Exploring how social workers can increase their impact through futures frameworks – All content developed by Laura Burney Nissen, Ph.D., LMSW, CADCIII, Portland State University School of Social Work, Portland, Oregon, USA, Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @lauranissen
This is the first in a series of multiple upcoming articles in process regarding social work and foresight/futures practice. Wish me luck in the review process!!
Social Work, the Future and Technology: A Foresight Lens and a Call to Action for the Profession
Laura Burney Nissen
As we head into the year 2020, a set of questions looms large over the social work profession. Are there social problems of the future that are “around the corner” from what we can see right now that may change the way we think about power, social problems, possible solutions and opportunities? What new opportunities might appear, and would we as a profession, be able to spot and leverage them to advance the well-being of vulnerable people with whom we work and ally? This is a paper that explores what being more future facing might look like as social workers and educators, using technology as a sample focus area and introducing foresight practice frameworks and methods that are available to assist us. Foresight practice is a collection of ideas and methods that support individuals and groups to be more effective (and foresightful) in navigating increasingly turbulent economic, political, natural and social ecosystems. It’s goals are to a) to develop collective intelligence, agility and imagination b) do so in the service of increasing intentional evolution of thought and action, c) refine the ability to anticipate with greater proficiency and finally d) increase the probability of co-creating desired futures in keeping with social work values including but limited to antiracism, human rights and social justice. The paper ends with a call to action for social work to amplify and evolve its strengths to join the interdisciplinary community of those using forecasting methods to build a better future.
This particular article is about the future of “not working” – vis a vis the “compelling case for working a lot less.” It is hard to imagine this future, but this piece is part of a continuing (and seemingly growing international conversation) about how working a little less would be a lot better for our health, relationship and community.
Here’s an interesting article posing the question: Do children think your smart speaker is just another family member? Thoughtful exploration about how the prevalence of technologies in our childrens’ lives is truly changing their experience of childhood in some unexpected ways and with impacts we can’t quite know yet. Without awfulizing, it probably is important to consider.
Here’s a pretty creative and useful (from a futures practice) article asking the question “what if we get things right? Visions for the year 2030.” I’m excited to use this piece in practice as I think it stretches our creative thinking muscles towards some positive futures. The dystopian futures are a more common feature of our media/entertainment world. I think good positive future ideas are rarer to find and harder to come by. But they lay the groundwork to educate, to stimulate aspiration, to rekindle hope and determination. This is a valuable piece to read for something a little different – and dare I say it – upbeat? Along those lines, here’s a review of a new book by author Joe Tankersley (“Not all futurists are dystopian”) which also lays out a challenge to use our imaginations to build a better future on purpose. I got the book based on this article, but haven’t read it yet!
Also, you may recall that I’m on sabbatical this year. I thought I’d put my sabbatical reading list together to show you the books I’ve accumulated (like a squirrel with a stash of nuts…? Well maybe…) to settle into a cozy winter of some deep review and study. Check it out here.
I’m reading (a lot!) on my sabbatical. A few folks have asked me to put a list together so I did! It’s mostly general futures books (you can find other more extensive academic articles readings elsewhere on this blog). Here you go. Have fun and don’t forget to share ideas of books I may have missed. Note: I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get all of these read on my sabbatical. I have other things I’m doing…but it was a good exercise to get them all together and reprioritize which feel most important for me to read next. Isn’t a GREAT problem to have too many good books to read? I feel lucky.
There has been a lot of focus and dialogue in the last few years about the “future of work,” which is an important and fascinating area of inquiry. Less has been written about what all of this means about the future of organizations as we know them.
That said, there is valuable information about – I’ve tried to gather up a sample to explore. I believe that all of this will be part of the future of work transition – and impact folks in every sector of public and private organizational life.
John Hagel on the future of work (2019) – this speaker does a masterful job of intersecting the future of work with the work organizations need to do to get ready.
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:
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
Use scenario and speculative design methods to build out possible futures
Increase collective intelligence, agility and imagination across diverse community sectors and identities
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
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.