The rise of the robots: Here are four big disruptions facing London’s economy

Coming soon to a coffee shop near you. Image: Getty.

Disruption is nothing new for London. In the past 70 years, the city has transformed from a declining imperial capital to one of a handful of “global cities”. And during this time London’s economy has proved itself to be astonishingly resilient – to financial booms and crashes, to global economic shifts, to terrorism and instability.

But times are changing. Technology is enabling more and more complex non-routine jobs to be automated, and Brexit and pay pressures could accelerate its adoption, shaking up London’s labour market. 

In fact, there are four big changes set to hit London’s workers in the coming years.

1. Lower and medium skilled jobs could be automated

Around a third of London’s jobs have high potential for automation in the next 20 years. This could have an impact on around a million low- and medium- skilled jobs in the capital, from taxi drivers to warehouse workers, shop assistants to secretaries.

And just as the secretarial and administrative occupations that once looked like solid middle-class employment 50 years ago rapidly disappear, bookkeeping and accountancy jobs may be soon to follow them.

2. Brexit could act as a catalyst for increasing the speed of automation

But automation is not automatic.  Employers need to make the decision to invest in software and machinery rather than wages.

Brexit could tip the balance and make the business case stack up. Around 15 per cent of London’s workforce are overseas EU/EEA citizens, and some of the industries which are more susceptible to automation in London – restaurants, hotels, construction – are particularly dependent on EU workers. Net migration has fallen since the referendum in 2016: should immigration policies tighten post-Brexit, the capital could see labour shortages in key areas of its workforce.

Staff shortages may begin to bite before automation is technically and commercially feasible. While this shortfall would most likely lead to wage inflation, and a welcome relief for low-paid workers, it might at the same time strengthen the case for and accelerate automation.


3. As jobs disappear, new jobs will be created

At the same time, demand for jobs involving social and creative intelligence – such as personal fitness instructors, care workers and designers – may grow. Centre for London’s analysis indicates that new jobs are most likely to be created in finance and insurance, and information and communication, which are specialisms for the capital, as well as public services and manufacturing.

But while automation may create new jobs, there is a difference in scale from their industrial era predecessors. Digital businesses need fewer employees to generate a large turnover than traditional industry often required.

Take this stark comparison. In 1962, when their annual sales surpassed $1bn, Kodak Eastman employed 75,000 people in production sites across the world. When Facebook passed $8bn, today’s equivalent of this threshold, it employed only around 6,300 people.

We may need to start thinking about how London and the UK manage to enhance social inclusion, at a time when fewer people are in full-time employment.

4. Londoners won’t enter ‘jobs for life’ – and will need new skills to reflect this

We’re quickly seeing that jobs are no longer for life: a change that automation has deepened. At the same time, it’s said that 65 per cent of future jobs have not yet been created. Businesses are increasingly finding themselves looking for transferable skills – rooted in things like project management, problem solving and customer service – rather than specific academic or technical skills.

These four big changes will transform the way people work in London over the coming years. At the end of the day robots will always be robots. But we all need to recognise that our jobs are likely to change. This means throughout our careers, it’s likely we’re going to need to learn new skills and retrain.

Employers will need to work with government, schools and colleges to ensure that workers are equipped with the social and creative skills that the jobs of the future will demand, and to strengthen London’s human capital.

Amy Leppanen is communications officer at the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

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”.