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
It was my pleasure to share my futures work with colleagues who work in the addictions field from across our region this past week. As promised, I’m sharing my slides! Please access them here! Note that the page about technology and the future of mental health care from the National Institute of Mental Health I mentioned can be accessed here. Also of interest on my blog are additional links to work I’ve done in related topics here, here and here.
Please follow along and join the coversation – you can do so here and/or find me on Twitter @lauranissen. It was great spending the morning with you this week!!
After a brief hiatus involving changing jobs (hello sabbatical!) and changing houses after 20 years (hello new house!), I’m back to share some futures items I thought were noteworthy from the past month – regarding topics I find important in my focus on the future of social welfare, higher education, the arts and more!
Amazon has announced that it is getting into the training business with some serious dollars invested in this quest. This is a short piece that lays out what is involved and the scope of their aspiration. While there are many corporate partnerships with higher education successfully operating, some express concern that this bypassing of universities altogether could be an emerging trend. What is the “purpose” of higher education beyond preparing folks to participate in the workforce? What is the difference between education and training? What is a future where folks are continuously trained but not educated? What happens to the idea of academic freedom, open inquiry, challenging multiple points of view or politically unpopular perspectives in such a scenario? These are some of the questions that such movement inspires.
Responding to challenges from its members, Pinterest (and numerous prestigious partners) recently launched a new service through its webpage to help users find resources to manage stress and anxiety. Interesting spin on “go where the people are” kind of approach rather than starting freestanding apps or services. Worth a look.
Quite interesting to read the UK’s recently released guidelines for “Data Protection Regulation” and imagine what it would look like if all countries operated openly, transparently with these such guidelines. Many countries are wrestling with this issue.
Some futurists got together and put a very visually satisfying “periodic table of mind-blowing tech” together. It is quite a fun rabbit hole of a site with endless opportunities to explore the tech that is coming!
Beautiful story about “planting trees as resistance and empowerment.” This article is empowering, energizing and hopeful. How much difference can individual people working together make to tackle climate change? This article will inspire you!!
Here’s a new article (and report) about “bias” in artificial intelligence is really about human bias “baked into” algorithms and processes. This report further underscores the need for creators and coders of the future need to be grounded in some of the same lenses, skills and ethics that social work is built on. Equity principles and skills matter – in artificial intelligence spaces and everywhere else.
These stories make me wonder how long it will be before adoption and/or medical social workers will find themselves in situations that include some of these dynamics – and if we will be ready when that happens? Where will we stand? How will we advise? How will we draw the line between ethical and unethical practice in the midst of such rapid evolution in this technology?
Want to Go to the International Space Station on Vacation?
Words are fun aren’t they? You may recall that as I gather up some vocabulary that is new to me in my “futures” journeys…I put together a periodic post about them. (You can see the other posts along these lines here.) New ways of thinking involve new terms that stretch our sense of what is possible and introduces us to new ways to be in the world, take action, resist and function in all that is evolving. Here’s a new batch I’ve been gathering as I study!
Techno-optimist – In spite of the many kinds of bad news about the state of the world and the risks of losing ourselves to technological troubles – there are those among us, who generally feel pretty positive about the likelihood of technology to do more good than harm. They do have some guidelines though! And guess what, some folks want you to know this isn’t really a good idea. Their perspectives are here.
But of course no real exploration of futures topics most impacting the practice of social work in the years to come would be complete without a thorough look into current literature related to climate change.
Climate change as it relates to mental health and environmental justice are essential aspects of futures- and foresight-oriented social work practice. Social workers and social work education has long been committed to including this topic in our “canon” of focal areas, and issues of climate well-being are increasingly topics faced, discussed and included in social work practice and research. This effort has recently culminated in inclusion of climate change-anchored research and practice in the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative. And yet, though we’d all agree this is an urgent and relevant issue…have we gone far enough to assure that climate change competencies become part of how we think, research, collaborate and practice? What might be involved in going even further to assure that social work maximizes our impact in this space?
One of my most central reference points in this area, has been the work of Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice.” I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few times. If you are not familiar with his work, I highly recommend a deep dive. You can start here. This link will take you to a long-form lecture that Dr. Bullard did recently.
These are sobering areas of study – yet in each area there is reason to hope. Against the odds, there are scholars, activists and communities who actively seek to redirect the climate change trajectory from one of destruction, to one of revitalization and healing using a wide variety of strategies and tactics. As is said frequently within the futures practice world – the future is open, not fixed – and what we do now still very much matters. No where is this more true than related to the issue of climate change.
Whether it’s helping to de-code and assist people in naming and surviving in the face of climate change, or putting new levels of energy to bear in reversing and/or stopping climate change, this is another particularly urgent area of deep learning and relevance for social workers who have an eye towards the future!
As is my practice, I organized recent literature on this topic. For those that might wish to join me on a quick tour of “what’s new” in these combined area of practice (climate change as it relates to mental health – and – environmental justice) – you can link to the annotated bibliography and sector scan here. It is always in development. My goal is to boost the degree to which social workers can benefit from the best emerging information available. Let’s put it to good use and protect each other and our planet!
New technology for social justice field scan published in 2018 called “More than code” by a coalition of organizations concerned with intersections of tech, equity and ethics. Excellent resource – good reading and important set of ideas and resources for us in social work.
Artificial intelligence, work and the future of inequality is a piece that dives deeply into the intersection of these three issues. Imagining a world in which the meaning, availability and compensation for work is changing so dramatically should be something we are tracking in social work – potentially impacting many areas of our practice.
Ran across the work of Lorraine Chuen while scanning for data justice information. Her presentation indicates she’s a tech designer, researcher and writer in this space. She has some excellent information on the interplay of design thinking and tech justice. My favorite part of her presentation are some “design justice principles” which I have sensed are truly a missing piece in the design thinking frameworks I’ve seen increasingly being utilized in social work spaces. These include:
We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.
We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.
We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.
We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.
We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.
We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.
We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.
We work towards sustainable, community-led and controlled outcomes.
We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and each other.
Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.
This is a fun and creative piece that is not wholly against tech – but does challenge the reader to be discriminating about what is happening when we engage – and continue to develop evolving and deepening “digital literacies for our own well being. I loved the format – most engaging. This is relevant not only to us – but challenges us to think about the role we might play in digital literacy/empowerment/agency with vulnerable people that we work with.
The future of health care
This piece is an excellent and thought provoking piece about trends related to the future of health care. As social workers – these are exciting frames to imagine what is possible in terms of delivering new tech and medical breakthroughs to reduce human suffering, and extend both the length and quality of human life. That said, I found myself wondering throughout the article (as often happens) how these advances will be distributed, who will have access to them and who will not, how privilege will play out? It doesn’t diminish the richness of the evolution of this science, but it does challenge us to keep an equal eye on ground level public health and improving conditions for those least likely to access high end breakthroughs.
The next big technology revolution (well one of them…)
I’m considering starting a regular feature on these blog entries called “OK this will just blow your mind.” This is a resource that is in that category. A former MIT president, Dr. Susan Hockfield (a neurobiologist) has a new book just out called “The Age of Living Machines.” She suggests that the next big revolution will be (and is) the convergence of machines and biological elements. Essentially technology built out biological parts. See what I mean – mind blowing! Many interesting applications that can improve the quality of human life – and probably put us at risk too. Hello ethics progress – I hope you’re coming along on this journey. Here’s an overview of her work and insight into her book. Interesting tidbit woven into this piece – the world’s energy needs are expected to double by the year 2050.
Futures Thinking Frameworks
Here’s an article that invites the reader to consider a framework called “critical uncertainties” to anticipate impacts of artificial intelligence in the future. The author describes this as a framework that “…allows us to consider a few plausible futures and become more resilient to the challenges they hold. It reduces the risk of blind spots and unwelcome surprises. It can also help us identify ways in which we can proactively shaping the future.” (Woeffray, 2019). I’m always interested in exploring new ways to think about things – and find that this ongoing scanning and consideration of ideas like this can be one of the most valuable parts of getting social work as a profession to simply “try out” some methods and frames that might stretch our sensibilities.
Earlier in this blog, I noted the need for social work and social work educators to understand the past, present and future of higher education. My previous work included in this space was an indepth review of resources associated with the concept of neo-liberalism in higher education.
As a profession, new social workers and social work knowledge is produced in the academy. Our ethics and values dictate that this knowledge grows out of real world dynamics and partnerships in real communities. Social work knowledge has found its primary home in university and college spaces – and our “home” is undergoing some powerful evolution. Some of it is important and good – some of it is deeply challenging and concerning.
That said, there is a whole sector of futures practice that is focused on the future of higher education. Many challenge that it is in a particularly dynamic state of change, increasingly precarious, and at risk of growing instability as fiscal, legal, and labor issues continue to become more complex. Trend analysts describe plentiful signals regarding shifts in play and on the horizon – and most of these predict growing closures and/or mergers of colleges and universities. Change, they say, is coming.
I’ve been building this resource list for some time as I navigate my own futures journey. I have a particular affinity for emerging knowledge on the future of public higher education, and I’m not alone. If you haven’t become aware of it, there will be a national gathering this fall to explore the future of public higher education on the east coast.
THIS resource list is not specific to the public sector – it is a gathering of a broad array of items focused on both public and private higher education issues.
As with my other resource lists, this bibliography is ever in a state of evolution and revision. As is our strength as social workers – my aim is to prepare social work educator leaders to understand the deeply contextual nature of our work as generators, leaders and protectors of social work knowledge, emerging research and education.
If our goal is to thrive in the social work education practice environment of the future – we will need unprecidented levels of creativity, agility, collective intelligence and FORESIGHTFULNESS. We should resist the urge (and sometimes incentives) to compete, but rather seek pathways to elevate and collaborate for a greater good in the future of our knowledge and our professional workforce, even as we continue to innovate.
A special note, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I’d like to offer a reminder that this resource list is not, and is not intended to be, and indepth review of the literature. Rather, this is a horizon-based sector scan focused on relatively recent resources in the academic, practice, trade press, and popular press on the future of higher education. There are a couple of these that I find very valuable and may “agree” with in terms of my predispositions – others less so. The greater value is in scanning what is here and thinking through what these mentions reveal as a whole about what might be happening, what might be coming. Futures practice involves looking for and finding patterns that imply a trajectory we may yet have the power to influence.