Opinion: our capacity for artistic creativity will be at the heart of Ireland's resilience to global automation

When he became their president, Donald Trump suggested to the American people that there was a route back to the tomb-stoned rusted out factories of America. Carl Benedikt Frey, Chinchih Chen and Thor Berger argued in a recent paper that it was people "vegetating in the backwaters of the stream of progress" that swung the 2016 US presidential election.

Technological displacements are driving the new world order and creating concern, fear and uncertainty for voters that dread being left behind. The first wave of automation hit manufacturing hard resulting in a shift away from routine-based middle skilled jobs (e.g. clerks, plant and machine operators), towards low (e.g. shop and market sales workers) and high skilled (e.g. managers, professionals) service jobs.

This has produced a greater polarisation in jobs and incomes, as technologies (robots and algorithms) have replaced middle skilled people based-routines. This job-type displacement led to a place-type displacement. Despite better technologies in transport and computers, people required more face to face interaction as a source of ideas and the knowledge needed for new technological developments became more complex. This search for more complicated knowledge intensified the need for firms and human capital to locate in close proximity to one-another in order to learn. This resulted in the rise of larger, more densely populated, high skilled cities across the globe, causing stark spatial opportunities and inequalities.  

Between 1995 and 2015, Ireland experienced one of the most substantial transitional change shifts of middle skilled jobs to higher skilled jobs in the OECD

These patterns were not unique to the United States. All OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries broadly experienced this change, albeit at various different disparities. According to the OECD, the average decline across OECD countries in traditional middle skilled jobs was 7.6 percent from 1995 to 2015. In turn, the increase in low skilled jobs was 2.3 percent and 5.3 percent in high skilled jobs.

Between 1995 and 2015, Ireland experienced one of the most substantial transitional change shifts of middle skilled jobs to higher skilled jobs in the OECD. The decline in middle skilled jobs has been 15.1 percent and the increase in high skilled jobs has been 14.4 percent, with only 0.7 percent in low skilled jobs. Ireland has experienced over twice the rate of disparity to that observed in the US.

Broadly, about two-thirds of the change was due to rising job polarisation within industries and one third of it is due to the service sector being the largest and fastest growing component of OECD economies. Today, the service sector’s share in America’s economy has risen to 80 percent, compared to over 70 percent in Ireland and over 60 percent across the OECD. Manufacturing simply became less important as a source of jobs and those "lost" jobs in manufacturing were "replaced" by newer and often better paid jobs in the service industry.

"Nearly 10 percent of jobs in Ireland can be currently replaced by Artificial Intelligence"

But now, the second wave of automation (with smarter, more social machines) is on the horizon and is expected to create displacements in all sectors. The OECD predict that 8.2 percent of jobs in Ireland can be currently replaced by Artificial Intelligence and that a further 22.5 percent may be at risk as they have a high potential for a significant automobile change in tasks. The types of jobs at extreme risk are jobs in office and administrative support, low skilled services, transportation and sales related industries such as telemarketers, waiters, barmen, taxi drivers, accountants, tax preparation and jobs in retail.

This level of disruption means we must prepare our citizens for this eventual upheaval. But how? The areas expected to be the most resilient to automation will be in the domains of education, legal and community services, the arts, media, healthcare, computers, engineering and science. The most important institution in the state to help foster development in these areas is our education system. Education prepares us for the unpredictability of the future. Workers of the future will need to be flexible and continuously engaging in education and training.

And flexible we are not. 57 percent of adults in Ireland have trouble solving problems and learning ICT (Information and Communication Technology) skills even in technology rich environments. In recent years, education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines has received considerable emphasis from governments in advanced nations and they are identified as critical pillars for future creativity and innovation. The Irish government recently launched a plan to increase the total numbers of students taking Chemistry, Physics, Technology and Engineering at Leaving Cert level by 20 percent by 2026.

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From RTÉ Radio One's The Business, Liam Geraghty reports about efforts to stimulate curiosity in STEM skills and courses among young people

If this policy is successful what will the cost be? I worry that we overlook and are deprioritising a key area of human creativity. At the heart of the Irish entrepreneurial resilience to global automation will also be our capacity for artistic creativity. We need to put artistic creativity at the heart of our STEM subjects and policies. It’s the connections and knowledge-spillovers between scientific, artistic and entrepreneurial creativity that will drive future innovations. 

Artistic creativity and its spill-over effect to other aspects of life can be difficult to measure. But when we start looking for its contribution, it is all around us. We know it is crucial for social innovation and it is embodied in all the designs of the product and service innovations we consume every day. Current metrics suggest that when it comes to creative commercialisation (creative industries and creative occupations), the Irish are creative laggards in the European Union. We need to be concerned because this is a growing sector in Europe.

We can change our institutions and an obvious place to start is ensuring that the arts are at the heart of learning in the classroom

But why is this? Is it our education system? Is it a lack of support in the home for creative occupations? Is there a failure in our domestic firms to identify the potential that creative occupations can bring to their firm? Is it a lack of government support for creative occupations through local and national policy?

The positive news is that we can change our institutions and an obvious place to start is ensuring that the arts are at the heart of learning in the classroom. Proponents of integrating arts in the classroom, such as Howard Gardner, argue that it is a wonderful way to develop a range of intelligences in children. Irish evidence suggests such an approach leads to improved cognitive development and well-being. All of us are creative by nature and as Piccasso once said "every Child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up". It is our collective responsibility to ensure we have the institutions that can make creativity prosper.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ