Whole Towns could be Swept up by Robot Tide if Cycle of Industrial Decline Isn’t Broken

Technology has helped revolutionise the way we live and work in modern Britain – but the rise of machinery replacing manual labour has generated fear in many communities.

Joe Fyans, a researcher for Localis, examines which parts of Britain are truly at risk from the rise of robots.

 Throughout history, waves of technology have driven the rise and fall of towns and cities across the country. Pit villages, steel towns and disused shipyards stand testament.

The latest – automation, or the replacement of manual workers with machines – threatens another generation.

Technology such as driverless cars, when made readily available across the country, threatens the employment of thousands of people in the UK employed in transportation and storage. 3D printing threatens manufacturing workers.

The roll-out of these technologies, assuming they follow the pattern of previous innovations in the digital age, is likely to be a cliff-edge drop for some manual labour jobs.

Engineer hand using tablet and heavy automation robot arm machine in factory

While little can be done to stop or stem the onset of technological change transforming the economy and labour market, the abundance of data on industries and occupations allows us to at least project where automation is likely to have most impact.

Because automation hasn’t really happened yet – the general consensus is that truly autonomous machines carrying out jobs previously held by people will be a reality by the mid-2030s – policymakers have the chance to start planning to ensure the places and workers most at risk are prepared.

The negative effects of automation can be mitigated – and their costs do not have to be paid with the economic destruction of entire places.

To find out those places most at risk – the potential left behind towns of the future – the think tank Localis, in conjunction with Sky News, has produced research shining a light on the places in the UK where automation is likely to be experienced fastest and hardest.

The research shows that automation will be experienced very differently across the country, with major disparities in how and when the automation moment is likely to play out.

The epicentre of automation risk can be found in the East Midlands. Corby is the place most at risk, with 31% of employment in highly vulnerable industries. The towns of Daventry and Wellingborough are also among those most at risk, with 29%.

The importance of manufacturing to the region makes it particularly vulnerable – of 299,200 manufacturing jobs, 108,000 are in low-skill occupations.

This risk is not distributed equally across the country. Take London, where the borough of Camden has only 8% of employment in vulnerable industries. Across the whole of London, 16.5% of manufacturing employment is classed as low-skill, compared to 36% in the East Midlands and 33% in the West Midlands.

National policy geared towards automation must factor in the varied industrial landscape of the UK, and local policymakers must be aware of their area’s unique strengths and vulnerabilities when addressing the issue.

The policy choices made today will define what sort of future our local economies across the country will enjoy. If we get it wrong, whole towns and cities could be swept up by a tide of automation from which their people may not recover.

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