The automated city: do we still need humans to run public services?

From driverless buses to an AI council worker called Amelia, municipal services are becoming increasingly automated. But what does that mean for the future of our cities – and the jobs market?

Lamp lighters once performed a vital service for Londoners. Every evening as dusk fell they lit the gas lamps that illuminated the city’s shadowy streets, returning just before dawn to extinguish the flames. It was a respectable job, often passed from father to son. But, apart from the small band of British Gas engineers who maintain the 1,500 gas lamps still clustered around the royal parks, Westminster and Covent Garden, lamp lighters are now a thing of the past, their jobs snuffed out by automated timers and electricity.

The lamp lighters are part of a wider narrative that shapes every city: technological change. Scientific advances and new technologies often enable dramatic improvements in public services and urban life, eradicating some jobs while creating new types of employment. But the next chapter of urban automation might be more profound than any previous one. In fact, it’s already begun.

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