London can come out on top in the era of job-killing robots

Stian Westlake
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Even if the robot job threat partly comes true, this may not be a bad thing for the economy (Source: Getty)
Scary, scary robots. If you believe the hype, robots are coming for your job, your society and everything you hold dear.
A widely publicised report argued that 35 per cent of jobs in the UK could be destroyed by automation and computerisation (which is what “robots” have come to mean in the shorthand of economists, rather than actual tin men).
It’s certainly no laughing matter when technology threatens your job. But there’s evidence that London may be well placed to weather this economic storm better than many other parts of the world, and even to come out ahead.
For a start, London is rich in the kind of jobs that robots – and computers more generally – are particularly bad at.
Nesta’s research with Oxford’s Mike Osborne and Carl Frey showed that Britain, especially London, had unusually high numbers of jobs that depend on creativity, human interaction and other skills that have proved stubbornly hard to computerise.
We’re not just talking Nathan Barley, Charlie Brooker’s archetypal Shoreditch media hipster. It is as much about professional services, finance and technology.
Of course, it would be complacent and wrong to assume that none of London’s jobs are at risk from automation. Professional services will be transformed by new algorithms, new forms of data analysis, and the relentless increase of computer processing power. But here, too, the capital may have an ace up its sleeve.
When technologies replace jobs, they rarely do so in one fell swoop. More usually, to automate a business, you don’t just need to buy some computers or machines. You also have to restructure the way your employees work.
Businesses that are set in their ways find it harder to automate than nimble ones. This probably plays to London’s strengths.
Its finance and professional services sectors are nothing if not dynamic. The UK’s flexible labour and product market rules make it relatively easy to change working practices or to come up with new ways of doing things.
It’s no accident that disruptive firms that use technology in new ways, like Uber or AirBnB, have had an easier time in London than in Paris or Berlin.
Automation also brings new opportunities that London’s businesses are well placed to exploit.
Lawyers who can harness Big Data to sift through data rooms faster will find their services in demand around the world.
Businesses like Sky Futures are pioneering the use of drones to inspect and maintain oil rigs.
London’s insurers are well placed to design new products for a robot age, such as “livelihood insurance”, a product proposed by economist Robert Shiller to protect workers against the financial risk of automation.
There’s also the question of social acceptance. Technology can be unsettling, but research shows that Londoners are more at ease with technology than people elsewhere in Europe.
We’re less concerned than the French that the internet will destroy our national heritage; we’re more relaxed about privacy than the Germans.
This is a mixed blessing: not all fears about technology are mistaken. But a city where people basically “get” technology is likely to have an edge in exploiting new technologies, compared to one where tech inspires bafflement.
What’s more, even if the robot jobs threat partly comes true, this may not be a bad thing for the UK economy.
Compared to other countries, UK productivity has grown very little since the crisis of 2008. Britain has added jobs, but not significantly grown output.
Research by Imperial College’s Jonathan Haskel shows that a big chunk of our lagging productivity is concentrated in two sectors: financial and business services, and oil and gas.
To make the most of the robot opportunity, there are a few things that London needs to do. Not many of them have to do with traditional technology.
Sure, companies need to be willing to invest in hardware and software to keep at the cutting edge. But to make the most of this technology, we need to invest in people.
We need an education system that teaches the workers of the future both tech skills and the soft skills necessary to make sense of technology.
We need regulations that don’t stop innovation, but that give consumers faith that they and their personal data are being treated well. And we need to make London a lively place, where creative, talented people want – and can afford – to live.
It turns out that the key to success in a robot economy is reassuringly human.

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