A century ago, nearly two million people in Britain worked as domestic servants, messengers, porters and laundry workers. Today, these occupations have all but disappeared, because of the revolutionary impact of automation and globalisation in the 100 years since.
Yet despite these shifts, the overall number of jobs in British cities has increased by 60% in the past century, a growth of 6.7 million jobs in total. This is largely thanks to the emergence of new sectors such as ICT, which have more than offset the decline of traditional industries and occupations.
What lessons should we take from this brief foray in British economic history? Firstly, with automation and globalisation set to intensify in the coming decades, these changes will undoubtedly displace a lot of jobs across the country, just as they have done in the past. However, in all probability, they will ultimately create more jobs than they displace, in sectors and roles that may not even exist as yet.
The question is what types of jobs will be created and where – and this should be the real concern of policy makers. As recent Centre for Cities research showed, there have been winners and losers in the past century of technological change. While almost all British cities have seen jobs growth overall in the past 100 years, the kinds of jobs they have developed have varied greatly across the country.
Cities in the South have largely adapted well to the technological changes of the past century, and have successfully attracted new jobs in high-skilled, high-paying sectors. In contrast, cities in the North and Midlands were badly hit by the impact of automation and globalisation on manufacturing and other traditional industries in the 1970s and 1980s – and are still struggling to recover.
And these historical trends have big implications for the future. Places in the North and Midlands largely replaced jobs in traditional sectors with routinized roles in call centres, retail and warehouses. As a result, they are more now exposed to potential job losses resulting from automation than places in the South.
However, that does not mean we should resist or fear technological advances and the impact they will have. Instead, cities across the country should embrace them, by taking steps to prepare people for the radical changes we are likely to see, and to capitalise on the opportunities they could bring.
How can we do that? First and foremost, we need to act now to give those people currently in the workplace – and future generations – the training and skills they need to thrive in the new jobs and businesses that will emerge in the coming decades.
That means reforming the education system to give young people the cognitive and interpersonal skills that will become increasingly important in the world of work, and improving school standards, especially in places where jobs are most at risk. We also need greater investment in lifelong learning and technical education, to help adults adapt to the changing labour market, and better retraining for people who lose their jobs because of these changes.
However, the onus is also on UK cities to make the most of new technology, and to explore how it can be harnessed to support economic growth and public services.
A good example of how this could work is Nesta’s Flying High Challenge, through which five cities and districts across the country are pioneering new uses of drone technology.
In Bradford, for example, drones could be used to support the fire service, while in Southampton local leaders are exploring how drones might carry medical goods across the Solent.
These initiatives not only help these cities to become better places to live and work in, they will also offer important lessons for other places in the UK and beyond. The future use of drones in cities could take many forms; how positive this impact will be depends on decisions we as society take in the next few years.
In particular, we need to ensure that their use is focused on protecting public safety and privacy. This will be important in securing public support, which in turn will be necessary to make the most of the economic opportunities drones could offer.
The reality is that technology – and its impact on our day-to-day lives – will not stand still. Cities cannot afford to do so either if they are to prosper in the new age of automation.