News: 5 February 2018Reflection on robots widening the north-south divide

A new report from Centre for Cities warns that automation and globalisation stands to further widen the north-south divide and calls for education, reskilling and upskilling to adapt now to ‘face the future of work’, ensuring city-wide growth and success.

Robin Shepherd, Partner and Greg Dickson, Director reflect on the report’s findings and explore the opportunities respectively for the south / north …. and nationally.

Given the potential negative impact for northern cities, what do you believe the North gets right Greg?

“Despite common perception, manufacturing output has actually increased since the 1970s and the North continues to account for over a quarter of the UK’s total manufacturing output (worth in the region of £50 billion to the economy). However, in a post-industrial world, the manufacturing sector doesn’t need as many workers to produce the same level of output.   With Brexit on the horizon, the towns and cities of northern England will continue to have to work hard to move towards an economic model that is orientated towards consumption activities, creative industries and/or advanced producer services.

The north accounts for approximately 45% of all medicinal exports attributable to UK regions and (according to Tech UK) is home to seven of the UK’s 27 key tech clusters, including the largest tech cluster outside of London, in Manchester.

“We need to continue playing to the regions key strengths. For example, the North continues to lead the way in the transition to a renewable power supply. As such, there is no good reason why the energy sector shouldn’t become a key plank of a place based industrial strategy.”

Robin, meanwhile in the south do you think there is a risk of complacency?

“Yes, without a doubt. Whilst success breeds success, many cities, towns and regions in the south have merely relied on the fact that they have always been successful. As a result, many other cities and regions are working hard to catch up, so comparatively we fall behind.”

Over recent decades cities in the south have mainly been competing against each other, however with globalisation becoming ever more prominent, places like Oxford, Reading, Guildford and Southampton are now competing against cities across the globe. So, irrespective of how we fair against the ‘north’, without significant investment and a drive to support growth in the new world economics, we will become less successful overall.”

Greg, what opportunities do you see for the north?

“As the Centre for Cities report confirms the north is less productive but simply being more productive in certain sectors (such as manufacturing) is unlikely to lead to a significant increase in jobs across the north. It is, however, clear that we have the potential to increase our productivity and capability in the higher education, professional services, logistics, energy, health innovation and digital sectors.” 

“I also passionately believe that Transport for the North (TfN) and its partners needs to continue to deliver improvements to the connectivity between the towns and cities of the north (including but not limited to including Northern Powerhouse Rail). This is essential to improving the economic performance and maximise agglomeration effects moving forward. To achieve this, it is vital that signi­ficant public and private sector investment is made in the infrastructure of the north, particularly around transport logistics and connectivity.”

What about automation – could it be an opportunity rather than a barrier to growth?

Robin: “People assume that automation will result in lower numbers of jobs – and those jobs that remain will be low skilled.  However, that isn’t necessarily the case – programmers and product designers are highly skilled and rewarded; research and development becomes increasingly important and systems engineers and designers will be in high demand.”

Greg adds: “These skills can be ‘anywhere’, geographically. The ability of any city or region to provide these skills is equal, presenting an opportunity to the north to play to its advantages, if it so chooses, of, amongst other things, more affordable housing and potentially improved quality of life.”

So, what we can do differently to support this changing landscape…

Across the board it’s obvious joined up thinking is key.

There is clearly a strong link between funding for skills, education and enterprise – we must fundamentally re-think how we educate our children and how we re-skill our workforce to embrace globalisation and automation.

The way we work will change, those places that we need to work in will also change. We won’t need large span manufacturing facilities or office blocks, but flexible spaces that allow full connectivity and integration; R&D space, employment hubs, university spin-off and innovation districts.

This joined up thinking needs to be between economic development, skills, technology and planning. A clearer vision for the UK? A National Plan to other countries?

We as planners/designers and our clients need to respond by understanding these changing needs. We have to think long-term to plan for a different future. Focusing upon connections between cities, irrespective of their geography like the US concept of hyperconnected cities has to be a better economic strategy. From there, it is down to providing the right type of space, uses and activities and in the right locations. This way, the needs of the country can be met when they are needed, and the UK is able to compete (and win) on the world stage. Forget north and south.

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Infrastructure, Centre for Cities, automation