Thank you Social Work Futures Readers!

Wow – here’s a snapshot of who has been reading this blog since its inception (left side, 2018, right side, 2019). It is both fun and gratifying to see the incredible reach technology allows us to share ideas at this time in history. Thank you for your support, readership and input as we navigate a futures lens in social work thinking and practice! Here’s to much more to come!!! Gratitude.

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!