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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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