Madeline Ashby

Artengine's Future Cities Forum

Madeline Ashby, a noted science fiction writer and futurist, delivered a thought-provoking talk at Artengine’s Future Cities Forum, focusing on the future of cities and their evolving roles in society. She began by emphasizing the importance of imagination over visual aids, setting the stage for a discussion about possibilities yet to be envisioned. Ashby introduced her work, including her novel “Company Town,” which imagines a city built around an oil rig, highlighting her unique approach to envisioning urban futures.

Ashby skillfully used her platform to underscore the significance of acknowledging the historical and ongoing human connections to land, particularly the traditional, unceded territories, bringing attention to deeper definitions of humanity—themes often explored in science fiction. She shared insights from her experiences writing science fiction prototypes for various organizations, where she speculates on future uses of technology and urban development, blending her narrative talents with strategic foresight.

Throughout her talk, Ashby proposed several innovative ideas for urban development, emphasizing the necessity of accessible public transit, affordable housing for students, and smart, sustainable housing that accommodates families. She challenged the audience to consider not just “smart” cities in terms of technology but also “wise” cities that cultivate gentleness, compassion, and justice—qualities essential for sustaining livable urban environments for future generations. This call to rethink urban spaces underscored her belief in the power of community and the potential of cities to adapt and thrive amid changing societal needs.

Presented by Artengine and Impact Hub Ottawa in partnership with the National Capital Commission Urbanism Lab

A trio of keynote speakers kicked-off the Future Cities Forum including science-fiction writer and futurist Madeline Ashby, urban designer Ken Greenberg, and professor Tracey Lauriault, a researcher who specializes in big data and the city.

This diverse group shared their speculations on future cities in the context of emerging and disruptive technologies. How will and can we adapt the key lessons of urban design of the twentieth century and not be seduced by the same techno-utopianism that shaped cities in the past? As we are transformed and extended into the network, how will a citizen be in public or private in our new data-driven city? Who will be the heroes and anti-heroes of the cities to come?

Madeline Ashby graduated from the first cohort of the M.Des. in Strategic Foresight and Innovation programme at OCADU in 2011.  It was her second Masters degree. (Her first, in Interdisciplinary Studies, focused on cyborg theory, fan culture, and Japanese animation!) Since 2011, she has been a freelance consulting futurist specializing in scenario development and science fiction prototypes. That same year, she sold her first novel, vN: The First Machine Dynasty, to Angry Robot Books. It is now a trilogy of novels about self-replicating humanoid robots (who eat each other alive). She is also the author of Company Town from Tor Books, a cyber-noir novel which was a finalist in the 2017 CBC Books Canada Reads competition, and a contributor to How To Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange, with Scott Smith. She is a member of the AI Policy Futures Group at the  ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and the XPRIZE Sci-Fi Advisory Council. Her work has appeared in BoingBoing, Slate, MIT Technology Review, WIRED, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

How do we build the cities of the future without building something hollow and meaningless? It’s more than just driverless cars and surveillance everywhere. It’s how neighbors relate to neighbors. It’s how businesses relate to customers. It’s how we decide what we owe to each other. How do we incorporate the best of what we already have and then build something better so quickly?

Cities are a great way to talk about the future because cities are where the past and the future meet.

Far Future and Near Future

Madeline Ashby

I’m less interested in the far future than I am the near future. Also, there are plenty of other writers who have done that same job way better than I ever could. I wanted to do something that only I could do and to do something a little bit different. So I thought, What’s like space? What’s distant and cold and remote and requires a lot of time and energy to reach. The answer is the North Atlantic, the ocean. The ocean is like space. It’s both the source of all life and completely inimical to human life, just like deep space. So I started imagining a city floating around a big milkshake straw poking way down into the Flemish Pass basin and slurping up the billions of barrels of oil that have been estimated to be hiding there under the waves. First, I imagined Tower one, the first tower to be built there, literally just a stack of shipping containers nestled together for roughnecks to live in as they hauled out the oil. Then I realized they would actually need services. So in my head and on my whiteboard and I tried to buy the Lego architecture set. But have you tried importing that to Canada? I built a vertical farm in a school where some of the action takes place. And then I built a party tower because wherever there is resource extraction, there is hazard pay. And whenever there’s wherever there is hazard pay, there’s a party. And finally, I built a living self repairing tower, autonomous and responsive to the needs of the residents constantly adjusting itself, preening to the environment and the desires of its inhabitants. That’s where the new owners of the city live. They build a single shining tower just for them and rarely venture out. Now, as they went on about this task, I drew on my experiences of cities all over the world. I was born in Los Angeles, but spent most of my life outside of Seattle in a little town near where they filmed Twin Peaks. So it looked a lot the same fog, trees, posters about dead people. I grew up during the time of the Green River Killer. So like literally there was, you know, missing people who we later attributed to him. later I went to university, like I should say also that growing up in this environment, nothing will endear you to cities more than growing up in the suburbs. Speaking of our earlier talks this evening, later I went on to university in downtown Seattle and moved to the outskirts of Toronto. And now I live in Toronto proper with a mostly functional subway system and everything. But by the time Company Time was published, I had spent time not just in those cities, but I had at least visited London, Tokyo, Kyoto, Reykjavik, Stockholm, Manchester, Pheonix in Jose, San Francisco. Portland. Houston. New Orleans. Orlando, Edinburgh. San Antonio, Chicago. Vancouver. And yes, Ottawa. In fact, it wasn’t until after the book was published and featured for Canada readers that I finally visited Newfoundland and Calgary. I should stress that visiting these places did not make me an expert in how they worked or what they felt like or what living there actually requires of a person.After almost hotels and convention centers strive to universalize their experience into a single comfortable anonymity. They try as hard as they can to bleach out all the local color and replace it with a brand identity. Also, that you can get the same chicken Caesar salad in the same yogurt berry parfait for the same price. Every place you go, no matter what the currency you’re using. I’ve experienced what makes cities functional and friendly and what prepares cities for the future. Cities are a great way to talk about the future because cities are where the past and the future meet. Naturally, over time, cities grow like coral. They accrete. They stack up on top of each other like a graveyard. The new architecture builds on top of the old, the dead or buried in the foundations.

Future of Canadian Cities

Madeline Ashby

Until now, Canadian cities have been known, have been the known unknowns of the wider world, the sort of pleasant places that can stand in for other pleasant places like Toronto, playing New York and Vancouver playing everywhere. But it’s time for Canadian cities to shed that anonymity, that strategic blandness, that defensive lack of color.

Thanks to the current environment we live in, Canada is becoming more attractive to everyone—students, investors, startups, anyone who has spent literally any time at all with climate data. I say this not just as a person who wishes to become a full Canadian citizen, but as a person who, when I say I live there, hears other people describe Canada as both an island of sanity and the only place where there will be drinkable water in 20 years.

More people are coming and the challenge to Canadian cities is how to remain resilient, open, and user-friendly. As waves of migration hit them. So how do we do that? How do we build the cities of the future without building something hollow and meaningless? It’s more than just driverless cars and surveillance everywhere. It’s how neighbors relate to neighbors.

It’s how businesses relate to customers. It’s how we decide what we owe to each other. How do we incorporate the best of what we already have and then build something better so quickly? Some ideas. One. Improve and expand transit, which I know sounds obvious, but the easiest way to knit communities together and expand economic opportunity is to expand transit.

It’s not just about getting to a job or going to a show. Transit is the system by which neighbors meet neighbors face to face. It’s how people learn to be in community with the whole spectrum of their cities. Sometimes we have to crush together on a train before we can band together to build a playground. People think women do makeup for men, or women do makeup for other women.

Now, it’s so that when you are pressed this close to somebody, you understand why they have Instagram-ready eyeliner. We live that close together. We’ve been pressed that close together and we should think as though we are always that close together to make transaction frictionless. And I don’t just mean tapping your credit card. I mean transferring between systems within cities, like a lecture about the Suica card in Tokyo right now.

But I won’t because I like you. Toronto is currently undergoing both a transit expansion and a shift in transit transaction, moving from tokens to cards. But we’re doing it well at the speed of a summer subway. As currency systems change and alternative currencies rise, it may be time for cities to think of their own currencies for transit city services like garbage and licensing, and even as a currency for tourist locations like stadiums, convenience stores, hotels, and elsewhere.

Redefining Urban Citizenship: Advocating for Accessible Cities and Engaged Communities

Madeline Ashby

In Canada, we have family class, immigration, student class, immigration, investor class, immigration, and a point system for the people who want to come here. I’ve become more familiar with this whole song and dance as I prepared to apply for full citizenship. And as I’ve listened to a number of my American writer friends who are now currently inventing new pledge classes on Patreon to pay off their immigration attorneys and fund their efforts to move here.

But what if, like the Canada Council for the Arts, for example, we granted ease of citizenship to those willing to work with Canada’s agencies to solve Canada’s problems? Could we save B.C. Fisheries? Could we clean up Toronto’s air? Could we end boil water advisories on First Nations reserves? Yes, we could. If we said, ‘Hey, before you can vote, maybe you’d like to learn more about how to make change.’

Maybe you’d like to learn what change means here in your new community. Maybe you’d like to meet your neighbors for and this is possibly my favorite, despite it not being about immigration, build more student housing and increase services for students in general. I teach undergrads in the Digital Futures Program at Oxford University, and the number one complaint my students have is the length of their commute.

Students are commuting for an hour each way, sometimes more. I have students who commute 90 minutes each way and rather than staying in town, they’re staying with their parents. They’re stuck at home to save money rather than learning how to live in different urban environments with different neighbors, with different friends. They’re not learning how to be good neighbors to new people, and they’re not learning the agency and resourcefulness of adulthood.

It’s very easy to complain about ‘kids don’t know how to do this, blah, blah, blah.’ Have we given them that chance? Is it affordable for them to live in cities? Not in Toronto. It isn’t. Not in Vancouver it isn’t. Why do we expect them to know so much when they can’t even try it out? After this week and the events in Parkland, Florida, we’ve seen the fire that our students can bring to any conversation about the future.

And I have full faith in my students to bring about the change that we need. The young people coming up that we have this generation are some of the brightest, savviest, most uncompromising and dedicated group of overachievers I have ever met. And I went through an ODE, an honors program at a Jesuit university. We need to give those students a chance.

And that chance starts with letting them live affordably, debt-free, with access to health care and culture and new experiences. We cannot expect change in our cities if we price young people out of them, because imagine if we encourage them to stay and live together in a community. What ideas would they have at three in the morning over pizza because they don’t have to go an hour outside of town?

What businesses would they create? What books would they write? What problems would they solve? What would they change? Because it might be everything. But they need the space. This is a question about space. Who has access to space? Who can take up space? Who is worthy of taking up space?

That’s the question of cities. And it always has been. And speaking of which, in my final 2 minutes, my last request: Build smart, sustainable housing for families with children and mandate zoning for low-cost daycare and elder care in new condos. All of our greenest buildings across Canada should not be rabbit hutch condos for single people who eventually have to move once they have a family.