Southampton City Council AI Scrutiny Panel: How AI, Robots and Technology Will Transform Southampton’s Employment By 2030

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On Thursday the 20th of September, the first of six monthly scrutiny inquiry panels began discussing how Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and technology will impact the future of work in Southampton and beyond.

The CEO of the Centre For Cities think-tank, Andrew Carter delivered a presentation highlighting that low-skilled physical work, with an algorithmic-style routine, was especially vulnerable to automation. While, on the other hand, it was said that careers requiring analytical, interpersonal and problem solving skills are less routine-orientated, thus will continue to demand more human workers. Therefore, it is vital that education continues throughout workers’ lives to develop these skills that are required in an evolving economy.

The Leader of the Council, Councillor Hammond began by explaining the transformative power of technology since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Household chores were eliminated by labour-saving devices, removing the desire for domestic service work, with the electrification of formerly gas-lit street lighting also being responsible for shifting workers to other fields. Hammond argued that the future is an issue that must not be kicked into the long grass, predicting that in just 10 to 15 years, careers in fields such as retail and hospitality will no longer exist. Automation in these areas is already visible in technologically advanced countries such as Japan. However, it must be mentioned that between the years 1911 and 2016 there was a 60% rise in UK cities’ employment and that this is expected to continue with the creation of new career paths.

An example of a local project aiming to boost future investment in Southampton is the conversion of the first floor of the Marlands in the City Centre into a network co-working hub. With an accessible and flexible monthly gym-style membership, start-up businesses will be able to use desks and specialised facilities such as 3D printing. This is one way the city is attempting to retain graduates who will invest in the local community and enhance its valuable knowledge economy.

Carter argued that as a result of globalisation, higher wage demands in Western countries, such as the UK, make it less competitive in terms of price for manufacturing, therefore highly skilled jobs will be in greater demand. For example, the most expensive part of development for Apple products is the design and marketing, rather than the assembly in China. Jobs at a high risk of being lost to automation include: sales assistants, retail cashiers, storage workers, customer service, administration, construction and building. It has been estimated that 22% of jobs in Southampton will be lost by 2030 – which is just 1% higher than the national average.To adapt to a changing jobs market, our focus should be on bringing about a highly educated workforce. Careers requiring analytical, interpersonal and problem solving skills are too complex for technological replacements to carry out currently. To develop these skills there must be early intervention in the first 5 years of life, engagement with extra-curricular activities and learning that continues past the end of secondary, sixth form and university education. Vocational education must be improved so that those who do not attend University continue to develop skills that will make them employable in the new jobs market.

Councillor Fitzhenry asked which countries are global leaders in terms of future proofed education. Carter replied that there was no simple answer to this question. Inspiration for vocational education should come from Germany where it’s particularly strong, unlike in this country where apprenticeships are undervalued and fail to integrate into the economy. In Shanghai and South Korea, in-work education within industry is notable. Whilst the US education system is poor prior to university level, the country’s ability to steal talent from across the globe highlights the importance of a desirable location. The welfare system of Nordic countries encourages the pursuit of lifelong learning. A short discussion ensued as to whether lifelong learning is valued more in other cultures. A member of the audience who is a teacher voiced his frustration that lifelong learning is not recognised adequately through qualifications, therefore it’s difficult to move from one sector to another. Councillor McEwing replied that she has personally benefited from further education through her trade union.

Councillor Bogle also raised the topic of inequality in Southampton, noting a conflict between on the one hand post-industrialism and on the other, a vibrant centre of learning with multiple university campuses. Of course this prompted mentions of Brexit, a popular narrative arguing the Leave vote was a backlash from those who felt left behind in a changing, globally-connected society.  In response Carter suggested that working alongside the universities, Southampton receives a positive spill-over effect, unlike other post industrial cities which lack a knowledge economy on a similar scale. Those on the panel displayed pride in the city hosting the National Oceanography Centre and the Centre for Cancer Immunology.

Southampton City Council will be holding two further Scrutiny Inquiry Panel meetings into the ‘Future of Work in Southampton’, on Thursday 18th October and Thursday 22nd November at the Civic Centre. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

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