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The One Thing That Will Make or Break Cities of the Future

From Pittsburgh to Shanghai, technology is eating manual labor.

Automation Will Make Lifelong Learning a Necessary Part of Work

“We also note some critical challenges that need to be overcome. Foremost among them: a massive shift in the skills that we will need in the workplace in the future.”

In 2011, Marc Andreessen famously told us that “Software is Eating The World.”

In 2018, technology is eating manual labor.

This tectonic shift — from manual labor to automation through technology — is most acute in cities, from Pittsburgh to Shanghai.

As technology gobbles up industries from transportation to healthcare, what’s not clear is how we 3-dimensional humans will deal with its consequences. The potential pain is most acute in the labor market.

Technology is revolutionary because it can dramatically increase productivity. From Excel for calculations to Amazon for delivery, people automate low-value work so they can spend time on high-value, non-redundant activities.

But automation does not guarantee productivity, regardless of how powerful technologies becomes.

People must know how to use technology to benefit from it. Developing technical competency takes time and an often brutal ability to learn new skills.

A large part of this challenge is generational.

Younger people have grown up with always-within-reach technology. It is a native part of their lives.

Older people — say those already retired — do not have to worry too much about automation. For Grandma, the iPhone is a luxury but not a necessity.

Between young and old, however, is a generation that is non-digital natives.

This group, named GenerationX by Pew, accounts for a third of the American labor force, started working before everyone had computers, and have been part of a system that does not actively encourage lifelong professional learning or training.

They will be working for the next ten to twenty-five years. Their lack of technical training and proficiency is becoming an existential professional threat.

In the United States, they tend to work in legacy industries — production, manufacturing, freight and logistics, among others — that have formed in and around cities.

Each of these industries — and many others — is being transformed by automation, robotics, and advanced data. This process will only accelerate in the coming years.

The hard truth is that it’s time to teach old(er) people new tricks.

If not, cities around the world will have a generation of un- or under-employed people with a devastating combination: significant economic grievances, loud political voices, and antiquated skill-sets.