Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Almost half are clustered in the Midwest and South.
Automation. Depending on the angle from which you’re looking at the crystal ball, it’s either an imminent wave of large-scale labor force devastation or a slower, more muted change that society will seemlessly absorb—and perhaps even enjoy.
A recent paper by M.I.T’s Daron Acemoglu and Boston University’s Pascual Restrepo heats up that debate. The economists find that automation in the manufacturing industry has had quite adverse effects on employment and wages—and will continue to do so. While aspects of the study’s design and big-picture takeaways have been contested, this much is clear: robots have reshaped urban economies and labor markets—some more than others.
A new map, created by researchers at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, supports that case. Using the same dataset as the MIT economists, researchers pinpointed metros where industrial robots—defined as “automatically controlled and reprogrammable machines” that can perform tasks traditionally done by human workers—have been concentrated since 2010. “At a minimum these technologies create near and medium term transition issues for workers,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director at Brookings. “And that’s even if they do create additional jobs in new areas as some analysts insist.”
It may not come as a surprise, but almost half of all robots currenly being used are clustered in the Midwest and South—in states like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee that are home to the auto industry. Among metros, Detroit tops the list, with 8.5 robots for every 1,000 workers. It is followed by Toledo, Grand Rapids, Louisville, and Nashville—manufacturing hubs where the number of factory robots has tripled between 2010 and 2015.
These aren’t necessarily the places where robots will dominate in the future. In fact, adoption of automation of jobs in administration, food preparation, and sales jobs will likely occur outside the Rust Belt. The map does show, however, that incidence of robot workers, while spotty, has already had consequences in the local sphere beyond the economy. Via Brookings:
On this point, while the nation’s anxiety about automation appears broad and diffuse, the specific facts of robot use suggest that the most significant social impacts of at least this form of automation remain concentrated. Specifically, the robots map suggests that robot and broader economic anxiety (along with associated labor market stresses) may also max out in the industrial Midwest—particularly in such robot-exposed “red” states as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania where the election’s outcome was determined.