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.

 
 
 
 

Will Ethiopia’s controversial new dam repeat the “world’s worst environmental disaster”?

The offending dam. Image: Mimi Abebayehu/Wikimedia Commons.

Encompassing swathes of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya, the Omo-Turkana Basin is one of the oldest landscapes in the world that is known to have been inhabited by Homo sapiens and is now one of the world’s most extraordinary examples of ethnic diversity. In the lower Omo Valley alone, a varied history of cross-cultural encounters has played out to produce eight distinct ethnic groups, speaking many languages from Afro-Asiatic to Nilo-Saharan.

In a cattle camp on the bank of the ancient Omo River a Mursi elder implored me to, “Tell our story so that others might know us before we are all dead in the desert”. Where the river ends in Lake Turkana, this sentiment was echoed by local fishermen: “You will find our bones in the desert.” The story of the Omo-Turkana Basin is now that of the Ethiopian state exploiting its periphery in the name of “development”, trampling on the human rights of its citizens in the process.

The dam and the damned

Over the past decade, the Ethiopian government has pushed ahead with a huge hydro-electric dam on the Omo, known as Gibe III. Without any meaningful consultation with the communities affected, the state has also appropriated grazing lands and freshwater, threatening their vital resources and local heritage.

All of this has happened despite the area gaining the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. As Richard Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician put it, “these happenings are profoundly disturbing”.

The completion of Gibe III, Africa’s tallest dam to date, has eliminated the annual flood and radically reduced the Omo’s flow, which produces 90 per cent of Lake Turkana’s freshwater input. In doing so, it has reduced sediments and nutrients critical for traditional agriculture, riverside pastures and fish habitat.

The former lake bed. What remains of the Aral Sea is heavily polluted. Image: T. Clack/author provided.

Over 30 per cent of the lake inflow will be diverted for commercial irrigation projects. The result could be a fall in lake level comparable to that of Central Asia’s Aral Sea, which has shrunk by over two thirds since the 1960s because of irrigation abstractions, and which has been called “the world’s worst environmental disaster”. To make way for the commercial plantations planned for the Omo Valley, tens of thousands of hectares of land will be expropriated and thousands of local people displaced.

Development at any cost

The need to see “development” as more than a simple matter of an increase in GDP is well established. In his seminal work, Development as Freedom, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, demonstrated that sustainable development must be based on universal access to social and economic necessities as well as political and civil rights. The many communities in the Omo-Turkana Basin have suffered a systematic curtailment of their most basic and essential rights.

International agreements which the Ethiopian government signed up to, such as the 1993 International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights require it to protect and promote the rights of minority cultures and ensure the “right of everyone to take part in cultural life”.

Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has reduced to around 10 per cent of its size in the 1960s. Image: T. Clack/author provided.

Since 1948, Ethiopia has also been signed up to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article II provides against the destruction of “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide”, famously defined the specific need to protect against the “disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups”.

It is difficult not to conclude that what we are seeing in the Omo is the wholesale disregard of these commitments by the Ethiopian government. Its development policies are not only transforming landscape and heritage but destroying complex systems of sustainable living that have endured for millennia. The huge injustice of all this is that the ecological costs will be borne by local communities while the profits will be enjoyed by central and international corporations.

Meanwhile, centuries of collective wisdom relating to livestock diversification, flood dependant cultivation and customary obligations and mechanisms of livestock exchange, will be made redundant.

This is not to deny, of course, that development, in the sense defined by Sen, is a laudable and necessary enterprise. But we must also recognise that large-scale infrastructure projects are likely to have far reaching consequences for the lifestyles and cultural identities of those they displace.


Projects which set out to increase economic growth without regard for social justice and individual rights are not worthy of the name “development”. Development must benefit locals, and for this to happen their voices must not only be heard but also given a central and determining role in any discussions about the future of their lands and livelihoods.

Both cradle and crucible of our species, the Omo-Turkana Basin is unique and precious. Its heritage and history, as well as responsibility for its future, are shared by us all.The Conversation

Timothy Clack, Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Oxford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.