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.

The Future of the Social Determinants of Health – An Eclectic and Transdisciplinary Scan of the Academic Literature – January 24, 2020

According to the World Health Organization, the social determinants of health are “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries.”

In preparation for deeper work in the new national Social Work Education Health Futures Lab – this preliminary review of the literature is shared. Our effort will seek to invite social work scholars to contribute to new ways of imaging and contributing to health equity and sharing them in the form of research, curriculum and scholarship. How will social work and social work education advance health equity in the future? That question will be our guiding star.

The goal of the linked review was to identify a beginning group of resources that mentioned social determinants of health along with concepts of the future, climate change, technology (including artificial intelligence, social media and other dimensions) along with an assortment of other concepts deemed related to futures or foresight.

Social work has made many contributions to health equity in the United States, and a few of them are included here. Our next challenge is to prepare for what comes next and how to navigate, shape and co-create a future in which health is respected as a human right and to which systems and supports to reinforce health for all is a reality. Social work education will do this by preparing a workforce that is ready and able to deliver this promise. This resource list will help to spark some ideas – but should not in any way limit our imaginations.

By its very nature, this review is eclectic, transdisciplinary and emergent. Pathways forward to building a more equitable health future will rely on our collective intelligence, imagination and agility – and will require us to look for new kinds of information and put it together in new ways. The academic literature will always be an is an imperfect and incomplete knowledge base – but it serves to give us a reference point and a place to find what our fellow social scientists have explored.

Updates and revisions will be forthcoming. I invite suggestions – so if you have ideas for good resources you think should be included, they are welcome.

A New Chapter – a National Social Work Education Health Futures Lab!!

Thrilled to announce!!! More will be posted (and likely a website specific to this effort yet to come – but for now – please watch this space for updates!! Many thanks to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for this opportunity!!

January 7, 2020.   

Press release:   Portland State University becomes new home to National Social Work Education Health Futures Lab funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Portland State University School of Social Work received a 2-year, $400,000 award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create a national Social Work Education Health Futures Lab. The lab will explore how trends in technology, climate change, geopolitical shifts and the future of work are set to impact health, social determinants of health and related social justice, equity and social work practice. 

“This project has the opportunity to create a new and generative space for social work health scholars, researchers and educators nationally to prepare our profession for a rapidly changing and developing future in which new opportunities and risks co-exist to impact human flourishing,” said Principal Investigator Dr. Laura Nissen, Professor and former Dean of the School of Social Work, who is also a PSU Presidential Futures Fellow, and a Research Fellow with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA. “This project can create a new network, building on the success of other related national innovation networks such as the Grand Challenges for Social Work, to co-create the future thoughtfully, equitably, and creatively.”  

This project builds on ongoing work Nissen has been engaged in, exploring and inviting social workers nationally to consider futures and “foresight” methods in their practice.

With the support and endorsement of the Council on Social Work Education, the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools Work Programs and a variety of social work education leaders, this project will expand social work knowledge by training social work education leaders as futurists, organizing learning opportunities and crafting new national education standards to better prepare the field to address the opportunities and risks associated with emergent trends.

This national learning collaborative will be comprised of nominated social work education leaders across the United States who are doing cutting edge research scholarship and teaching related to issues of the future including:

  • The relationship of social media and technology to human health and well-being 
  • Use of artificial intelligence in relation to health (including the exploration of algorithmic racism as well as vital problem-solving opportunities)
  • Geopolitical issues shifting the nature of place and identity
  • Power and control of individual well-being, especially with regard to vulnerable people
  • The impact of climate change and climate justice on human health
  • The future of work for marginalized populations
  • The access to and use of technology as a tool of power and set of health rights

“Portland State University has a long tradition of asking innovative questions and providing the leadership to partner with communities to answer them. We are excited to continue this tradition with this project — and celebrate the chance to welcome leaders from around the country to learn with us and cultivate readiness to build a more equitable and healthy world ahead,” said Interim President Dr. Stephen Percy.  

Selected “fellows” will receive specially developed foresight training and coaching in futures and foresight frameworks in partnership with the Institute for the Future and will develop new platforms to elevate and amplify collective communications regarding the importance of social work educators to learn to prepare to respond thoughtfully to emergent and future challenges to a wide range of human rights and social determinants of health issues.

“Our Portland State University is proud to provide a convening space for these vitally important dialogues for our profession nationally. How will emerging trends in the world regarding human health and well being surprise, challenge and stretch us as a profession? How will our unique strength as a profession contribute to the future of well-being and health in vulnerable communities around the world?  This effort will give us rare protected space and the opportunity to engage in exploration of the answers to that and many other related questions,” said PSU School of Social Work Dean Jose E. Coll.

The project will also shine a light on the ways the “future of work” might impact social workers themselves who work with social determinants of health issues, including the ways that roles, tools and methods may expand and become even more interdisciplinary and more technological in the coming years. These explorations may lead to a host of new ideas about how to best teach and prepare the next generation for effective leadership and practice in a changing world. 

At Institute for the Future, Lyn Jeffery, Distinguished Fellow and Director of IFTF Foresight Essentials, said, “Social workers are building the future, one interaction at a time, through their work at the intersections of health, identity, technology, environment, and equity. IFTF is pleased to be partnering with Dr. Nissen and PSU to help shape new perspectives in social work futures education. We look forward to collaborating with the new lab as it builds the necessary tools and perspectives to overcome the limitations of ‘short-termism,’ fostering a deep bench of foresight leaders within the social work field.”

Please contact Dr. Laura Nissen for additional information at