By Guest Author 20/06/2019


Phil McDermott  

Flexible land-use planning complements a complex, dynamic and unpredictable employment environment.

The future of work is drawing increasing policy attention internationally and locally. When considering the physical demands of changing forms of production, distribution and consumption, there are strong arguments for seeking a more flexible approach to the associated land use and infrastructure requirements of working and residential spaces. In doing so, we can seek out advantages in terms of the carrying capacity of the land and the sustainability of social and economic wellbeing.

A review of the thinking on the future of work includes:

  • increasing disruption to established sectors, businesses and commercial relationships;
  • despite diverse views (and unequal impacts), globalisation will continue, probably in a modified form (based once more on strategic or political blocs, perhaps), sustaining the long-term increase in the international movement of goods, people, capital and information;
  • the automation and deskilling of high-order services, supporting the decentralisation of services;
  • the increasing use of robotics for both repetitive and skilled work, and AI for transactional and specialist services;
  • the footloose nature of work associated with enhanced communications and with changes in what needs to be done and where (breaking from fixed tasks in fixed places);
  • the impact of critical changes in logistics on production and distribution (especially relevant to New Zealand’s trade-dependent economy, distant as it is from major markets); and
  • the likelihood, impact and risks associated with a widening material gap between highly educated people with the necessary skills to adapt and the balance of the workforce committed largely to low-skill low-wage employment, and the consequent disparities in residential choices.

The studies highlight the inability to predict outcomes too far into the future. Yet, how we deal today with uncertainty about what work will look like tomorrow may be as critical to the outcome as the unknown events and behaviours that will shape it. Extrapolating current tendencies and thinking may simply increase the potential for disruption by reinforcing an expectation that the old ways of doing things will be enough to get by.

This suggests that our responses to an increasingly complex, dynamic and unpredictable employment environment should focus on adaptability. They might include:

  • encouraging greater workforce flexibility with emphasis on generic skills training and retraining, and measures to enhance vocational (and geographic) mobility;
  • flexibility among the public institutions in the labour market and the welfare sector in terms of the support, advisory, and placement services they might offer; and
  • a culture in business and government, among investors and regulators, that:
    • supports innovation and investment in new products, processes and services;
    • encourages entrepreneurship in services;
    • facilitates business start-up, growth and collaboration;
    • supports investment in new activities and practices by established and middle-sized firms; and
    • welcomes diversity in social and economic investment.

These measures call for a focus on the quality of human resources, new forms of organisation, and uncluttered investment paths.

In the face of disruptive technologies and new forms of organisation, the range of business and employment categories should increase, although their form and scope are unknown. Their land use needs and infrastructure impacts are not easy to anticipate. But we can already see a break-down of traditional boundaries between uses, both in terms of process and location. For example, the traditional divisions among production and distribution, distribution and wholesaling, wholesaling and retailing, offices and factories, and white-collar and blue-collar employment no longer apply. Consequently, exclusionary land use zoning based on long-established industrial categories no longer works as a means of managing the physical impacts of businesses.

Boundaries will become further blurred or disappear as we move into an era of AI and extensive automation, home-based employment and localised short-term product cycles – all tendencies which may be skewed or reversed as issues around climate change and sustainability change the geographic shape of markets.

Such prospects (like housing a diversifying population) call for a more liberal approach than favoured by today’s planning and policy institutions. The aim should be to cater for diverse investment, business and employment needs by focusing regulation on managing impacts, not activities. Ideally, land will be developed as required by the community to avoid forestalling progressive investment, subject simply to the ability to service it and the capacity of the natural environment.

Among other things, greater flexibility in our approaches to land use should allow and support the decentralisation of settlement – within existing urban areas, among them and outside them. Innovation in infrastructure could see a reduction in the diseconomies associated with over-intensification of confined urban areas (e.g., congestion, infrastructure failures, water quality, health impacts and loss of biodiversity) and reduce their vulnerability to disruption from external events – natural or geo-political. The implication is stepping back from over-concentration of people and resources and a focus on ensuring communities can take advantage of changes in how and where work is done will best enable societies to adapt to the changing nature of employment.

More information

Phil McDermott is an Auckland-based urban development consultant.