Automation and Creativity

Oliver MacArthur and Joe Jervis write on on the importance of non-routine and creative skills as a policy focus to help address the challenges in the labour market.

While technological change has historically helped create enormous wealth and empowerment for many of the UK population, the market disruption by new technologies have created significant challenges for workers. As we approach the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’, we are likely to see a pace of change faster than in previous decades, with new technologies likely to significantly alter the future of work. The impact of new technology will be felt in almost every industry, and people without the knowledge and skills to take advantage will be left behind. A study by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, shows that only 52% of employers believe their employees have the necessary digital skills needed for the future. Given the increase in digitalisation and automation, this skills gap is likely to exacerbate over the coming years and decades. Labour needs to put forward an ambitious skills and education policy to be ready for the challenges ahead.


With automation rendering ‘routine’ skills increasingly less valuable, employers are likely to demand a level of ‘creativity’ that robots have traditionally struggled to replicate.  Given the variables – such as unforeseen technological advancements and the increasingly globalised nature of capital and labour – we must guard against a ‘predict and provide’ model, where policymakers try to estimate the number and nature of jobs available in each industry, and attempt to up-skill workers for those precise roles. What we can instead do is seek to understand the wider patterns and trends, with a focus on identifying where we can best seize opportunities and mitigate against risks. With this in mind, whilst automation and technological change is fast-paced, it is unlikely that algorithms will replicate human levels of creativity and logic that we rely on day-to- day over the next decade. These creative skills are particularly useful in the following three types of work:


Work which relies on ‘sensorimotor activities’. Unlike ‘routine’ work, these roles require a timely, considered and precise reaction to a variable catalyst – making them difficult to programme. We expect continued demand for human talent. This is particularly true where quick, rational responses are needed. For instance, robots are known to spend minutes picking up a towel, and are yet to master fast-paced sports like football or rugby. Favoured industries could include dentistry, hairdressing, architecture and artistry.


Creative work that relies on a certain level of psychology or problem-solving.  It is unlikely that algorithms will replicate human levels of creativity and logic that we rely on day-to-day over the forecast period. Every day we are faced with unpredictable circumstances, which need new, bespoke and complex solutions. Given the substantial ideation and emotional intelligence required, communications and marketing are areas less likely to see significant labour market disruption. Political strategy, business development and consultancy are areas where we are likely to see new technologies complement, rather than replace, human skills.


Complex communication relies on a level of emotion robots are yet to fully master. Recent advancements in Japan have included ‘robot friends’ and ‘robot care workers’, yet it is unlikely the UK will see social workers and carers replaced by machines in the next decade given the complex needs of the users of those services.


In terms of policy implications, we would encourage a greater emphasis on creativity and critical thinking within the education system (rather than rote learning of facts which is redundant), closer alignment of skills policies and funding with the needs of employers, and a focus on flexible skills. In short, we need a concerted effort from government to shift towards an education system for the digital age.

 Oliver MacArthur is an investment analyst at a charitable endowment and political writer. Joe Jervis is a communications specialist, political writer and former journalist. They tweet at @olliemacarthur and @joejervis89


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