Preparing for automation in NYC

| 15 Mar 2017 | 05:26

The ongoing battle between the New York City’s taxi industry and ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft is often cast as emblematic of the modern business climate, in which entrenched interests are besieged by disruptive new technologies. But that soon may seem thoroughly old fashioned, if, as many experts predict, driverless vehicles push both cab and Uber drivers off the roads and out of their jobs.

Automation often conjures images of robots, whether on an assembly line building cars or on the streets driving them, but the concept encompasses a much broader range of technologies, from software that could perform the work of paralegals, accountants, and Wall Street traders, to Amazon’s prototype retail store, opened recently in Seattle and operating entirely without cashiers.

The impact of burgeoning automated technologies on the city’s economy was the topic of discussion at a symposium held last week by the Center for an Urban Future that featured experts on technology, education, economics and business.

The disappearance of blue-collar manufacturing jobs is commonly associated with automation, but panelists said that in the years to come the impact will be felt increasingly by the middle class. “The employment effects of automation are going to be felt far beyond the Rust Belt and in a much broader swath of industries, including several that are mainstays of New York City’s economy,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future.

“As we think about automation, I would encourage us not to wait for this “Jetsons”-like future when all the jobs are gone,” Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes said. A robot or computer program might not take your job, but one may take over certain responsibilities — a recent McKinsey & Company report found that half of all activities that workers are paid to do could be automated by adapting existing technologies.

In a labor economy in which future growth sectors are so difficult to predict, New York City is banking on the need for an adaptable workforce that can learn to work in fields that may not even exist yet. “What these evolutions require are folks who have the skills to learn, to pick up new skills,” said Lauren Andersen, executive director of the city’s Tech Talent Pipeline program.

An initiative announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015 calls for every student in the city’s public school system to receive computer science education in elementary school, middle school and high school by 2025. “The goal is not to produce a lot of software engineers,” Andersen said. “The goal is to give students from every socioeconomic background the opportunity to get foundational problem solving skills, foundational communication skills, foundational analytical and computational skills” that will allow them to adapt in the face of uncertainty.

Nell Abernathy, vice president of research and policy at the Roosevelt Institute, applauded the city’s emphasis on pre-kindergarten programs. “I would say early childhood education is probably the most important step we could take,” she said. “It’s like the high school movement of our day. If you want flexibility and adaptability and critical thinking, you’d better start young.”

Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is at the forefront of efforts to overhaul the education system to meet the challenges of the changing economy, according to Stanley S. Litow, an executive at IBM, which worked with the city to create the school. Student at P-TECH study a hybrid curriculum of high school and college material and receive an associate degree upon completion of the six-year program, a model that has been adopted by dozens of other schools across the country. The school places an emphasis on the skills required for careers in information technology, and all students receive mentorship and work in paid professional internships. “Think of it as a 21st century version of an apprenticeship model,” Litow said.

According to Hughes, automation’s impact on the economy will necessitate not only a recalibration of education systems, but also a rethinking of a social safety net that was designed to suit an economy that no longer exists. Hughes co-chairs the nonprofit Economic Security Project, which advocates for universal basic income — a program that would hand out cash to every citizen. Proponents say that basic income would mitigate the impact of jobs lost to automation and help promote innovation. “From our perspective, we believe that the best thing that we’ve got going for America, and generally people in the world, is human creativity and entrepreneurship, and the best way to unlock that or unleash that is to lower the levels of stress around health and how your kids are going to afford a backpack or school fees, and enable people to invest in themselves and their own futures,” Hughes said.

He added, “A lot of times we think of basic income as a response to automation, but in my view we need it to fundamentally rebalance the economy and to give everybody a fair shot today.”

Michael Garofalo can be reached at