Automation refers to the use or introduction of automatic equipment, such as robots, machines, or computers into the workforce, with the objective of reducing waste, increasing repetitions of a task, and saving money. Automation is not new, however the current pace and extent is causing some to speculate there will create a change in our economic system and lives.
Automation will be everywhere from retail experiences such as Amazon stores to medicine in the form of diagnostic tools such as Watson. On a very macro level, there are goals for entire cities to operate fully automated. Neom in Saudi Arabia promises to be the first highly automated city, where planning and construction will be initiated with $500 billion from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia and international investors. Their claim is that “repetitive and arduous tasks will be fully automated and handled by robots, which may exceed the population, likely making Neom’s GDP per capita the highest in the world”. Finally, there is the most talked about automation, which is that of driverless cars. Companies like Tesla and Uber are hard at work promising us faster more efficient mobility.
As automation becomes more integrated in our lives, we should consider its consequences on mental health and human to human interaction.
A) The Unintended Human Consequences
Despite all the great advancements automation will catalyse, there are two possible unintended human consequences to highlight. This is not to say automation has to be halted, it means that cities should be aware of the human effect of automation. This will lead to a smoother and smarter integration.
Firstly, we should consider the possible development of situational depression. This type of condition refers to experiencing depressive symptoms resulting from psychosocial stressors, such as sudden death in the family, a divorce, or a sudden job loss. Some cities in the UK are predicting to see between 13-25% jobs losses due to automation by 2030. If there are no plans or provisions to disperse these workers into other industries, we hypothesise a rise in situational depression amongst this segment of the population. This could potentially lead to a lower quality of life as well as increase mental health costs. This theory requires further research as not all people who lose their job will develop situational depression, we must understand all other contributing factors. In doing so we could help mitigate the effects.
The full extent of the consequences to cities and people from fast and widespread unemployment loss can be seen in the history of “ex-factory” towns such as Flint or Detroit, both in the state of Michigan, United States of America. The former is in the depths of a crisis whilst the latter has taken many decades to rise up. We have the opportunity to prevent history from repeating itself and make this transition smoothly.
Highly automated cities are still in the far future. However we should consider how a reduction in face-to-face interaction due to automation could have an effect on cognitive elements, such as empathy.
Human empathy is a psychological construct which has both cognitive and emotive components providing us with a highly sophisticated ability for emotional understanding. From the emotive perspective it is the ability to experience someone else’s emotions, an emotional contagion if you will (‘I feel what you feel’). When we perceive through visual and other sensorial cues another person’s behaviour it instantly elicits one’s own experiences for the behaviour. Output from this shared experience automatically activates the “motor areas of the brain where the responses are prepared and executed”5. This means that we experience another person’s sadness on a mental and neurological level. This is extraordinary detail into another person’s mental state that allows us to make highly intelligent decisions about social interactions. The second component is cognitive empathy, which includes more complex cognitive functions such as empathy perspective-taking and mentalising. This translates to ‘I understand what you feel’. Cognitive empathy allows us to extend our minds far away from our mental state, giving way for complex problem solving.
Empathy is necessary for various different tasks from providing the correct emotional support to a conversation or social interaction to understanding the plight of another human being. It can also be involved in more complex outputs, such as a the fast and strategic thinking in negotiations or a doctor developing new diagnostic techniques through constant observation and mind extension to the world of her patients. It is the ability to ask questions such as ‘how would a person react or feel if this happened’ or ‘is there a better way to communicate an idea’, or ‘how what is a service that people really need?’
This understanding of empathy illustrates how empathy is tied to human to human interaction. We have learned to develop our empathy capacity due to our highly socialised existence. Therefore, if automation begins to strip away the opportunities for human-to-human interaction, there could be a change in how we exhibit empathy as well as our capacity for it.
B) Relevance To The Built Environment
Creating opportunities in cities where people can spend time together such as parks, public squares and other third spaces. This will be increasingly important to counterbalance the places where people will have a depletion of human-to-human interaction.
Automation can have huge implications for the real estate and built environment industries. There is both risk and opportunity. Occupiers of o ce real estate will likely see their business practices change as a result of technology and automation. A report from McKinsey & Co states that 60% of businesses will see 1⁄3 of their processes automated, this changes the dynamic of employment and from whom office is rented1. There is already a shift occurring in large companies using serviced office centres such as WeWork over traditional office settings due to the cultural and physical offerings2. However, these serviced offices are still catering to the 20th century worker. Companies are urgently searching for the best possible talent. Some, like the BBC, HP, and Microsoft are going as far as attracting talent that is on the autism spectrum disorder to fulfill niche jobs. As automation helps with repetitive tasks or analyse large data sets, people will be expected to problem solve more complex problems. This means two opportunities, the opportunity is two fold; offices can evolve to places where people gather to think, meet, and research. Like a modern library or thought salons for those needing to solve complex problems. There is also an opportunity to transition workspaces to labs and makerspaces for future invention and growth. There is no evidence to point towards no longer needing to generate ideas due to automation. Therefore, whilst ideas are still needed, spaces for face to face interaction will still be needed.
Creating cities only for efficiency should not be the aim of automation, it should be to humanise the city. Autonomous vehicles could result in the reduction of traffic, which in turn allows transporting someone quicker to their family, work, or social activity. We need to think of automation as a tool to enhance and increase the time for human-to-human interaction.