News

PSU to create national social work education futures lab
Author: Katy Swordfisk
Posted: January 8, 2020

Portland State University will be the home of the nation’s first futures center focused on social work. The center, known as the National Social Work Education Health Futures Lab, is funded with a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Laura Nissen, principal investigator and former dean of the School of Social Work, said the center will train social work educators as futurists.

“We are going to be exploring areas where social work educators are already doing research on issues related to the future such as technology use and impact, climate change and related topics,” Nissen said. “Then we are going to be developing future-facing curriculum guidelines for the social work profession.” 

Some of this futures work is already underway at PSU thanks to the PSU Futures Collaboratory, which is a campus-wide group of professors, students and staff who are exploring futures issues with the intent to help PSU be more future-facing. 

PSU also has a Reclaiming Futures center funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which was started in 2001 as one of 10 sites nationwide tasked with improving juvenile justice and substance abuse treatment services.

“Many times people think futures work is about predicting — it’s really not. It’s about studying trends, looking for signs that additional change is in play, using imagination and looking at all possible outcomes and planning for each scenario,” Nissen said. “Futures work is intentional, focused work to stretch perception and build capacity to both shape and respond to the future we want. The futures lab will create opportunities for social workers to come together and envision a world that they would like to be, while building the skills to help get there.”

To put it another way, Nissen describes futurism as carefully and creatively “applied science fiction.”

The futures lab will be exploring subjects including:

  • How will climate change will impact the future of mental health
  • How to ensure artificial intelligence isn’t inadvertently racist in deployment of health resources
  • How will social media impact loneliness and belonging 

“How will emerging trends in the world regarding human health and well-being surprise, challenge and stretch us as a profession? How will our unique strength as a profession contribute to the future of well-being and health in vulnerable communities around the world?” said PSU School of Social Work Dean Jose E. Coll. “This effort will give us rare protected space and the opportunity to engage in exploration of the answers to that and many other related questions.”  

The new center will feature social work education leaders across the U.S. who are already focused on cutting edge research and teaching related to, among many other subjects, the impact of climate change and climate justice on human health, the relationship of technology to well-being and the future of work for marginalized populations.

“The goal is to make our own professional framework and the institutions we work with at large more foresightful,” Nissen added. “These strategies have been used for along time by powerful people at the highest levels of business and government. The idea of doing this is intended to democratize these approaches so more people get involved and have some agency in the future as it unfolds.”