Risks from automation: Rural areas need vision to survive

Risks from automation: Rural areas need vision to survive

If Percy French were alive today he would probably be tempted to add a verse or two to his famous song, ‘Come Back Paddy Reilly To Ballyjamesduff’.

The town in Co Cavan made famous by Ireland’s most notable troubador of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been placed in the top three towns where jobs are most at risk of automation. The others are Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, and Cahir, Co Tipperary.

Two out of every five jobs across Ireland are at high risk of automation, according to the findings of a University College Cork report.

While the study, Automation in Irish Towns: Who’s Most at Risk? looks at the impact of automation across urban areas, including satellite towns of Dublin like Skerries and Malahide, it shows that towns in rural Ireland are most affected.

According to one of its authors, Frank Crowley, economist at the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre at Cork University Business School, the impact of automation in Ireland is going to be felt far and wide.

It was ever thus. The impact of automation has been a factor in the lives of communities worldwide since the beginning of industrialisation. Indeed, to some extent, it goes back much farther, to the dawn of agriculture and the use of crude mechanisation to till land.

But, as Henry Ford showed in the early 20th century, automation can be a blessing as a well as a curse. At the time in the US, cars were hand-built, making them accessible only to the very wealthy. His development of the assembly line not only reduced cost and selling price, it also created millions of jobs.

The important thing is for politicians and other policy makers to recognise the challenges of automation and to respond to it effectively. Mr Crowley’s advice is that “the pattern of job risk from automation across Ireland demands policy that is not one size fits all, rather a localised, place-based, bottom up approach to policy intervention is needed”.

That is very sensible advice and accords with the views of his colleague Declan Jordan who, in an article in the Irish Examiner in December 2017, wrote about the concept of “smart specialisation” which is now widely accepted across the EU as an effective mechanism for sustainable regional development. He argued that the Government’s approach to regional development “is unlikely to generate the needed balance to the Dublin powerhouse”.

With the likelihood of a hard Brexit, that need for a new vision for rural Ireland is all the more urgent, but without knowing where we are, it is impossible to know where we are going. The study shows us clearly where we are and, as such, is a valuable contribution to regional science in Ireland. It should be carefully considered by business entrepreneurs, politicians and other policy makers.

If the proper policies are implemented and properly resourced, it will transform rural Ireland and give a reason for those who have left towns like Ballyjamesduff to come back — even Paddy Reilly.

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