During my most recent episode of Metaverse, I was joined by futurist, science fiction writer, speaker and teacher, Madeline Ashby. Madeline is best known for her successful series of science-fiction novels, which include the bestseller, Company Town, and the Machine Dynasty series. Besides her sci-fi books, she has also written numerous short stories and just last year she co-authored her first non-fiction book, How To Future. Having settled in Canada, Madeline was until recently a regular columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and has worked in futurism for the World Health Organisation, the Ontario government and Intel Labs.
Madeline describes her work in futurism as strategic foresight consulting, essentially “help[ing] people have conversations about the future.” The future, she notes, is a complex amalgam of realities for different people: she attempts to imagine all these different possible scenarios stacked on top of one another, unfolding simultaneously. We discussed her early work for the Ontario government and how she found her way into the private sector with Intel. As a storyteller, Madeline specialises in teasing out narrative lines from data. Essentially, she works with researchers with data or a new invention with scenario development, allowing a different way to read data that transcends the pie chart and adds “a human context to various possible visions of the future.” Even when working with scale models, Madeline likes to add human figures, since we cannot really know how something will scale or what the total picture would be without adding people into the equation.
Madeline had a number of interesting observations on the various ways Covid-19 will shift our possible future. She notes how during inflection points like the pandemic, existing trends are accelerated, on both a widespread scale and an intimate, interpersonal one. For example, we already had supply chain issues and massive inequality with front line employees – and remote work has been pushed for by parents and disabled individuals since the birth of the internet: Covid simply sped all this up. Similarly, on a personal level, few people who entered the pandemic in a relationship have emerged unchanged: couples who were dating are, by now, either cohabitating, married, or, conversely, broken up.
Having collaborated with the World Health Organisation in the early days of the pandemic, Madeline describes this as perhaps the “most important work [she’s] ever done.” Working with a wide variety of officials striving daily to figure out our new reality in March 2020, Madeline was able to help bring a sense of narrative concreteness to people otherwise mired in abstract data. She offered tangible ideas of how these big changes would come into play in everyday life for everyday people – including many suppositions that she is now seeing come to life. These include how private businesses and entities have started taking Covid protocols into their own hands, like condo boards demanding proof of vaccination from tenants.
We touched on Madeline’s diverse writing career, from her creative work as a science fiction writer (“Yes, they make us in girl shapes” she quipped) to her recent nonfiction project co-authoring with Scott Smith. Most futurism books, she notes, cater to MBA-track individuals or those already in the field: she and Scott hope their book will reach “all levels of the building,” offering a solid foundational understanding of futurism without the pesky graduate school debt. Looking towards her own future, Madeline expressed that she’d love to go past her current trend of short-term contract work where she “sprinkles future dust on meetings,” hopefully digging in deep as part of a team on a long term project.
To hear our full conversation – and to learn more about her tales of humanoid robots who eat each other – you can listen to the episode here.