Automation and robotics: An economic challenge or opportunity?

The move to automation and robotics is an increasingly discussed topic across the political and economic landscapes. ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and ‘Machine Learning’ are now common terms with potential for innovations to improve productivity and change the way we do business. Evolving technologies do however raise an important question: what will the UK’s employment base look like in the future? Reports from the Office for National Statistics highlight that more than seven out of ten jobs across the UK will be at medium or high risk of being lost to automation[1] with implications for the preparation of economic strategies and workforce planning across the UK.

Despite these warnings, the latest report by the Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee highlights that the current lack of automation in the UK is an issue of concern. The UK currently ranks 22nd for the number of robots per 10,000 employees across the world, lagging behind European countries such as Germany (ranked 3rd); Sweden (5th); Denmark (6th); Belgium (9th); and Italy (10th)[2]. Limited automation in the UK could contribute to continued expansion of the productivity gap, presenting a risk of the UK losing jobs and restricting economic growth if it fails to adopt new technologies.

The latest report by the BEIS Committee outlines what needs to be done by Government, businesses, and universities in order to increase the use of robots in the economy[3]. Proposed measures include:

  • The introduction of a UK Robot and AI Strategy by 2020 as well as a Robotics Sector Deal in order to address the poor take up of automation and to enable the UK to become globally competitive and attract global investment.
  • Support for the increased uptake of automation in SME’s through research funding and incentives for investment, working with higher education institutes where there are strong knowledge assets.
  • Working with industry in order to devise an action plan for re-skilling in those sectors which are at the highest risk of job losses.
  • Introducing a new flexible school curriculum that sets the foundation for lifelong learning and reskilling as workforce requirements evolve.

The findings of this report have key implications for economic development planning, providing encouragement for organisations including LEPs, local authorities and higher education institutions to incentivise innovation and automation towards SME’s. ekosgen’s recent workload has considered such opportunities with the need for effective planning and the management of automation impacts anticipated to be a consideration across much of the team’s future workload. 

As the Industry 4.0 agenda progresses, this area is expected to present a long term opportunity but short term challenge for many individual businesses, sectors and overall economies as changes begin to be applied. The development of facilities and support services (building awareness, practical knowledge and confidence to apply robotics in business activities) to support the transition – particularly for SMEs – is expected to form an important part of the solution and is an area that the ekosgen team are currently exploring with clients.

For more information please contact Kirsten Powell on 0845 644 3023 or


[1] Office for National Statistics. Probability of Automation in England 2011 to 2017, March 2019.

[2] International Federation of Robotics Industrial Robotics Report 2018.

[3] House of Commons Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Committee. Automation and the Future of Work, September 2019.