New School of Social Work Futures Lab seeks to address issues such as climate change, artificial intelligence and loneliness in the digital age

Nation’s first futures lab at PSU

Portland State announced on Jan. 7 that the School of Social Work will be home to the nation’s first Social Work Health Education futures lab—a way for social work educators to reflect on how best to address problems of the future.

According to the press release by PSU: “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.”

“The idea is that many professions—medicine, doctors, nurses, journalists, lawyers—are all going through discipline-specific active reflecting time to say ‘How do we stay relevant in the future?’” said Dr. Laura Nissen, former dean of the School of Social Work and principal investigator. “Social work needs to do that too. We have done a little bit of it as a discipline, but not a lot.”

The Futurist

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a futurist as “one who studies and predicts the future especially on the basis of current trends.” 

The social work futures lab will be used to train social work educators nationwide to become futurists. 

However, Nissen believes it isn’t “predicting” the future in any way. “Futures thinking and foresight practice is a new emerging discipline that is like strategic thinking and strategic planning but a modern way of looking at that using new tools, new frameworks and new skills,” Nissen said. 

This new project builds on what Nissen has been actively working on since 2018: futurist thinking in the field of social work.

“Social workers are constantly working on building a better world,” Nissen said. “Things are changing so fast in the world right now that in order to be the best we can be, it is probably time for an upgrade across our discipline to sharpen our skills in this area.”

Nissen started a blog on Nov. 13, 2018 in which she states: “Social workers, among other things, are planners—and it would seem logical that social work might be a great fit for futures thinking.”

“The future is presenting new ways for inequity and loss of power in communities to occur,” Nissan said. “The people who social work focuses on and partners with to solve community problems, they are the most likely to be harmed by a lot of these futures trends, and yet we’re not talking about it enough.”  

The Futures Lab

According to the PSU website, the lab hopes to answer questions such as how climate change impacts mental health, how social media impacts loneliness and belonging and how to ensure artificial intelligence isn’t inadvertently racist in the deployment of health resources. 

“This lab is going to be a place where social work scholars from around the country can really talk about [those issues] and explore that together and make some recommendations to the profession about what things we might do to be even more ready for the future,” Nissen said. 

The lab will begin by training 25–30 selected fellows as social work educator futurists. According to the press release, they will receive “training and coaching in futures and foresight frameworks in partnership with the Institute for the Future.”

The futures lab will be funded by a two-year, $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. According to their website, the RWJF is “the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health” and was established in 1972 from shares of Johnson & Johnson.

Nissen was the National Program Director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Reclaiming Futures initiative for 11 years where she was able to bring futurists into the initiative for help.

“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,” stated Lyn Jeffery, director of the Institute for the Future’s foresight training programs in the press release.

According to the press release, the social work futures lab will also look at “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.”

“If we can create a knowledge base among social work educators that is relevant and owned by social work educators and then promote that,” Nissen said. “That [knowledge] is really one of the best access points for getting our profession future-ready.”

Interim President Steven Percy stated in the press release: “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.”

PSU Futures Collaboratory

The National Social Work Health Education futures lab is actually the second futurist based initiative at PSU.

The PSU Futures Collaboratory started at the beginning of the fall 2019 quarter. The Collaboratory, also run by Nissen, is a PSU presidential initiative bringing together approximately 30 faculty, staff and students across different disciplines to learn more about futures practice. 

Through monthly meetings, members of the Collaboratory interact with futurists from around the country and work on projects focusing on how to “get PSU more ready for the future.” At the end of the academic year, they hope to present President Percy with recommendations on how PSU can be more forward facing. 

“PSU’s effort is a school-wide interdisciplinary effort,” Nissen said. “[While] the social work futures lab is a national discipline-specific effort.” 

According to Nissen: “They are both about the future and they are both about learning future skills and applying them in interesting ways. One is discipline specific. One is cross-disciplinary.” 

For Nissen, the lab is expected to exponentially expand the “great work that PSU does” allowing scholars to intersect with PSU in new ways.

“Portland State is proud to provide a convening space for these vitally important dialogues for our profession nationally,” stated Dr. Jose Coll, dean of School of Social Work.

“This effort will give us rare protected space and the opportunity to engage in exploration of the answers to [questions].”

“[Reclaiming Futures] is actually still going on in the regional research institute,” Nissen said. “So just that in itself is really prestigious and important. They have a lot of faith in us.”

As this lab will be the first of its type in the nation, Nissen said, “It is a little bit experimental. What it is going to do, I believe, is amplify the really important themes that social work works on. Things like equity, racism and sexism. They are so important that we need to avail ourselves of every kind of tool that we can to address them in our practice.”