Rapidly advancing technologies are transforming our lives and careers faster than ever today, but how could these changes impact our communities? What opportunities and challenges might be created by new advancements?

Although there are dozens of trends and technologies reshaping communities around the world, this article will focus on five trends and an emerging technology driving each trend.

1. Automation of Everything

For decades, automation meant something like a large robot arm at the Ford factory welding doors on cars on an assembly line. Relatively recent advancements in artificial intelligence have moved automation from primarily displacing physical labor, to something that also impacts knowledge workers. A great example of this is in the finance industry. A large percentage of stock trading is now done solely by machines, and many job roles in financial services are rapidly being replaced by algorithms.

How does the AI-powered automation of knowledge work, in addition to physical work, impact communities? First, it’s important to recognize that no job is completely immune from being automated. Second, community leaders need to start thinking about which careers will be more in demand and which are most likely to be affected by automation, and then work with educational institutions and local businesses to train tomorrow’s workforce for those careers that have the best outlook. Lastly, use automation tools to enhance the abilities of human workers. Some tasks, such as those that are repetitive or potentially dangerous, would likely be a better fit for a machine than a human. By automating those tasks, human workers can have more time to focus on more interesting work. Regardless, some job roles are simply not going to be done by humans much longer, and the sooner we recognize that, the better positioned we’ll be for the future. How would your community change if even 10% of jobs there could now be done by machines? What about 25%? Which jobs might be automated first? By asking questions like these, we can better prepare for a future of increased automation, and begin finding ways to mitigate the impact to the local workforce.  

2. Transportation Transformation

Once relegated to the realm of science fiction, self-driving vehicles are very much a reality today, with services already operating driverless vehicles in Texas and Florida, and with California and Arizona no longer requiring a human back-up driver to test autonomous vehicles anywhere in those states. The automation of driving will profoundly transform communities, maybe even more than the introduction of the first vehicles in cities back in the late 1800’s.

One major unexpected impact could be the extreme reduction in the need for parking. The average car in the U.S. sits parked 95% of the time, and currently most cities have regulations for how many parking spaces are need for residential and commercial buildings. What if even 25% of people are able to use self-driving shared car services instead owning a vehicle? How would cities be transformed if we could reclaim vast areas of prime real estate now being consumed by parking? What about rural areas? Rural areas might experience a relative population boom if people can sleep, work, or read on their commute to a job in a nearby city.  

3. Retail Revolution

If you’ve been to your local mall lately (if it’s still open), you know that how and where we buy and sell is in the midst of a period of profound change. More stores announced closures last year than during the worst of the recession in 2008. And that trend only seems to be picking up steam with numerous recent bankruptcies of decades-old retailers like Toys ‘R Us. With all this disruption of brick-and-mortar locations, you might think that most shopping is now done online. In fact, less than 15% of total retail is through ecommerce – we have a lot of disruption of traditional retail yet ahead of us.

A store closing can have a devastating impact on a downtown shopping district or the local mall, How can communities repurpose space left vacant by a shuttered retailer? One exciting opportunity for vacant retail space is vertical gardens. These indoor farms can harvest produce year-around and only use a fraction of the water used by traditional farming practices. They also don’t require pesticides since the growing environment is completely controlled. They can provide fresh produce to communities and potentially improve the availability of healthy foods in communities that otherwise don’t have many fresh food options. Companies such as AeroFarms are growing all over the world, and as lighting and produce management technologies continue to improve, vertical gardens will only become more prevalent.  

4. Redefining the Workplace

Where work is done is being redefined by technology. For decades, “work” was something that largely happened from 9-to-5, Monday through Friday in an office building. A variety of advancements are beginning to change that, in addition to the values of younger generations workers entering the workforce. Smartphones with email capabilities expanded our availability and fast internet and laptops meant we could work anywhere. Company communication tools like Slack and Facebook@Work, enabled remote teams to efficiently communicate throughout the day without the need for physical proximity. More than that technology, though, the transformation of work away from a structured 40 hour week might be driven by the desire for flexibility. At some point in the near future it may even be common for incoming employees to choose the number of hours they want to work each week and how many of those are at location and how many are remote. This would allow parents to more easily care for their children and for employees to work “gig” jobs like driving for Lyft or delivering groceries for Shipt (another trend that’s rapidly increasing). A more fluid and dynamic “work day” could change everything from traffic patterns to office building leases, and will require community leaders to adapt to these changes to serve workers there.   

5. Agriculture

What we eat is being changed by technology as well. There is likely no better example of this than what is happening in the “fake meat” industry. Thanks to decades of investment and research, we have come a long way from the Tofurky of old. Meat is notoriously difficult to replicate with plant-only ingredients. Not only does it have to taste like the meat it is imitating, is has to feel like it to. Getting the so-called “mouth feel” right has proven to be a profound challenge for the various entities working to replace meat with plant ingredients. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are leading the way in this industry and are changing customer perception of what a plant-based burger or bratwurst is.

Beyond Meat fought hard to have grocers stock their plant-burgers alongside traditional burgers and that strategy has seemed to pay off. Just last week, a large California grocery store announced that they are selling more Beyond Meat burgers than real meat burgers, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The Impossible Burger is now being served at thousands of restaurants and fast-food locations around the country, including the large chains TGI Friday’s, My Burger, and White Castle.

Why is the rapid growth of meat alternatives important to communities? First, if your community has a large meat-related industry – anything from cattle ranches to meat processors, the move to fake meats could impact jobs and the local economy. Also important to consider, though, is the environmental and health impacts of a meat-heavy diet. It’s long been known that raising cattle is a spectacularly inefficient way produce calories. It’s water intensive and produces a lot of greenhouse gases per pound produced. Eating a lot of red meat is also not good for our health. Although meat replacements currently only represent a small percentage of the overall market, new advancements in alternatives, along with changing consumer perceptions, could dramatically increase the consumption of these products. Communities could benefit from this by having a healthier population that requires fewer health care services and an environment that’s a little bit less polluted.

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The trends and technologies mentioned here only represent a small fraction of the many changes communities are experiencing right now, and as the rate of advancement of technology increases, the change communities must navigate will also increase. How can community leaders be better prepared to survive and thrive in our fast-changing future?

It starts with attention. Leaders must pay attention to how fast the world is changing, and not just the changes happening right in front of them. Watch the peripheral changes happening. Often change starts out as an opportunity for those that are paying attention, but can quickly turn into a challenge if ignored long enough. A good place to start is to follow thought leaders in a variety of industries on social media. Let these experts act as a curation funnel to keep you up-to-date on important advancements and opportunities in their respective areas.   

Next, once you’re paying attention to areas outside your normal focus, you can begin to anticipate the possibilities created by all this change. Once you identify an emerging trend or technology, you can begin to consider how it might impact your community in the future, and most importantly, what you can do it about it today. And that’s the last step: action. While it’s important to know what’s happening and to think about where that could lead, it doesn’t mean much if you don’t take action. Make it a priority to find ways to take action to turn the possibilities created by change into opportunities for yourself and your community, and you will be more future-ready, regardless of what trends or technologies emerge.