Scotland should develop an economic and social strategy for responding to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, according to a new report.
The “Automatic... For The People?” study calls on authorities, industry and civic organisations to create a national vision and action plan to guide Scotland through the challenges and opportunities of automation and digital disruption.
The report from the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), BT Scotland, ScotlandIS and the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) said automation and technological progress have the potential to help boost Scotland’s productivity and generate higher growth even while the country’s working age population is forecast to fall.
It identifies new business and employment opportunities as well as the areas of economic activity that are most likely to be exposed to digital changes in Scotland.
The report includes 12 key recommendations on how Scotland can boost productivity and generate higher inclusive economic growth against a background of a reducing working age population.
Matt Lancashire, SCDI director of policy, said: “The report highlights the need for a national discussion about a Fourth Industrial Revolution strategy.
“The timing of this report is pivotal as Scotland is at a crossroads. There is a lot of good work on automation and digitalisation across the country but there needs to be an inclusive, joined-up strategy - with economic and social dimensions - as is being adopted in front-runner countries.”
The report said Scotland needs to be a digital innovator and an “agile adopter and adapter”, noting that significant investment will continue to be needed in blue-skies and applied research.
It recommends redesigning education, skills, training, lifelong learning and employment for the new world of work, to equip children from early years onwards and to re-equip the current workforce.
Mark Dames, head of policy and public affairs at BT Scotland, said: “If Scotland is to reap the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the country needs to become a truly digital nation, able to adopt new technologies quickly and adapt them for economic and social gain.
“Our education system will need to shift towards a focus on digital skills from the early years onwards and our workforces will need to continually upskill, so they can respond to highly disruptive marketplaces.”
The report found automation is most likely to affect jobs which involve administrative, clerical and production roles - suggesting that transport, some aspects of manufacturing and the retail sectors are most likely to feel the impact.
However it found technological change will automate individual tasks rather than whole jobs, so many jobs will evolve rather than disappear entirely.
The report was informed by automation and digitalisation analysis from the Fraser of Allander Institute.
Polly Purvis, chief executive of ScotlandIS, the trade body for the digital technologies industry, said: “Automation will enable more and more businesses and public-sector organisations to increase productivity and free up staff time to concentrate on more valuable elements of their work.
“It provides a huge economic opportunity for Scotland and one that we are increasingly well placed to harness with our innovative digital technologies companies, world-class computing science research base and skilled technology workforce.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We recognise both the importance of emerging technologies and the need to influence future labour markets.
“The Scottish Government has invested £48 million in the National Manufacturing Institute and continues to support world-class innovation centres.
“Our work on smart cities is helping businesses take advantage of new technologies and advance their ability to integrate with data and digital.
“Automation and innovation in the use of robotics technology can potentially play a very important role in both expanding Scotland’s economic output and in enhancing our competitiveness as an economy, while also helping ensure we can enable businesses to ‘reshore’ manufacturing activity from overseas markets, particularly where overseas labour costs are lower.
“Clearly, if Scotland is able to influence and steer how the Fourth Industrial Revolution develops we will be best placed to ensure automation has a positive rather than negative impact on Scotland and our people.
“There is an obvious need to safeguard and develop future jobs and our Labour Market Strategy will take forward analysis of issues such as automation and technological change in order to help employers and employees respond to them positively.”