What has been happening in the Social Work Health Futures Lab?


This month, we’ll start a new phase of the Social Work Health Futures Lab.  Though we began our work together about 6 months ago, we’ve been working together as community “offline”  a bit as we have been engaged in foresight training, getting to know each other, and establishing the foundation of our efforts.     Now, we’re ready to start sharing what we’ve been up to and what we’ve been thinking and learning.  And we look forward to getting you involved in sharing ideas and “future building” along with us.  

Why futures thinking for social work and the future of health?  New frames on the way we think about health and it’s social/political determinants.  

Futures thinking and foresight practice is an emerging transdisciplinary social science that affords a disciplined, yet expansive architecture for the future.     Our initiative was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to explore the question:  What happens when social workers interested in the future of health (and health justice, social determinants of health, health equity, etc.) have protected space and expert support to explore futures thinking and foresight practice?   This has been an expansive exploration – designed to help us stretch beyond our typical and traditional disciplinary boundaries as social workers, while committing fully to our values and ethics.    Gradually, we are increasingly ready to share what we’re doing and discovering – and invite you to join in the conversation.   

Though there are many branches of futures thinking in the foresight family tree, we lean most into “critical futures studies,” which focuses not only on how to link imagination and rational thought to ideas of the future, but to do so with a constant power analysis and sensibility related to the underlying ideologies, economies and political dimensions of who “gets to decide” what the future is.  We bring anti-racist, anti-colonial and intersectional lenses to our work – and bring a strong affinity for moral and liberatory imagination.    We have viewed the future of health – as an expansive, diverse site of inquiry and possibility – and we’re most inspired by the thinkers, activists and change agents working to build a flourishing and community-centered system of health (expansively defined) and health justice in our shared world.  

Our journey to find common philosophical and ideological ground as we’ve navigated, explored, sampled and debated different issues around and directly related to foresight has not always been easy or automatic.    Within our own group, we had ideological diversity across the continuum of progressive to radical perspectives – and finding our collective voice has been complex but extremely meaningful. We’ll offer a separate blog post about this in the coming months.  

What we’ve been up to these past six months

Because of Covid-19 restrictions, we have not been able to meet in person as was initially envisioned.   But we have been determined to “launch” our work in creative ways despite this challenge.   We had a meaningful 2-day initial meeting on zoom in February of 2021. Then, we’ve met regularly about every 2 weeks since then.  Each of our meetings has included working sessions on projects or particular issues we’ve been exploring, visits with a guest speaker foresight expert/practitioner and/or work dedicated to building a strong communications, theoretical and ideological foundation for our work together as a community.  

Of course our work has been influenced by the “syndemic” intersections of Covid-19 and police violence and the deaths of George Floyd and so many others.    We share a desire to support movements that seek new futures and community systems that support peace and well-being, not violence and oppression.

Exploring the landscape – experimenting with futures thinking/practice.

We have been thrilled to host a number of truly remarkable foresight practitioners, and other change agents that are looking to the future in creative ways.  With these thinkers, we’ve had the chance to explore new perspectives and ways of thinking about the future, and seeing many different ways of practicing foresight out in the world.  These include:

(Other upcoming speakers will include continuing focus on the changing role of technology in the modern world, community-engaged and participatory futures, climate change and justice, the future of families, the future of social welfare, social movements and more.)

Cultivating futures praxis – the future and power analysis

We’ve spent a lot of time exploring and considering the underlying ideologies of futures thinking – strongly underscoring that not all futures thinking/foresight practice is alike.   We’ve done some specific mapping of foresight thinking to identify those aspects that comport most closely with the progressive social change agenda that our group considers essential and non-negotiable.   We’ve explored how (some channels of) futures thinking has been used for profit, accumulation of power, exploitation of the earth and of community – and places where it too strongly centers white supremacy.   And we’ve specifically sought out voices and actors that center voices and perspectives that challenge this history, and provide opportunities to imagine and think about futures that lean into progressive possibilities.    This process has led us to an emerging and durable “futures praxis” that blends liberatory perspectives with foresight – and we are still very much engaged in constructing our own models and frameworks that incorporate these ideas.

Playing and learning

Because classic foresight practice is not a matter of merely studying or discussing, it is also about discovering, unleashing and creating – we’ve also spent some time in playful engagement. This might be playing games, doing foresight exercises, or sharing our creations and ideas together.   This has involved identifying and challenging our assumptions, exploring topics that are unusual in the social work literature/discourse, and learning together as an emerging community about the ways that the future of health is a socially constructed phenomenon. 

Building community

None of the Social Work Health Futures Lab members knew each other before their participation in the collective, so this past six months has included a lot of (distance-based) relationship building. 

What we’ll be sharing in this blog

  • About ourselves, our work and our ideas – individual or teams of Social Work Health Futures Fellows will be writing various posts to share our thinking, explorations and ideas.
  • User friendly and easy ways to start exploring futures thinking/foresight practice for social work and the social determinants of health.
  • Links to interesting things we’re finding and thinking about related to the future of health and health-related social work.


Laura Nissen, Ph.D., Professor, School of Social Work, Portland State University

Social Work Health Futures Lab Director and PI

Portland, OR, USA