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A Curious Look into the Futures

A photo of Dr. Jaehee Yi - a middle aged Asian woman wearing glass with indoor architectural details in the backgroundIn contemporary society, futurism is a concept most often associated with the business world.  It involves forecasting trends by analyzing past and present behaviors and phenomena and looking to society for contemporary signals of change.  In business, the purpose is to predict future trends in order to maximize profit.  In social work, the idea is the same—to predict and create future trends—but for very different reasons: to further social transformation and achieve social justice.

Futurism is also the basis of the Social Work Health Futures Lab, an innovative, nationwide pilot program—sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and housed at Portland State University’s School of Social Work—in which College of Social Work Associate Professor Jaehee Yi is one of 27 fellows selected from across the nation.  The lab is complex.  Initially the group was meant to gather in Portland several times during the 18-month fellowship for intensive multiday workshops, but like much else in the last year and a half, participation moved to an online format.  Instead, every two weeks—without breaks for summer or school semesters—the group meets for half a day to have guest lectures, group discussions, playing games, and more.  Additionally, participants complete a skill-based online course on how to understand and create futures, and collectively, the group will have final projects of some kind (yet to be determined). 

The discussions are provocative and meant to encourage new ways of thinking.  One discussion began with, “What if we abolished the profession of social work?”  Another with, “How could social work be different if we moved from a perspective of ‘Do No Harm’ to ‘Love People’?”  For Dr. Yi, this is part of what’s best about the program.  “I feel very free to discuss anything.”

Underscoring the entire program is a sense of liberation.  “Our focus is to be as radical as possible,” said Dr. Yi.  “There is no judgement about saying the wrong thing, or making a certain person angry with a suggestion.  It’s liberating.  The purpose of the program is to be very unrestrained so that we’re able to predict and forecast the future.”  Forecasting, Dr. Yi explained, is a tangible skill that can be taught.  There are scientific steps of how to look around and capture signals of change— shifts in social discourse, what people are talking about, how behaviors are changing, etc.—and based on those signals, people can forecast multiple scenarios of potential futures.  “It’s not necessarily about the accuracy of this prediction—the futures lab is not a bunch of people who know the future or try to learn how to read the crystal ball.  Thinking and talking about futures sometimes give us a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. Even if it’s a worst case scenario, judgement or complaint doesn’t help.  If the forecasting is there, we have to prepare for or change the futures.” 

Dr. Yi continued, “If we fellows don’t have a sense of liberation, we’re going to be restricted by the present.”  Dr. Yi says she thinks of creative thinking as exercising a muscle.  “I think all of us have that potential, but for many of us, it has been suppressed.  Sometimes we play silly games together in the lab.  We all have been educated in a system that expects correct answers, so we started by kind of looking around to see if what we said was right and how others were responding to what was said.  Lots of activities we do are to relieve us from this thinking.  Laura Nissen, the founder of the Social Work Health Futures Lab, calls them muscle exercises for wild thinking.  We get points for being ridiculous, silly, and wild for this game.  I think it’s very helpful.  I grew up in a culture where everything is multiple choice, where I choose from one of the options listed by other people, supposedly experts. Being confident of ourselves, being creative without fear, and standing up against authority and oppression take conscious effort.  This fellowship asks me to be boldly confident, creative, and assertive.” 

The future of the program is still undecided because the fellows are still creating one, but Dr. Yi hopes it’s a movement that gains momentum in the social work profession.  “I hope everyone has a chance to learn about these concepts around futurism and to exercise their muscle of creativity.  If we’re able to creatively think about the future of social work together, I think we can make a better future.”

Last Updated: 9/1/21