Thinking about the future can be daunting and challenging work, especially when the world feels like it’s upside-down (as it has for most of this year)—but it can also be incredibly powerful. Professional futurist Emily Empel helps people dream about the future for a living. She works to help others navigate a way forward that feels productive, inclusive, and a little bit uncomfortable.
Read on below to learn about Emily’s work, why it’s particularly critical at this moment in history, and how she shapes her perspectives on the future.
Tell us a bit about your work as a foresight practitioner. How can this work, which is typically done in the corporate world, be applied to personal situations?
I’m a professional futurist, which means I help people imagine how the world might look different in 5, 10, or 15 years. The hope is that if people and organizations understand how the world is changing, they will make better decisions today.
This work is equal parts practical and dreamy. Everything I do is about understanding how and why the future might change. It’s then about guiding or encouraging people to start moving through the world differently–to embody the future they most hope for.
Honestly, foresight is just the practice of opening up to possibilities. As humans, we imagine our lives playing out in a certain way. Then, for better or for worse, our plans typically are disrupted and, in those moments, we feel defeated.
Sometimes we lose hope. We move forward by finding the space within us to re-imagine. We begin to start dreaming and planning and expecting things all over again.
Often, the early parts of this cycle feel horrible, especially when you’re in the in-between of expecting something to happen and then realizing it’s probably not going to happen that way. Foresight helps this cycle feel less charged and more supportive. That means challenging our life expectations to make room for different directions.
Where do you find inspiration and “signals” that inform your perspectives on the future?
Short answer: everywhere! There are clues about how the world might change all around us. To find these signals, you really just need to wake up every day and open yourself to strange and wonderful ideas.
Foresight is a practice. It’s active. I’m the person who has five browsers open, each with 40 tabs full of random articles. Books and magazines stacked everywhere. I re-curate my social feeds every few months to dive more deeply into the areas I’m interested in. This practice is messy but it also lets you try out the future for yourself.
How does it feel to move through the world in a new way? How does it feel to not just read about, but also test out new ideas and ways of living?
Right now my team and I are researching our relationship with death. We’re focused on collective wellbeing, and shifting how we relate to death and discomfort is a big part of that.
Our initial research involves what we call scanning or signal gathering. We infuse our inner worlds with new ideas. Our hope is to land someplace unexpected. So we stumble down a lot of different research paths. We look for what’s missing or what people aren’t paying enough attention to today. We need to find these ideas before we can build a new vision for the future.
A typical week of signal gathering involves reading an insane amount. Right now, we’re trying to understand how people across the world are talking about, preparing for, and thinking about death. There’s so much richness in moving past the edges of our culture. Yesterday I was reading Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods about mushroom foraging and grief, and finished Subject to Death, an ethnography about Hyolmo Buddhist death and mourning practices in Nepal. Both were so different and so beautifully constructed. They helped me see death and grief outside of a North American context.
I also listen to or watch as many interesting podcasts, shows, and documentaries as I can. A few days ago, I streamed a panel called Sayin' It Louder: A Conversation about "A Good Death" in a Racist Society, which explored the topic of racial equity in deathcare. At the start of this, I wouldn’t have known the specifics of how the deathcare industry is racialized. But, the research we do is about seeing how all of the major shifts we are seeing in society—in this case around equity and transformative justice—permeate the nuance of our everyday life. The most important part of foresight is to not recreate systems that are causing harm.
Oh! And a part of my scanning practice that I’ve re-prioritized is experimenting and testing out ideas. Our work can sometimes be too intellectual, and the future needs to be felt and experienced to be reimagined. For this project I just did a funeral planning virtual workshop with two women called The Deathwives. I was able to experience how some of my values—like sustainable living—could play a role in my afterlife wishes. This is not what I expected to be doing when we started this project, but incredibly valuable.
I imagine this may sound overwhelming to someone reading this [laughs], but I think sharing the many ways we scan is meant to be more of an invitation. The future isn’t hidden in some science fiction book or Black Mirror episode—it’s about taking the small risk to watch a new show, pick up a book about a topic that may feel random or unfamiliar, or attend a workshop that feels out of your comfort zone. Those are the real places the future is hidden. Look for the future in places where others aren’t.
How do you envision the skills you have as a foresight practitioner being increasingly useful given the current state of the world?
I hope the skills of a futurist will be more valued, but I’m not always hopeful, even now. As humans we have a tendency to discount what we’re not ready to hear. The pandemic, and this whole year, is an example of that.
My first job as a futurist was working for a consulting firm on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) account. It was after Hurricane Katrina and the government wanted to use foresight to foster a culture of emergency preparedness, both for disasters like a hurricane and also for crises like a pandemic. I worked on one scenario called Treading Water. It was an imagined future where a global pandemic led to complete collapse. I kid you not. Everything we did during that project—and what the team did after—was to prevent this year from happening.
It’s really hard to look back on that time in my life. It brings up a lot, you know? Like what could we have done differently? Why wasn’t this work—our recommendations—taken more seriously?
I’m reminded of the Greek myth of Cassandra, the beautiful mortal Apollo granted the gift of prophecy to win her affections. He did this without her consent, of course. And, when she rejected his advances, he punished her. She would continue to see into the future with complete accuracy, but she was tortured by the fact that no one ever believed her.
I think about this myth a lot, especially right now. For humans, not believing is often easier than believing. Believing something we don’t want to be true or aren’t ready for takes up space in our already full lives. It’s easier to push things off into the distance than use our finite cognitive bandwidth to consider something painful or uncomfortable.
Opening to what could be ahead allows us to sit in discomfort and grief. In a world we can’t control, it gives us back our power by offering us the spaciousness to reflect and re-imagine. It’s an act of hope.
What does “wellness” mean to you and your practice and what shapes it? What might wellness look like post-COVID?
Great question. This is something I’m thinking a lot about right now. My team and I are working on a project focused on the future of collective wellbeing—because that’s where we imagine—and want—the future to move toward.
If we look at North America right now, we’re starting to see this breakdown of “wellness”—both the concept itself and the industry—as the dominant ideology. It represents a certain worldview, and I think people are realizing that we can’t actually be well without re-orientating our relationship to wellness.
The definition of wellness is the active pursuit of good health, and it’s very individually derived. It’s about me being the best self I can be to make the most out of my life and maximize my contribution to society. Ostensibly, it’s focused on self-betterment, but there’s a very limited scope to what betterment means. So, the pursuit of wellness is often at the expense of others or the natural world.
Wellbeing is more about the quality of feeling well. It’s less about meeting individual health metrics and more about nurturing a feeling within ourselves and to the people and world around us. Interestingly, the concept of wellbeing most often shows up in relationship to the collective.
We need all of us to be well.
Reaching a state of collective wellbeing will mean rethinking aspects of our everyday lives. One of the ideas that we’ve surfaced through this project is this feeling we are calling “wellness anxiety”. That there are so many things—so many boxes—we think we need to check to reach a state of wellness. The wellness industry makes us feel like there’s always more to be done. But, we can never be totally well, and our inability to control that feels really scary. The future means coming to terms with this reality. It’s going to mean changing our relationship to discomfort and death. Living in relation to the natural world again. Healing collective trauma. Re-prioritizing care and care work.
I say all of this as someone who’s been an active participant in the wellness industry. If there’s a book or class or crystal, I’ve probably tried it. This year has signalled a huge shift in my own practice. I’ve gone back to the basics, as I imagine many others have as well. I’ve been surprised at how meaningful these practices have been. The simplicity of enjoying a cup of tea after a meditation. Or taking a walk to see the seasons change. Or napping in the middle of the workday.
It’s also been about reflecting on what systems or structures I want to decouple myself from. Looking beyond myself to engage with the causes I care about. Growing my capacity to show up and make space for other people and our natural world. For example, one of my friends just started a community called Sister Seasons. It’s focused on reconnecting women to their hormonal cycles and the seasonal cycles of our planet. I’ve been doing something called “cycle syncing” for about four months and it’s been pretty transformative. I imagine that we are moving more toward this type of future. With radical ideas about what it means to move through this world differently in a way that helps heal us, our global community, and the planet.
How can we ensure our mental, physical, and spiritual wellness remains intact given all that’s happening right now?
Oof. This is a big question. I don’t think we can ensure anything right now, and that’s ok. This year and the pandemic invite us to build a new relationship to uncertainty, to discomfort, to our inner world and the world around us. We haven’t made space for those feelings before, both in our own lives, and especially culturally in the wellness space.
Wellness has been about being active and about taking action. This moment is asking us to be patient. To be still. To sit and wait for the call to serve.
It’s asking us to consider death, and the people around us. It’s asking us to grieve for whatever is happening in our own lives, for our neighbors, our global community, for the planet. It’s asked us to really think about why we are going through the process of becoming well, and who gets to be well in our world. How can we be part of the solution? The movement? This revolution?
There is a beautiful movement happening within the activist community. It’s been happening for a while but is gaining attention now. It’s coming from leaders like adrienne maree brown and her emphasis on pleasure activism. It’s coming from Tricia Hersey’s The Nap Ministry. These communities are our greatest teachers. They are inviting us to listen before we act. Then to rest. To listen again and rest again. We need to give ourselves the space to process and integrate before we can move toward creating our new world.
How do you infuse a feminine perspective into your foresight work?
I don’t know if I infuse a feminine perspective as much as I do a feminist one. Most of our views about the future have been and are informed by white men. That matters. It matters because the future that we see in popular culture—in the novels that we read, or shows that we watch, or CEOs and leaders we hear talk—that’s what informs our idea of what’s possible and what a “good” or “bad” future looks like. Those futures leave out a lot of people. Those futures replicate systems that are clearly broken and not working for most people.
When we apply a feminist perspective to the work of foresight—specifically one that’s intersectional—we take back power. We reimagine systems. We start to create visions of the future that take into account the hopes of a much broader group of people.
This is the harder work to do.
It takes a deep listening and relentless dreaming to envision a future that is plausible but also transformative.
There are people who are doing this incredibly well. This is the work of adrienne maree brown and Margaret Atwood. They’re using the future as a tool for critical analysis, as one that helps us reshape our worldviews. We actually interviewed adrienne maree brown for a project in 2016 called The Future According to Women. She said, “The more people who collaborate on creating a vision for the future, the more people will find a home in that future.” I guess that’s why I’m still doing this work. To help people imagine the future in a way that feels more like home.