right (2016)

Helpful infographic from the Association of Progressive Communications on the issue of the Internet and Human Rights (no date)

Internet Society presentation on human rights and the internet (2016)

What are your digital rights? (2015)

Racism on the Internet – and What to Do About It

As responsible citizens, here’s what we can all do to reduce racism online (2019)

This is how racism is spread across the world on the internet (2019)

The internet is a cesspool of racist pseudoscience (2019)

Racism on the internet: A research agenda (2018)

Combating hate and white nationalism online (2018)

6 Creative Ways to Use the Internet to Fight Racism (2017)

Internet Safety

17 Experts Offer Internet Safety Advice for Families (2019)

Internet safety guidelines from the US Federal Communications Commission

Symantec’s Family Guide to Online Safety

Children and media tips for technology from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2018)

The Internet and Democracy

UN makes “declaration of digital interdependence” with new report (2019)

Weaponizing the digital influence machine: The political perils of online ad tech (2018)

Needed: A bill of rights for the digital age (2018)

The human consequences of computational propaganda (2018)

Social Work-Specific Internet and Tech Resources

(Social Work practice and education colleagues – please dm with additional resources you’d like to share/boosted in this space and I’ll continue to revise!)

A group of intrepid and groundbreaking social workers and social work educators from throughout the United States have been using a Twitter hashtag #swtech for a number of years now. Please search this hashtag on Twitter and explore the innovative things happening in this space.

Review of new book called “Teaching Social Work with Digital Technology”, Iverson-Hitchcock, Sage and Smyth (2019)

#SWTech – An introduction and history of an online group (2019) and #SWTech: The beginnings of an online community (2019)- at Dr. Laurel Iverson’s wonderful SW Education Blog.

Future of technology in social work practice article (2018)

SafeLab at Columbia University – groundbreaking work in social work doing research in social media and internet spaces

CSWE’s Future of Social Work Task Force Report (2018) – Tech featured strongly in this report.

Grand Challenge “Harnessing Technology for Social Good” resource page

Technology in Social Work Education – Iverson-Hitchcock, Sage and Smyth/University of Buffalo School of Social Work (2018)

Ethical standards for social workers’ use of technology: Emerging consensus (2018)

NASW Standards regarding use of technology in practice (2017)

Climate Change, Environmental Justice and Mental Health: Social Work Essentials

In recent posts, I’ve shared a lot of explorations regarding futures topics that I think will be most meaningful for future-facing social workers including artificial intelligence ideas as they intersect with social work, algorithmic bias, transparency and justice, and mental health technology and ethics.

But of course no real exploration of futures topics most impacting the practice of social work in the years to come would be complete without a thorough look into current literature related to climate change.

Climate change as it relates to mental health and environmental justice are essential aspects of futures- and foresight-oriented social work practice. Social workers and social work education has long been committed to including this topic in our “canon” of focal areas, and issues of climate well-being are increasingly topics faced, discussed and included in social work practice and research. This effort has recently culminated in inclusion of climate change-anchored research and practice in the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative. And yet, though we’d all agree this is an urgent and relevant issue…have we gone far enough to assure that climate change competencies become part of how we think, research, collaborate and practice? What might be involved in going even further to assure that social work maximizes our impact in this space?

One of my most central reference points in this area, has been the work of Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice.” I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few times. If you are not familiar with his work, I highly recommend a deep dive. You can start here. This link will take you to a long-form lecture that Dr. Bullard did recently.

These are sobering areas of study – yet in each area there is reason to hope. Against the odds, there are scholars, activists and communities who actively seek to redirect the climate change trajectory from one of destruction, to one of revitalization and healing using a wide variety of strategies and tactics. As is said frequently within the futures practice world – the future is open, not fixed – and what we do now still very much matters. No where is this more true than related to the issue of climate change.

Whether it’s helping to de-code and assist people in naming and surviving in the face of climate change, or putting new levels of energy to bear in reversing and/or stopping climate change, this is another particularly urgent area of deep learning and relevance for social workers who have an eye towards the future!

As is my practice, I organized recent literature on this topic. For those that might wish to join me on a quick tour of “what’s new” in these combined area of practice (climate change as it relates to mental health – and – environmental justice) – you can link to the annotated bibliography and sector scan here. It is always in development. My goal is to boost the degree to which social workers can benefit from the best emerging information available. Let’s put it to good use and protect each other and our planet!

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…!)
  • AND THIS IS JUST A STARTING POINT!!!

*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?

Algorithmic Transparency, Bias and Justice

Algorithms are a huge part of modern life. So much so that we sometimes forget they have arrived. Indeed they are primarily “invisible” to everyday people, working behind the scenes to sort data and make decisions that reflect the opinions of a few algorithm designers behind the scenes. Sometimes these algorithms can be life changing/life saving, for example when cancer diagnosis can be made through a combination of machine learning and algorithms that can scan hundreds of thousands of xrays to detect the tiniest irregularity that a human might miss. But other times, like racially biased facial recognition software that might inaccurately identify someone as a criminal suspect – are much more concerning. Increasingly, the ideas of “algorithmic transparency,” “algorithmic racism/bias,” and “algorithmic justice” have come into more prevalent conversation among social justice circles.

There is much learning and development going on with regard to this topic. Of all the “future facing” topics one might consider in terms of urgent need for attention in social work – in my estimation – this is one of the most important. As the rate of adoption of new technologies (most often emerging from the private sector) continues to accelerate, algorithms that don’t incorporate ethical and bias-free dimensions are a frequent point of discussion among social justice advocates. What is the pathway forward and how do we continue to increase social work practice and research attention in this area?

I would suggest that this is the most under-discussed ethical challenge of the future for the profession of social work. We need to dramatically increase the depth, range and focus of our ethical evolution to participate in and shape the future of these technologies that work for people and that prevent harm and injustice. We should concern ourselves with identifying how and where algorithms are starting to emerge and be active in our social work practice spaces (clinical and macro). Collectively – we are starting to develop a shared and critical literacy regarding these important and ubiquitous forces, and challenge a need for clear and explicit ethical guidelines/rules.

For those who are completely new to this topic, here’s a great primer.

While there are pockets of enthusiasm for dialogue about these developments in social work, we have a long way to go to assert where and how we can operate most ethically – and what that looks like given the changing dynamics at play.

Here’s a reading/resource list of resources to get started – with great respect for the groundbreaking work of all who have been leaders in this space.

  • Dr. Desmond Patton is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia University in New York City. I’ve previously listed his work on my blog but want to underscore the significant leadership he’s contributed within social work to this topic. Here’s a recent article he put together for Medium. He’s also the Principal Investigator of the Safe Lab project at Columbia which is a research initiative focused on examining the ways in which youth of color navigate violence on and offline.
  • Data for Black Lives is a national network of over 4,000 activists, organizers, and scientists using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people. For far too long, data has been weaponized against Black communities – from redlining to predictive policing, credit scoring and facial recognition. But we are charting out a new era, where data is a tool for profound social change. (From their website here!)
  • The Institute for the Future has developed an “Ethical OS” toolkit to provide a structure for tech experts to use to deepen their adherence to ethical principles while developing tech tools. Check it out here.

These are the books currently on my shelf on this topic:

Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating inequality: How high tech tools profile, punish and police the poor. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Review here.

Lane, J. (2019). The digital street. New York: Oxford Press. Review here.

Noble, S.U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press. Review here.

O’Neill, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. New York: Broadway Books. Review here – scroll down where her TED talk is included.

Also, I’ve collected numerous recent articles about bias, “isms” and ethics concerns regarding algorithmic transparency/bias as follows:

Behind every robot is a human (2019)

The new digital divide is between people who opt out of algorithms and those who don’t (2019)

Collection of new articles from the Brookings Institute regarding AI and the future (2019)

Artificial intelligence is ripe for abuse, tech researcher warns: A fascist’s dream (2019)

Algorithmic Accountability Act (2019)

Amazon Alexa launches its first HIPAA compliant medical unit (2019)

Facial recognition is big tech’s latest toxic gateway app (2019)

That mental health app might share your data without telling you (2019)

Europe is making AI rules now to avoid a new tech crisis (2019)

AI’s white guy problem isn’t going away (2019)

Europe’s silver bullet in global AI battle: Ethics (2019)

A case for critical public interest technologists (2019)

Ethics alone can’t fix big tech (2019)

Government needs an “ethical framework” to tackle emerging technology (2019)

Tech with a social conscience and why you should care (2019)

Trading privacy for security is another tax on the poor (2019)

Congress wants to protect you from biased algorithms, deep fakes and other bad AI (2019)

AI must confront its missed opportunities to achieve social good (2019)

AI systems should be accountable, explainable and unbiased says EU (2019)

One month, 500 thousand face scans: How China is using AI to profile a minority (2019)

How recommendation algorithms run the world (2019)

Facial recognition is the plutonium of AI (2019)

Facial recognition is accurate if you’re a white guy (2018)

Facial recognition software is biased towards white men, researcher finds (2018)

A Social Work Futures Game – LET’S PLAY!!!

Recently, I was asked to develop a futures game for Deans and Directors of Social Work (NADD) around the United States. This is a group I’ve been proud to be part of for the past six years, but will soon be exiting as I end my deanship at Portland State University (for a sabbatical to explore/work on several futures projects and then returning to my faculty position!!)

Gaming is increasingly being used as a method for engaging, educating, focusing and energizing people to work on common goals – it is moving way beyond ideas of “winning and losing” from a futures perspective. While now a few years old, well-known gaming futurist Jane McGonigal has a classic TED talk on this topic – which you can see (and read this accompanying summary) here.

Here’s another more academic article about gaming theory and practice for various populations, settings and purposes in a futures context.

My own futures game is intended:

  • To stretch social work students, faculty and practitioners’ minds to consider possible future trajectories and what it means to be “ready” (as much as possible) for alternative futures.  
  • To develop specific “next steps” in futures readiness planning.
  • To serve as a tool in “foresight” capacity development individually and collectively for social workers and social work educators.
  • To develop our collective agility, creativity and intelligence as a profession regarding the challenges we will face in our shared future.

This is a “beta” version which is to say that I’m planning on making adjustments and will probably add additional scenarios in the future. For now, I invite you (especially if you’re a social worker, student or social work educator) to explore the game and use it in a setting that it might be useful! If you do, please keep me in the loop and share your feedback and ideas about how I can make the game even more relevant and helpful!

You can download the game here!

Here’s to using gaming to build a better world in social work! Have fun!!

Special thanks to Dean Goutham Menon at Loyala University for the invitation to develop and pilot this game, to Dean Nancy Smyth at University of Buffalo for development consultation, and to the participants of the Spring 2019 NADD meeting for participating in the game for the first time and providing invaluable ideas and encouragement.

Activism and the Future: Beyond the Term “Burnout” and Deepening our Ability to Care for Ourselves and Each Other for the Long Haul

Activism, resistance and the right to engage in our democratic process of holding our government (and other elements of our community) accountable is among the most important of our ideals as social workers. These ideas and practices show up in our core mission statements, our codes of ethics and beyond. And if the present moment suggests anything…it suggests a future that will involve deepening need and hopefully commitment by able activists to keep causes moving forward.

Clearly, the work we do is taxing. Movement work can engage and challenge us beyond our limits, requires us to risk, stretch and practice our ideals in often less-than-ideal circumstances.

Sometimes people leave the effort – and sometimes people explain why that happens as “burnout.” If our movements are going to endure, succeed, and advance – and if we have a future that involves true progress…we need to imagine and consider all of the elements we can control that contribute to the loss of key people so important to social justice efforts.

Is social justice work burnout a real thing? Will it impact the future in negative ways if good people don’t stay engaged with social movement efforts? I searched for the ideas of smart folks in this work – to best anchor some of this thinking in my own pursuit of futures frameworks for social work practice.

It is likely that our challenges will increase, that our movement work will get more complex, and that easy solutions to injustice will not be readily apparent. If we are in it for the long haul…what does that mean? How do we best care for each other in our work? And why does that matter for a social work future?

Here is an ongoing list of ideas that I found in the literature related to this topic. These go well beyond the idea of simple “burnout” which is a term recently called into question for being an oversimplification of a much deeper structural set of barriers to well-being. I found these pieces really inspiring – hope you do too! Join in the conversation – and let’s do all we can to build a vibrancy, equity and health in our very demanding work!