Riverside confronts dueling visions for its future. Ultimately, these diametrically opposed visions illuminate the public policy dilemmas that policymakers will have to navigate as they seek to shepherd their communities through the profound changes brought by technology and automation.
On one hand, the area is in the midst of an undisputed jobs boom driven by logistics, distribution and health care. With unemployment hovering at just 4 percent, pretty much any worker who wants a job has one. And people are flocking to the area for a shot at the New California Dream: The county’s population is projected to expand from 2.42 million in 2018 to 3.16 million in 2040. In the words of one stakeholder, “Whatever happens to California, happens here.”
On the other hand, the area’s boom is threatened by the (not yet fully understood) impact of technology and automation on jobs, tasks and workers. A chorus of national and international experts is sounding the alarm about overdependence on low-wage, low-skill employment in industries highly susceptible to technology and automation. And most of Riverside’s stakeholders understand that the clock is ticking.
But for now, these predictions remain abstract, obscured by the haze generated by the economic and population boom. Time and resources go to managing breakneck growth and addressing current challenges, ranging from education to quality of life to housing. While there is widespread agreement that the threat looms, there is widespread disagreement about what technology and automation actually have in store for Riverside and its workers.
Having more or less successfully executed previous pivots from agriculture to the military and logistics, the prevailing sense seems to be that Riverside can handle the next transition ushered in by technology and automation. Workers in logistics will transition to advanced manufacturing. Students will bud into entrepreneurs and headquarter their startups in downtown. Public investment in culture and place will attract the creative economy.
But stakeholders also worry that this time could be different. The question, of course, is the toll that the next transition takes on the area’s economy and workers. Whether Riverside benefits from or falls victim to technology and automation is largely up to its citizens and policymakers.
Instead of “Build it and they will come,” Riverside’s guiding motto seems to be “We know they’re coming, so we’d better keep building” – which illustrates its determination to capture the benefits of growth using whatever means available. But Riverside’s policymakers and citizens will need to look beyond the quick fix to preempt a future in which technology upends not only their jobs and incomes, but also their communities.
In the end, as Riverside confronts the disruption and challenges of the coming wave of technology and automation, stakeholders should ask: “What do we want to build?”