New article wrapped up and out for review! Social Work and Foresight!

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. 

A Futures Lens on Homelessness

As a social work scholar who is also a futurist, I’m interested in understanding how current trends will intersect to set the stage for current social problems and challenges.

Among the most alarming social problems of our time, is that of homelessness (or a preferred term “houselessness”).

Here’s a quick round up of some resources I found illuminating what thinkers, activists and concerned community members see ahead. This list is always under development.

International lens on the issue of homelessness – developed in Finland, this is a collection of essays (policies and practice) on the topic. Entitled Homelessness 2030: The Future of Homelessness. (2019)

The critical number that shows when housing breaks down (2019). Powerful mention in this piece that the UN predicts that by the year 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities. This is an overview of how to get ahead of this issue with an eye toward the future.

New report predicting surge in elderly homeless by the year 2030 (2019)

Why Americans are retiring into homelessness (2019)

Helsinki’s radical approach to end homelessness (2019)

Variety of reports on “resources” tab (and great website overall) discussing the UN’s stance on housing as a human right. (2019)

Four homelessness trends in 2018 and what they mean for the future (2019)

Other links:

National Alliance to End Homelessness

Here’s a link (from the site above) to statistical and graphic overviews including some trend info.

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

National Coalition for the Homeless

US Interagency Council on Homelessness

Laura's Sabbatical Reading List – Some Books!

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.

The Future of Organizations and Work

Image and Framework from NASA, 2018

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.

A design for workforce equity (in a changing world) (2019)

Institute for the Future’s Beyond Organizations map and information about the future of getting things done (2018)

The evolution of work: New realities facing today’s leaders (2018)

Responsive Organizations (manifesto for organizations of the future in unpredictable times)

The future of work is here – here’s how your organization needs to change (2018)

Four trends facing the future of organizations and organizational development (2017)

The organization of the future: Arriving now (2017)

The past and future of global organizations (2014)

For some basic “Future of Work” resources – see below. Also check out my review of the fine book “The Future of the Professions” here.

State of California’s Future of Work Commission – multiple real time resources here (these meetings are happening right now and lots of great resources are emerging).

World Economic Forum – extensive resources on the future of work here.

The future of work: A Vice news special report (1-hour complete documentary)(2019)

The future of work in America: People and places, today and tomorrow (2019)

What is the future of work, workforces and workplaces (2019)

The digital ready worker (2019)

How business can build a future of work that works for women (2019)

AI forces shaping work and learning in 2030 – Institute for the Future (2018)

Inequality and the future of work (2018)

Note: Additional information available here from a recent post on other resources on this topic!! Here’s another post from this past year on “jobs of the future” from the silly to the sublime!

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.