What happens when a social worker becomes a futurist?

What does it mean for a social worker to become a futurist?  What can social workers add to futures frameworks, strategies and thinking? (You can read more about what futures/foresight practitioners do here.)

In fact, I think we have a unique and powerful analytical perspective (focused on equity, justice, and well-being to name a few) and related skill sets that prepares us to be robust contributors and facilitators for new kinds of conversations about the future, but this is terrain that is seldom written about or explored in our profession.   I want to energize such a dialogue among fellow members of my social work community.     Recently, I’ve been able to complete training as a “foresight practitioner” with the Institute for the Future and I couldn’t help but think about the impact, the intersection and the implications for what comes next in my thinking and my work as a social worker and a burgeoning futurist.  I look forward to having other members of my profession join me in contributing explicitly to futures dialogue. And for this piece, I thought I’d speak directly to other social workers to describe what it has been like so far.

I have been energized (deeply) by the sense of hope, creativity and possibility that a futures lens can bring us – even as insodoing, we must confront possibilities of futures that are difficult and disturbing.    I believe strongly that as social workers, our work, our philosophy, our intellectual terrain, our social science, our hope and our ethics all belong in these spaces – to expand them, and to open new possibilities within our own social work lenses.  The way that we participate in changing social norms and push forward new ways of thinking in terms of social justice and equity is needed.    As we imagine futures full of artificial intelligence, “smart” products – and even body parts, blockchain, the meaning of “equity” in the future – where will we stand? (Other entries in this blog explore an array of futures ideas and terminology…) How do we imagine ourselves to be part of the story of how justice and well-being will prevail? These are questions for future facing social workers.

I believe futures frameworks have great potential to energize and refresh our own thinking about our future as a profession at a pivotal time in our history.  I have never felt so stretched into places that are not “traditionally” social work practice (hello artificial intelligence and deep machine learning), but neither have I ever been so intrigued about the juxtaposition of what could go right with new technologies – and what could go wrong. Where are we investing in the kind of learning that will challenge us in these ways?  

So what happens when a social worker becomes a futurist/futures practitioner?  

We bring our profession.   I am a social worker.   I specialize in addictions work (theory, practice, research and policy).   I am an academic (have served as center director, professor and dean).  I am a person who has grown up in professional spaces and thus, have a sense of the sociology of professions…how they have formed, their strengths, their challenges, their limitations, and their importance to a functioning society.   Being a futures practitioner means I bring new eyes to some longstanding challenges in most professions – how do we (all) truly remain relevant, be of use, keep up with the tsunami of change that the world presents?    How do we revise ourselves, revise our mental maps of our risks and opportunities without losing the core of what we bring to the table?  Some of us are already “out in front” in terms of innovation and future-facing ideas and practice. Colleagues are offering a wide array of new approaches involving technology in social work practice and education and/or being responsive to climate change in ways that are particular and unique from our social work perspectives.  That said, more of us need to join in this thinking and as a profession, we need to organize more spaces to challenge ourselves, each other and our students.

Being a futures practitioner means that I bring tools to help my profession(s) be thoughtful, careful and reflective even as we become more agile and responsive to the changes around us, within our own spaces.  Being a futures-facing social worker means that I’m thinking about, anticipating and strategizing about concepts of power and vulnerability and what they mean in the future – and thus – how our work and strategies might need to change to be effective.

We bring our ethics.   Social work has a code of ethics which is a cornerstone of what we do and how we operate.    As we navigate complexity, uncertainty and change, a code of ethics allows us to have a “rudder” to gauge and calculate our next steps.    Our code of ethics allows me to look at new technology and seek to understand what ethics guide new tech developments, as well as advocate for developments to be responsive to ethical concerns – especially in places where vulnerable people are involved, or e-racism is suspected.  My social work ethics give me a “hard stop” to rigorously think through unintended consequences for vulnerable people and to think through how differential impacts may befall various groups in society in alternate futures scenarios.  Just as importantly, our code of ethics gives me a way to assure my colleagues that we have a lot of co-learning to do as we move into an uncertain future – our code of ethics may sometimes be a puzzle in the future.   Like every profession in the 21st century, we’ll have to stretch and argue about what is an isn’t ethical as we journey into the future – new ethical challenges will present themselves.       But we have a strong foundation to work from and that is an asset.

We bring our questions and curiosity.   The future is full of opportunities AND it is full of risks.   This is especially true for the vulnerable people and groups with whom the social work profession stands.   With environmental and economic uncertainty, with climate change, with increasing pressures to be more responsive to racial/ethnic and other identity-based injustice – social work is a profession that is in a constant process of questioning why?  Why are things arranged the way that they are and how can the future accelerate what is not working, or alternatively, provide new openings and new possibilities for progressive advances?    Right now, the most important thing for future facing social workers to do is to learn and engage.  At first notice, a social worker may not think that block chain or emerging biotechnologies are relevant to them – but when a social worker becomes a futurist, it is clear that these new areas of science, economic development and activity – will have enormous impacts on the world.   As a futures facing social worker, I hope to encourage more and deeper conversation and collaborations to make these advances human- and justice-centered, as we develop and study our efforts.  We have the capacity to generate, develop and execute innovative and impactful practice as well as research – the SW Grand Challenges is an example of this kind of effort. 

We bring our interdisciplinary networks.   Many have suggested that the future is interdisciplinary.   Indeed evidence is growing that most sectors – the current and future challenge faced by society are not going to be “solved” by any one profession.   As a social worker, I have lived through an era where we worked mostly in like groups to a dynamic present where we are comfortable, knowledgeable and competent working in predominantly interdisciplinary settings.   What is most helpful, speaking in futures terms, about this evolution – is that interdisciplinary settings naturally produce new kinds of questions, courses of actions and solutions that are beyond the scope of any one group and only possible through the dynamic intellectual and professional interplay among different points of view.   In these settings, social work also might be among the first professions to advocate that “community” or “consumer” voice also be a central feature of these interdisciplinary approaches so that partnering with impacted individual, groups and communities is always the aspiration as well as the practice.   The future of our work will undoubtedly about engaging with social, technical, biological, economic problems, many of which we can’t yet even name.  Our strengths as interdisciplinary partners prepares us for the most robust and effective contributions.  

We bring our biases and our limitations.  I’m proud of how hard social work has worked on itself to increase its ability to be reflexive, to address its “white savior” roots, to challenge its profession-wide and directly related to our own (my own) individual attitudes and practices as social workers.   That said, we have more to go – we are not done with this work.  We continue to live in a deeply racist, classist and otherwise biased society despite our richly growing global and national diversity.  Our news demonstrates on a daily basis that “isms” remain pervasive, dangerous and destructive.     As a futurist social worker, I must check myself (continuously) and encourage others to do the same to wonder aloud and on purpose if the discourse is being dominated by privileged groups (there are increasingly diverse voices at the table of futures discourse), if voices are missing, if other futures lenses are possible other than those that are increasingly popular or dominant, if those most impacted by the future (youth in particular) shouldn’t have a larger voice in the discourse associated with futures practice.   

We bring our personal histories.   In fact, I’ve ALWAYS been a person who was interested in the future.   As a child, I used to draw pictures of people in dramatic future settings and in high school, I was activated intellectually by reading Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” by my visionary high school studies teacher Dr. Karl Keener.   I found the idea of futures thinking to be intriguing, creative, and an application of social imagination that ultimately formed a foundation of each and every academic and professional activity that I have ever done.  Many futures practice folks have similar backstories.  And many social workers, though they might not describe it explicitly this way, chose the career path because they saw social problems and believed things could and should be different.  …That a better future was possible if people joined together to do the right thing.   I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the future…but implicitly.  I think going on the record as a “futures practitioner” means I make this focus explicit, and the joining with my social work toolbox makes it especially interesting and valuable.   

I also bring my identity as a white, female, cis, straight, upper middle class, first generation college graduate, academic increasingly dedicated to the equity and justice frameworks.    I am a wife.  I am a mother.  I am a daughter.  I am a friend and a colleague.   I am an American.  I am an artist. This personal history and this work, shapes all I do – with both its strengths and limitations. At times, I will need to speak up from my position and present ideas and perspectives – and at times – I will need to assure that other voices, more clearly relevant, need to speak about the past, present and future in ways I cannot know.

Finally, we bring our anger, our humility, our imagination and our love.  It is clear that many decisions locally, nationally and transnationally, are not being made with the future in mind.     Each day the news can be harder than the next.   But all that said, as a future facing social worker – I feel compelled to translate real anger about “the state of the world” into professional determination to do what I can from whichever seat I occupy, and to join (urgently) with others who do that.    We can’t give up – future generations are counting on us.    Let us be inspired by Sweden who actually created a “Minister of the Future” position to guide the entire country’s efforts in this area.      There is no magic wand to fix or control the course of events that will unfold “in the future.” But we can do is use our collective intellect/ability to analyze and ready ourselves and our communities for multiple/possible/intersecting futures, our collective imaginations, and in truth – our love – for our planet, for each other, and for future generations to best shape our preferred future, and defend actively against more dangerous ones.     As a social worker journeying into this space, I’m humbled by this famous quote from Crazy Horse (with a respectful nod to the Indigenous voices who predate all modern futures work with the deepest possible futures convictions): 

“I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will be one circle again.”

Please join me and add your unique voice as a social worker/change agent – what will you bring to the future? I welcome your ideas and urge you to become part of a social work futures dialogue.

Artificial Intelligence Ideas and Social Work

It is clear that any read of issues of “the future” centers artificial intelligence as a major driver of what is to come. There is a great deal of information out there on this subject. Every profession will likely find themselves impacted by these rapidly changing and expanding technologies – and social work will be no exception. Whether we are directly involved in utilizing these technologies for social good, or addressing social problems that intersect with these tools (and the displacement/or additional social problems they may create), I believe social workers need to learn as much as they can about the power and challenges of these emerging technologies.

AI is and will continue to change the world – social workers must decide for ourselves how best to ethically engage with it as it happens. This curated list is a starting point for social work to learn the lay of the land. This is a HUGE area – so I’m dividing this up into a number of sections.

Fundamentals – what is artificial intelligence?

Here’s the 8 types of artificial intelligence and what you should know about them (2018)

What is artificial intelligence? (2018)

Today’s deep learning “AI” is machine learning not magic (2018)

The non-technical guide to AI (2016)

The jobs AI will create (2017)

Bias in AI

Why AI needs to reflect society (2018)

Racial and gender bias in AI (2017)

Discriminating algorhithms: 5 times AI showed prejudice (2018)

Artificial intelligence has a bias problem (2018)

Using AI for Social Good

Applying AI for social good (2018)

Google using AI for social good guide

AI for Social Good (2017)

Dangers/Concerns of AI

Is AI dangerous? 6 AI risks everyone should know about (2018)

Don’t be afraid of AI (2018)

Limitations of AI

Greedy, brittle, opaque and shallow: The downsides to deep learning (2018)

The real world potential and limitations of AI (2018)

AI and Human Services

AI-augmented human services (2017)

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work AI Program

All of us in social work need to give the folks at USC Suzanne Dworack-Peck School of Social Work a true bow of respect for the groundbreaking work that they have been doing on this topic INSIDE social work educational and research settings.

Overview of USC AI fellows program

Betting on artificial intelligence to help humanity

USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society

Artificial intelligence and social work (book – 2018)

Three Questions to Start a Dialogue on Social Work and “Futures” Thinking

When we think about futures work as social workers – our code of ethics, our commitment to equity, our strengths approach – all matter and greatly accelerate progress in the futures space.  But – futures work has the potential to expand and energize our efforts as it introduces some new ideas in the way we conceptualize and actualize our work.   As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently shared at the Institute for the Futures 50th Anniversary Conference in Palo Alto – futures work allows us the opportunity to “update our intellectual software” for the 21st century and all its rapidly complicating dynamics.

Now about those questions – let’s dive in.

  • Can we do a better job of thinking (and taking action) on the future?

In fact, no one is an expert on the future…no one knows what will happen.   But for more than 50 years, a profession has taken up the challenge of discovering, developing and apply a disciplined, creative and strategic way of approaches the challenge of anticipating and planning for the future.   It is influenced by a variety of social sciences (ever hear of anticipatory anthropology?) .    Though some variations exist, futures thinking and/or approaches are largely a matter of applying a disciplined framework to questions related to “what will happen in XYZ sector and what is the best possible pathway for us to commit to as we travel through the next 5-10 year period?”    This is referred to frequently as a “futures mindset.”  Some utilize a method called “foresight” practice, others scenario planning (often coupled with forecasting).    Generally, futures “practice” relates to a variety of methods of strategic thinking/planning that depend upon creative as well as logical extrapolation.   All fit into the category of “futures” thinking or practice.

  • What are key principles of “futures” thinking?  What are examples of how it is being used?

It’s currently in vogue to avoid black/white and either/or thinking.   Most agree that in many cases related to modern life – absolutes are increasingly hard to find and that we have to learn to hold both/and in our minds, often balancing contradictions in tension simultaneously.   Futures thinking requires even more of us – introducing a number of complimentary as well as contradictory principles that require us to “hold in our minds” simultaneously as various matters concerning the future are considered.  The following principles are in many ways the “container” for futures work.  The work of a futures practitioner is to assist groups in keeping them in focus while working through the challenging of plotting a planning project in a particular sector.  Keeping them all in forefront of our minds is challenging!   Consider that:

  • šThe future is plural (many scenarios possible)
  • šThe future is a combination of alternative futures: possible, plausible, probable and preferable
  • šThe future is open (not fixed)
  • šThe future is fuzzy (of course we can’t “know” exactly how the future will unfold, and our foresight is imperfect, limited).
  • šThe future is surprising (not always smooth or continuous). Sometimes it arrives in unexpected ways.
  • The future is not surprising (sometimes the future is boring).
  • The future is fast (the future is always accelerating).
  • šThe future is slow (accelerating change gets all the attention, but a balance of the future is also slow, plodding and predictable).
  • šThe future is archetypical (or generic) – refers to the way that we “think” about the future.  Studies in the area tend to reflect four general generic ways of thinking about the future: continue, collapse, discipline and transformation.
  • šThe future is both inbound and outbound.  Our personal and organizational futures are shaped by two sets of forces: change that happens to us (from the external world) beyond our control – inbound.  Change that we create ourselves – based on our decisions and actions – outbound.

Daniel Bengston (2018).  Principles for thinking about the future and foresight education.   World Futures Review, 10(3), 193-202.

  • What are the most important points of intersection for the social work profession with “futures” practice?

Social workers, among other things, are planners – and it would seem logical that social work might be a great fit for futures thinking.   Unfortunately, little literature exists to suggest that we’ve been active consumers of these tools in our work and/or educational processes.    In short – we can apply these principles to the way we think about “our” issues within our own typical focal areas of practice and research (such as across the Social Work Grand Challenges).  For example – we can use our expertise to imagine “the future of” social problems such as homelessness, child abuse, poverty, mental illness, etc. and then extrapolate how our social work approaches might best evolve to better meet and/or match upcoming likely trends.    At the same time, we can join with other activists and/or innovators who may be operating somewhat “outside” our typical social work practice arenas – folks that are working directly with artificial intelligence, climate change, and/or block chain (and/or the future of the internet).    One particularly “grand challenge” with a climate change focus may be among the best examples of movement in this direction.  

Note: What Futures Thinking Isn’t

  • It isn’t “predicting” the future in any way – results are reasoned, collective and creative sets of ideas generated by stakeholders and explicitly limited and preliminary.    That said, it is often the best that can be generated to anticipate elements such as likely, possible, plausible and unlikely ideas about what the future might hold.
  • At it’s best, futures thinking/work ALWAYS includes a strong focus on explicitly engaging with exploration of “unintended consequences” of various decisions, actions or directions.  Again, not a guarantee, but all too frequently, fundamentally missing from the planning processes of otherwise intelligent people and/or groups.
  • Isn’t ONLY about the future.  The past (history, tradition, culture) matter – as does the present in understanding what may/may not happen in the future.
  • Wasn’t invented in the western modern era.  In fact Indigenous peoples have widely operated with sacred and dedicated focus on generations beyond those currently alive.   Deep cultural as well as scholarly commitment exists to demonstrate these principles in action.
  • It isn’t a parlor game – it is a specific and disciplined set of theory and methods.  That said, it requires fun and creativity (so maybe it is a little like a parlor game!).    At least it incorporates PLAY as well as serious reflection of difficult and even scary possibilities for the future, and then requires smart and committed people to work together to create paths forward with an aspirational tone and intended to build agency, excitement, and momentum towards creating the future rather than just waiting for it to drop.

Leave a comment to share your own ideas about what’s been shared!  Be part of the conversation!!

Welcome to Social Work Futures – Overview and Introduction

Thanks for visiting!  

Some questions to jump-start a conversation about social work futures:

  • Can we do a better job of thinking (and taking action) on the future?
  • What are key principles of “futures” thinking?  What are examples of how it is being used?
  • What are the most important points of intersection for the social work profession with “futures” practice?

If these questions sound interesting to you – you’re in the right place!  This blog is a space to share ideas related to “futures” ideas and practice – particularly as they intersect with social work in the United States and beyond.

Background:   I’ve been a professional social worker and academic for more than 25 years.  During my professional journey, I’ve been privileged to work as a National Program Director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Reclaiming Futures initiative for 11 years.  During that time, it was the adventure of a lifetime to work with communities all over the US to innovate deeply related to the challenges of alcohol/drug abuse and youth in the juvenile justice system.  Our mission was to build systems of care and opportunity for young people and their families swept up in the juvenile justice system and promote public health, equity and success in juvenile courtrooms throughout the country.    During that time, we were fortunate (through the generosity of RWJF) to bring “futurists” into our initiative to help us: a) think bigger and more creatively about the problems we were up against, b) think about solutions that might seem initially impossible, and c) for the impact of ecological (economic, political, cultural, sociological and more) factors that would likely influence our trajectory – though in ways we couldn’t really know at the time.   My experience in the initiative was deeply shaped by the success of learning and applying these techniques and ways of thinking across our initiative and among a variety of professional and community member groups.   These tools and frames helped us surpass expectations for ourselves and our grantees – and to grow and thrive the program despite unprecedented environmental turbulence and disruptions.

Fast forward:  After journeying through that amazing experience, I spent a few years as a “regular” faculty member, as well as practicing artist and then, honored to become dean of my School of Social Work at Portland State University   During that time, I engaged in a multi-year strategic planning effort at both the university, as well as school-specific level.  I helped to generate (along with a WONDERFUL team of partners) our school’s first EVER strategic plan.   In many respects…planning is my jam and I thoroughly enjoyed and celebrated the work as it happened, as well as the work we’ve been able to accomplish since creating the plan (equity, systems change/reorganization, quality of life, teaching excellence, research excellence and more).    As often as possible, I wove principles of futures thinking into our efforts – and encouraged a wider lens than the traditional “short-termism” that is so pervasive in many organizational settings right now.   This past year, I have been fortunate to get more deeply reconnected with “futures” practice colleagues, scholarship, activism and work.    I have decided that there has been no place I’ve felt more impactful or connected to the things I care about than when I’m working in this space – so this June – I’ll be leaving my deanship and returning to our faculty at the SSW at PSU, and taking my first ever sabbatical to spend a full year diving in deep to learn, sort, organize and connect my social work practice to futures practice – and to vector this learning as far and wide as I can throughout my social work practice and education communities.

The Point:   The future is coming.    Those who study what is coming note the likelihood of profound disruptions, unsettling escalation in global and regional inequity, as well as unprecedented opportunities as well as other features.     In social work, we need and deserve the BEST tools and frameworks we can access to do our work that somehow manage to integrate these dynamics.    While we have always innovated, futures practice might suggest that no matter how brave and creative we may be right now…we have blind spots and can get trapped in our own categorical thinking/silos (like, many would suggest, can happen with any of “the professions”). Futures thinking can jump start new possibilities with new kinds of questions, connections, and dialogues.    I suggest, we, as social workers, need some futurists among us…who can offer sector and information scans, reviews of relevant literature/books/websites and organizations, as well as spaces to make futures dialogues possible and productive…all integrating a social work perspective.

This Blog:  This blog is a space to chart my journey, discoveries, questions, possibilities, and projects related a variety of futures thinking and related resources – and then to vector related ideas across the social work practice ecosystem for some generative lift!   In my next post, I’ll answer the three questions I listed above!