The urban/rural divide and the future of work — a LIVE! Q&A with Sean Speer


On this edition of RealAg LIVE!, host Shaun Haney’s guest is Sean Speer, assistant professor of Public Policy at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and former senior economic advisor to Stephen Harper. Shaun and Sean discuss the future of work and the impact on rural communities and agriculture, as well as the intersection of technology adoption and productivity.

A Fellow at the Public Policy Forum, Speer and co-author Waseem Ahmed recently published “A Place-Based Lens to the Future of Work in Canada“; a look at how technological trends not only impact industries directly, but also the rural communities we live in.

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  • Looking at the difference between the future of work between urban and rural environments
  • What does the future of work look like?
    • changes to the markets and industries based on increasing technology trends
    • it’s not just going to drive productivity, but it’s also going to affect workers
    • how the adoption of technology is going to change the labour market
  • Is there a negative side to how robotics & AI will change the industry?
    • the adoption of technology will have a ton of positive implications, but there will be some sectors that are disproportionally affected
    • there’s an onus on policy makers to recognize that the good that comes with automation will also come with downsides
  • What makes rural communities more susceptible to these changes?
    • how can we predict how the effects will play out?
    • we have certain occupations and industries where adoption of technology is more likely, and those where it is less likely
    • working in a restaurant, for example, needs human contact and isn’t easily optimized through technology
    • the types of occupations in rural centres are more likely to be susceptible to optimizations, and are more likely to feel the negative affects
      • occupations run on routine are more likely to be able to be optimized (someone working on an assembly line at a production plant, for example)
      • rural places tend to have occupations that are more routinized, so the balance is higher than in urban centres
  • Are all rural communities created equal? Are all provinces the same when seeing this effect?
    • there are certain parts of the country with higher levels of automation risk
    • Western Canada is relatively well diversified with high-skilled occupations, and is generally well placed to reap the benefits from technology disruption while minimizing the worker displacement
    • Eastern Canada is particularly prone to automation risk (ex. the auto sector)
      • fewer people working in the sector, but higher productivity
      • we can’t lose sight of the fact that productivity gains will result in people being negatively affected
  • What are some of the things we need to be doing to make sure there aren’t areas of Canada left behind?
    • there is a need to make sure public policy makers create opportunity in every corner of the country — not just the urban centres
    • our economy is trending toward small amounts of high-interest opportunities
    • there are some steps policy makers can take to pull capital across different areas of the country and economy
  • How does access to technology and broadband influence where the growth is?
    • Urban areas have the network capacity to support innovative sectors
    • We want to have a more even spread of economic activity & funding across rural and urban areas, but policy has to make it happen
  • Is there enough incentive for policy makers to care about these other areas?
    • Our three biggest cities are responsible for 40 per cent of Canada’s population and so are focused on when it comes to election time
    • there’s an absence of the knowledge of risk associated with neglecting rural areas
    • just because rural communities have a weaker political voice does not mean they can afford to be neglected
  • There’s been a trend toward big corporations moving out of the downtown core — will this continue?
    • a public policy framework that supports this trend will benefit both rural and urban communities
    • if we re-conceptualize how and where we work, we can spread the benefits and costs more widely across the country
  • What is the role universities play in trying to help rural communities sort through this area?
    • Rural universities and colleges play a unique role in supporting their own communities and regions
      • they are anchors for human capital, for innovation, and for supporting entrepreneurship
      • they can be drivers of rural economic development
  • Immigration is critical to the future of rural communities
    • we do a great job of attracting international students, but we don’t do a great job in retention after they’ve graduated — they either move to an urban centre or move back to their home country
    • Atlantic Canada “Study & Stay” program to build roots in the community
    • we’re attracting students to these communities, but we’re not doing all we should to keep them
  • Opportunity Zones — providing tax preferences to investors who want to invest in economically stressed areas

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