SISTER CITY PARTNERS
The pace of change is only matched by its breadth and reach. I am talking about the ongoing transformations being driven globally by technology and automation.
Regional economies like Townsville North Queensland are not immune from these forces. Rather, there’s every possibility that the North occupies a position where the velocity and violence of change is likely to be as great if not greater than many other parts of the country.
And it is also likely that the pace of change is accelerating.
The Big Picture
Let’s start with the big picture. For at least the last 4 to 5 years, developments in computing and robotics have underpinned the emergence of new business models and processes. These challenge directly and indirectly established industries and their practices; the euphemism of ‘disruption’ has become something of a catch-all to describe the winds of change.
Some celebrate the forces unleashed by these technological advances. Others are increasingly concerned by their social and human implications. Innovation is invoked as the pathway to salvation. If we as individuals and as communities are being compelled to adapt and change, then innovation is unavoidable. Innovation in its most basic sense is fundamental to our capacity to adapt to new circumstances by the creation of new possibilities.
And yet, the dislocation that is being wrought by the emerging world of dis-intermediating platforms, the wits economy and machine-enabled labour replacement is causing deep concerns across our social fabric.
Economic inequalities, hewn by among other things the unremitting forces of technological automation, and hastened by the absence of ameliorating civic institutions, have left our social landscape pockmarked with impoverishment, personal torment and social strife. Communities around the world have begun to react angrily to this accumulated plight.
In the vacuum left by the lack of impact of conventional policy levers has stepped political forces promising to halt technology’s onward march, and protect the livelihoods of those disenfranchised.
Yet, there’s actually little that can be done to turn back the tide. Powerful global economic forces will continue to drive the development and adoption of labour saving devices. Digital platforms will reshape supply chains, by dis-intermediating traditional middle men. Permanent jobs will continue to decline as a proportion of total employment. A very large number of jobs will be replaced with automated technologies, be they robotics-based or merely software enabled self-service.
For thirty years or more, the Australian labour force has increasingly shed jobs described as manual-routine and cognitive-routine. Repetitive activities and processes can increasingly have their labour content reduced and eventually replaced. The pace of change in this great transformation is only getting faster.
Recent data from the American Robotics Industries Association revealed that in the first six months of 2016 alone, USA robotics technology vendors sold 14,583 robots worth more than $817 million around the world. The RIA further estimates that over 265,000 robots are deployed in factories right across the States, ranking it 3rd in robotics deployment behind China and Japan.
The World Economic Forum recently predicted that automation will lead to the net loss of over 5 million jobs across 15 developed countries by 2020. This is an optimistic estimate when compared to the findings of an International Labor Organization study, which states that up to 137 million workers in developing countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are at risk of being automated out of existence.
IDC recently published FutureScape: Worldwide Robotics 2017 Predictions. It estimates that by 2018 almost one-third of robotic deployments will be smarter than they are today, capable of collaborating with other machines and working safely alongside humans. A year later, the report predicts, 30% of the world’s leading companies will have employed a chief robotics officer; and by 2020, there will be a global shortage of skilled workers to work in the robotics sector. However, it’s also clear that for every job created by automation, several will be lost to it.
Automation will create jobs, but nowhere near enough to replace the numbers that are displaced.
If these dynamics are buffeting economic systems right across the world, their impacts in regional Australia will, one suspects, be particularly acute.
Let’s take two examples, one related to manual-routine and the other to cognitive-routine jobs.
On the first score, we now have roboticised bricklaying technologies that can lay 1,000 standard bricks an hour. This is equivalent to the work of two human bricklayers over 1-plus days. Put another way, Hadrian-X can do in one eight hour day (though of course, its ability to work won’t be limited to the ‘standard 40 hour week’) what would have taken over 80 man-hours of manual bricklaying to complete. If people are concerned about the cost of housing, a 10-fold improvement in productivity in construction will make a big dent in the problem.
In Townsville, the emergence of roboticised construction will impact the future of the local building industry. The construction sector has already been in cyclical decline over the past few years, but is likely to face structural contraction to its employment base over the next decade. If this does happen, there will be fewer bricklayers, to start with, working in Townsville (or elsewhere for that matter).
As for cognitive-routine jobs, we need look no further than government-sector administration, which by definition is routine-based. Whether it’s the work of the local ATO, or Townsville City Council’s licensing and regulatory management functions, automated self-serve is likely to become the norm over the next decade. Completing and processing forms is something an algorithm can do quicker and cheaper than an office full of bureaucrats.
The latest computer-based fiasco around Centrelink might raise concerns about accuracy and machine-error, but the end result won’t be an army of human administrators double-checking on the software. As the kerfuffle washes its way through the machinery of government, the end outcome will be even fewer people in compliance and administration.
One would hazard a guess that at least 70% of all transactions between the public and the Townsville City Council are effectively cognitive-routine activities (in whole or in large part). With ongoing budgetary pressures, I, for one, will not be surprised if Council becomes the regional vanguard of procedural automation. And it won’t just be in cognitive-routine jobs either where machines will replace people.
A bunch of manual work, ranging from routine parks maintenance through to road repairs can conceivably be undertaken by robots of one sort or another. As a point of fact, one of the consequences of a comprehensive ‘smart cities’ philosophy is to enable rapid technological replacement of a vast number of jobs through a ubiquitous Internet Of Things network underpinned by modest levels of machine-learning. You don’t need machines that can genuinely emulate human cognitive capacity for machines to do a lot of what humans presently do.
If you think automation will be contained to public sector administration and the odd blue collar job, you’d most likely be wrong. Mining is at the forefront of automation, so whatever growth we may see in new mining activity is unlikely to bring as many human jobs as mining did in the past. Professional services firms, like accountancies and lawyers, will continue the automation of previously labour-intensive para-professional activities.
Retailing and hospitality (hotels and restaurants) are already seeing robotic automation transforming employment profiles. As developments in robotic intelligence progress, expect to be greeted by a bipedal robot when you next visit a restaurant, or be confronted with self-check-in / self-pay in more and more venues as you already do at airports and supermarkets.
If reduced aggregate employment is one likely consequence, the next direct implication is a radical change in the demand for physical floorspace. Cloud-based algorithms simply don’t need the 10m2 per office worker that has dictated town plans and CBD renewal visions. And with lesser employment, there’ll be reduced demand for residential accommodation.
21st century jobs
The key to regional prosperity lies in its ability to transition to an economy that generates more non-routine cognitive and non-routine manual work. Promising to hold back the outflow of routine work is a fool’s errand, and a promise that cannot be fulfilled.
Net growth in the regional labour force can only happen if there’s expansion in cognitive and manual non-routine jobs. Design and creative services and products, as well as growth in the high-touch experiential economy are areas that need to be nurtured. It’s here that we’ll see many of the good jobs of the 21st century.
Whether they are found in regional economies or increasingly concentrate in the thick labour markets of large urban conurbations remains to be seen, and ultimately depends on how we as a community acknowledge the structural changes that are taking place and the forces that are driving and shaping them.