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Will robots really take our jobs?

Pharmacists, store clerks, drivers, and babysitters - what do these jobs all have in common? They're all jobs that may be lost to robots. In fact, in some cases, robots are already filling these roles. For example, Aeon Co., a major Japanese retailer, introduced a four-foot-tall yellow and white robot at a store in 2008 whose job is to babysit children while the adults shop. These robots tell jokes, give quizzes, and can track kids using a radio-frequency identification chip.

Robots seem to offer endless potential to make life “easier” for humans. But what about the potential impacts on society and workers? Recently, several publications have examined these sorts of questions. For a quick overview of the debate take a look at the OECD Insights Blog or a recent article from The Atlantic. For the latest in-depth discussion on the subject, however, take a look at this 2014 report, AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs, from the PEW Research Centre. The report includes balanced discussion derived from interviews and surveys of 1,896 experts, and provides some interesting insights for those in economic or workforce development trying to better understand the potential impacts of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics.

The changing geography of innovation

Over the past 50 years, the innovation landscape has been dominated by developments like Silicon Valley - corridors of isolated corporate campuses, accessible mainly by car, where people do not live or participate in recreational activities. While the success of Silicon Valley is well known, the preferences of people and firms are changing. Today, employees and businesses want access to more walkable neighbourhoods and more urbanized and vibrant environments where proximity is the priority. Proximity leads to “open innovation”, where ideas and knowledge are transferred more quickly and seamlessly.

The Brookings Institute details the rise of the Innovation District - physically compact, transit-accessible hubs of innovation where people live, work, shop, and play - in a recent report on the changing geography of innovation. These districts are emerging in major urban centers around the world, re-imagining and remaking under-utilized areas (particularly older industrial areas) so that they are “designed and organized to stimulate new and higher levels of connectivity, collaboration and innovation.”  As Dennis Lower of the Cortex West Redevelopment Corporation in the United States puts it, “It’s all about programming: choreographing 'spontaneous' opportunities for smart people to interact with each other.” While the report focuses on the United States, there is definitely valuable information and insight for economic developers in Canada and around the world.

Finding the hidden value in vacant spaces

Although vacant buildings can be seen as a threat to the health, safety and vibrancy of a neighbourhood, these spaces also represent an opportunity. In a previous edition of TINAN, we explored a few inspiring efforts to reclaim and remake vacant buildings and lots. One challenge in doing so, however, is determining the potential value of a vacant space. In order to answer this question in the Chicago context, the Hidden Value in Abandoned Buildings (HViAB) tool was created to unlock the hidden value of vacant properties. The tool maps vacant properties in relation to retail, educational, cultural and transportation amenities within a half mile radius. By showing the proximity to amenities, investors can see more than an empty building and instead realize the potential value in redeveloping the property. Although the tool has only been piloted in one neighbourhood in Chicago so far, there is opportunity for any municipality to use and adapt this approach to promote the hidden value and redevelopment potential of its vacant properties.

How microloans are evolving in the U.S.

Microcredit has created new funding opportunities for many small startups around the world. A microloan is defined as a small (generally no more than $35,000), short-term loan with a low interest rate that's usually extended to a startup or entrepreneur. The microfinance and microcredit concept was pioneered by Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank to “create economic and social development from below".

Microloan initiatives like Kiva are most often associated with providing funding for entrepreneurs in the developing world, and are often focused on lending to alleviate poverty. However, when the 2008-2009 economic downturn dried up many traditional funding opportunities for small businesses in the United States, Kiva expanded its service to American startups. Recently, Entrepreneur magazine outlined a couple of examples of how microloans have since evolved in the US to meet the needs of startups:

  •, which extends microloans through crowdsourcing and allows business owners to borrow from friends and family.
  • PayPal Working Capital, which offers microloans to a select number of businesses and allows them replay the loans at a fixed percentage of total monthly business sales.

For those looking for examples from Canada, check out the
Assiniboine Credit Union Micro Loan Program, which in partnership with Western Economic Diversification Canada offers small business loans up to a maximum of $35,000 to start or grow small businesses in the Winnipeg area, and the Immigrant Access Fund, which provides loans for skilled immigrants who can't pay for the licensing/training they need to work in their field in Canada. Examples like these provide some helpful insights for those working with small businesses in both Canada and the U.S. in need of access to different funding options.

Employment Development Index July 2014

Employment Development Index September 2012

Our Employment Development Index is a visual representation of changes in regional employment figures over time. Visit the Employment Development Index archives for previous editions.

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