A hundred years ago, which English cities were most vulnerable to economic change?

She’s probably an iPhone now. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

One of the more fascinating subplots in this year’s Cities Outlook report, published back in January, takes the form of a flashback. Back in 1911, just as in 2018, a significant share of the workforce had jobs that were at risk from technological change.

Back then, the biggest threat was automation: over the next few decades, the rise of labour saving devices like washing machines would wipe out an entire class of jobs in domestic service. Over the same period, better communications technology would wipe out assorted porter and messenger jobs, while the rise of the supermarket would kill off various door-to-door delivery jobs.

The idea that, say, telephones or tumbledryers are a bad thing looks distinctly silly from a modern perspective. If you were one of the people whose income was at risk, though, you may have had other ideas. This chart shows some of the jobs under threat:

By my count, that’s nearly one in eight of the workforce, whose jobs were about to get wiped out by new technology.

It’s also worth looking at a map showing where these changes would be felt most. On this map, dark green dots represent English cities which would see the highest numbers of job losses due to automation. What do you notice about it?

Click to expand.

At first glance this is pretty surprising. In many southern English cities – which even in 1911 were pretty prosperous, and now are leaps ahead of the north – between a sixth and a quarter of jobs were at risk from automation, far higher than in many northern industrial centres.

Think about this for a moment, though, and it makes sense. Rich southern cities were more likely to have households stuffed with domestic servants. But those cities did not stop being rich just because they replaced maids with washing machines.

Here’s another map, showing which cities had large numbers of jobs in another vulnerable sector, mining and manufacturing:

Click to expand.

This time it’s a more familiar pattern: it’s in the industrial cities of the midlands and the north where the threat was greatest. The numbers are also much bigger than those on the first map. Every city was looking at losing over 10 per cent of its jobs; for most in the industrial heartland it was over a third, and in some it was nearly 70 per cent.

There are, best I can see, three takeaways from all this. The first is that not all job destruction is bad: the rise of the modern home put an entire class of domestic servants out of work, but it was also clearly positive for the society as a whole. Nobody today seems likely to swap their washing machine and tumble dryer for a live in servant, let alone the opportunity to take a job as one.

The second is that some job destruction is much more traumatic. The cities that lost jobs to washing machines are largely fine today; many of those which lost jobs in mining and manufacturing aren’t. The cities on that second map where the job losses were greatest are, with few exceptions, still struggling today.

The third lesson requires another map. Almost everywhere, there were more jobs overall in 2016 than there were in 1911:

Click to expand.

This trend isn’t quite universal, and several of the cities which have lost jobs are among those whose dependence on manufacturing made them most vulnerable in 1911. Nonetheless, the trend is clearly towards more jobs rather than less.

The British economy is once again – or perhaps, more accurately, still – facing radical change. The future is unpredictable, and the past is not always a guide. Nonetheless, I do remain suspicious of those who argue that new technologies which destroy jobs today will automatically mean fewer jobs tomorrow. They haven’t before.

You can read the whole of Cities Outlook 2018 here.

Sources of data: Census 1911 (England and Wales only); University of Portsmouth, A Vision of Britain Through Time.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.