The below article was originally written in Urbanicity, a Hamilton-based news outlet, by Michael Adebo as part of a series of sponsored articles focused on the future of Hamilton and the ambitious city builders continuing its urban resurgence.
It’s a new decade and looking back, ten years ago seems so far away. Our world, and by extension, our lives have changed at a faster rate than ever before, and we have a boom in technology to thank for that.
For better or for worse, technology is here to stay — and it’s embedded in nearly every facet of our lives. From smartphones, to smart homes, to Bitmojis dancing in your living room — don’t believe for a second that we’re even halfway through the Digital Revolution. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
The way we work is where we’ll feel the impact of technology the most. Technology is changing the landscape of employment as we know it. As we progress into the next decade, we’ll see an abundance of jobs become automated or operate under the watch of artificial intelligence (AI); intelligent machines that work almost like humans — and I’m not talking about Siri.
These alterations in employment are happening all around us. In fact, as we enter the new year, well-known supermarket chain Loblaws announced the closure of two distribution centres in Laval, Quebec, and Ottawa, Ontario respectively, impacting 800 workers. The vacancy will transform distribution centres by adding robotics and machinery, and move away from a traditional warehouse look which Loblaw’s hopes will modernize their business.
In some cases, rather than being replaced, we’ll work alongside technology in the form of robotic arms and AI software. However, this doesn’t come without complications. Our AI co-workers are so efficient that there’s been cause for concern about the pressure it puts on human workers to increase their performance. For Amazon and their warehouse fulfilment centres maintaining one- and two-day delivery means enormous pressure on workers to operate as fast as machines, which is punctuated by growing human burnout and safety concerns.
AI is also capable of operating independently through machine learning. Machine learning provides artificial intelligence systems with the ability to automatically learn by recognizing patterns or characteristics. Anytime you’re recommended a new product on Amazon, a new show or movie on Netflix, or even certain ads on Instagram, machine learning is at work. Conversely, it’s been recorded as early as 2011 that shopping malls have been tracking customer behaviour through their smartphones to determine the length of stay and consumer shopping patterns, such as comparing items and prices between stores and whether or not people go out of their way to visit a specific store. This insight allows companies and those with access to AI technology to better target their intended audience.
If these revelations are stirring mixed emotions and apprehension, that’s understandable. If the popularity of Black Mirror is anything to go by, there’s an endless source of films, television, and other media that have conditioned us to be cautious of the control we relinquish to technology.
But maybe it’s a matter of perspective — rather than dreading how AI and automation will change our industries and displace us in the job market, it may be an opportunity to shift our skills to accommodate a digital future for the better. It’s what we’ve always done after all — change and adapt. When speaking about electronic hotel check-ins and the diminishing amount of human interaction, Toronto real-estate developer Brandon Donnelly stated that the change is inevitable. “We used to have elevator operators. Now we don’t. We used to have people shoveling coal into furnaces. Now we don’t. And I think that’s okay. We created different jobs. The same is likely to happen with Uber/Lyft drivers”.
The collection of skills required to find work in today’s market is indicative of a transition from a jobs economy to a skills economy, one that values critical thinking, interpersonal skills, problem solving, and above all — digital literacy. Digital literacy doesn’t mean that we’ll all become programmers and coders; instead it’s an understanding of and familiarity with tech in the same way that we value reading as a literacy skill. Think of it as the difference between your little cousin and your parents when they get ahold of an iPhone; one flourishes, the other is deeply confused. As it turns out, we’re not prepared for this shift. A 2018 RBC report on the future of work illustrated that neither the Canadian education system or employers are ready to train and help Canadians – specifically youth – navigate a skills economy.
So, where do we go from here? The future is always uncertain, but Hamilton is stepping up as a leader in our new, tech-filled future.
Not only do we have a robust collection of adult learning initiatives that are delivering digital literacy and computer skills programs, like those offered by Mohawk City School and St. Charles Adult Learning Centres across the city, we’ve also seen the beginnings of industries adapting to disruption closer to home.
By now we’ve all heard whispers of self-driving vehicles over the last few years. As of late 2019, an opportunity is on the horizon for Hamilton to be at the forefront of the incoming autonomous car wave. Starting later this year, several Hamilton Mountain streets will become testing areas for research into the cars’ sensor capabilities in a city environment — with a back-up safety driver behind the wheel of course. Research and development in this area continues to be made locally through the McMaster Automotive Resource Centre as well. Following our recent transportation woes, I’m inclined to agree with councillor John-Paul Danko, who’s stated this is a win for the city that “speaks back to our history as a manufacturing city”.
Speaking of which, Hamilton’s reputation as a manufacturing city will certainly remain intact. Another opportunity has risen in the form of modular construction. Modular design allows for a building to be 90% completed within indoor facilities, which are then assembled and completed on-site. ED Modular, a subservice of the construction company EllisDon, plans to capitalize on this technology by opening the biggest modular building facility in Canada — right in Stoney Creek (pictured in the cover photo). Modular construction is especially viable because of its environmentally-friendly methods and the speed at which modular buildings can be built at. Furthermore, shortened timelines and indoor construction are great news when confronting long, often harsh Canadian winters.
Stelco, one of Hamilton’s largest employers, is in the business of making steel — not an industry that comes to mind when we think tech. And yet this steel plant is at the forefront of deploying AI in day-to-day steel operations by partnering with Canvass Analytics for optimizing the steel production process using reinforcement learning. Stelco’s CEO, David Cheney, has noted that the implementation of AI has led to “reduced waste, improved quality and optimization of asset utilization.”
Many other industries are being disrupted by tech and several of those tech companies are flocking to Hamilton as their base of operations. Not only has the tech scene in Hamilton been named top 2 in North America for tech opportunity, we’re also Canada’s fastest growing mid-sized city for tech according to a report released by CBRE in 2018. In fact, this past month the techfin company Q4 Inc., a cloud-based investor relations platform, and Ackroo, a customer loyalty and gift card service announced that they will be launching Hamilton offices in 2020.
Then there’s McMaster Innovation Park, which acts as a support network through their affiliate tech hubs The Forge, Innovation Factory, and the soon to be built Emerging Technology Centre, where once finished, will act as a beacon for young professionals from across Canada and the world. McMaster is certainly leading the charge for exciting and fresh ideas, from becoming the new home for law firm Gowling, to biotech start-up Fusion Pharmaceuticals.
Fred Wilson, an American venture capitalist predicts that a shift to automation will lead to “experiments in reallocating wealth and income”. It’s very possible that retooling how we approach tech as workers and as a city is vital going forward. Rather than fear the Digital Revolution, perhaps we should get ahead of disruption, become acquainted with technology and start the decade on the right AI-assisted foot.
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