Five Tips for Mayors in the Wake of Disruptive Technology

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In a time of rapid technological change, how should mayors and other local elected officials make long-term investments?

It seems like every day, a new study comes out claiming to predict how technology will redefine cities, work and daily life. Unfortunately, when it comes to writing about the future, modesty doesn’t sell and most reports are more provocative than predictive. As any good commentator knows, bold predictions — justified or not — are the best way to get clicks, likes and retweets.

But local elected officials can’t just muse about the future. They have to make decisions that have real consequences. For example, a mayor that is convinced autonomous vehicles will eliminate traffic congestion may not invest in road construction or street parking. If the prediction is correct, she will have saved precious public resources; if wrong, the lack of investment may leave the city in far worse shape.

Below are five recommendations municipal leaders can use to cut through the rhetoric and make decisions about the future of work.

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1. The workers most at risk in the future will (largely) be the same as today. Support them.

An often missed point about the future of work is that by over focusing on occupations that may be lost due to automation, the much larger pool of workers already on the sidelines is neglected. There is no better example of this than the truck drivers. Thousands of articles, journals and reports have been published on the ramifications of autonomous vehicles on long haul truck drivers, suggesting the oversized importance of the occupation.

Currently there are 3.5 million truck, bus and taxi drivers nationally. As the economist Austin Goolsbee writes, if those jobs were to be completely eliminated over the next 15 years due to automation, that would equal roughly 19,000 jobs a month, compared to the 5.1 million other jobs lost and created each month economy-wide. Focusing on future displacement, while a fun mental exercise, ignores the vast majority of workers already displaced.

And we currently have substantial data about those displaced. In the last few decades, labor force participation of working age men has fallen by six percent. Yet the rate of participation has fallen three times as fast for male workers with only a high school degree as for those with a college degree. Similarly, the percentage of working-age non-Hispanic black men with a job has fallen twice as fast as white workers.

If anything, technology will amplify the need to support these workers, not change the focus. Local leaders that wait for automation, artificial intelligence or other technological watchwords to impact their workforce will miss a critical opportunity to support those in need today.

2. Incorporate digital skills into formal education.

While trying to predict the skill profile needed for future technology may be difficult, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of computer science and coding skills both now and in the future. Yet for too many students digital learning continues, at best, to be an extracurricular activity. One-third of American schools offer no computer science courses and far fewer require it. In 2017, twenty times as many high school students took the AP English test as AP Computer Science exam.

The lack of computer science training in formal education system also amplifies existing gender and demographic inequalities. According to Gallup, only 27 percent of girls report being encouraged by a parent or teacher to pursue computer science, compared to 46 percent of boys. Local leaders that are serious about preparing their communities for the ‘future of work’ should encourage local school boards to make computer science an equal priority to traditional subjects like history, art and English.

3. Support the on-demand workforce.

We already know some elements of how work will look in the future. According to McKinsey, four million Americans earn income from on-demand gig platforms like AirBnB and Uber, while over one-third of U.S. workers do freelance work (which includes everything from plumbers to copy editors). And the number of self-employed on-demand workers is expected to double by 2022.

Yet few programs exist at the local level to support this growing segment of the labor market. Municipal leaders should consider how better to incorporate the self-employed and non-traditional workers into existing workforce development activities.

4. Don’t try to predict the future. Use technology that’s proven to work.

While conversations about technology and the future of work usually revolve around automation, the reality is that there are thousands of applications of technology that can support workforce development activities, ranging from digital learning techniques to machine learning that better matches workers to job openings. To prepare their workforce for the future, municipal officials — particularly small and medium sized communities — should utilize tools that have been proven to work elsewhere. But some states and regions are too speculative of yet-to-be-proven technology within their economic and workforce development strategies.

For example, in the early 2000s, a number of cities and states developed cluster initiatives around nanotechnology, before a viable market existed. Those investments largely did not translate into jobs or economic activity because they weren’t based in existing technological strengths. Local leaders must walk a fine line between capturing the full benefit of regional technical assets and wishful thinking.

5. Identify what works and keep doing it.

The most important thing municipal leaders can remember when approaching the future of work is also the most obvious: The future isn’t going to be so different that the majority of proven strategies won’t remain effective. Creating new initiatives, programs and methods based on the hyperbolic hypothesis “everything will be different” is a mistake. Novelty is fine, but solving problems is better. If your city has a training program or community engagement model that is tried and true, keep doing it. Future workers will appreciate it as much as those in the past.

Technology is changing the world and work in ways that are difficult to predict. And it’s easy to get swept away by the hype around automation, artificial intelligence and other technologies that are poised to reshape society. Nonetheless, municipal leaders must make decisions today that will influence the allocation of precious resources in the future. Leveraging existing programs, learning from what’s worked in the past and expanding access to all residents continue to be the best strategy.

Scott-Andes-small.jpgAbout the Author: Scott Andes is the program director for the City Innovation Ecosystems program. The program, which looks to foster local innovation, entrepreneurship and STEM learning opportunities, is currently accepting applicants. Please visit the program’s web page to learn more.