The Future of Work: Here’s to our robot overlords

LlamaZoo's newest product sees the forest for the trees and the trees for the forest. The visualization tool uses terabytes of data about a planned logging site from satellite and aerial imagery, geographic information and infrared surveys to create a 1:1 digital replica of the area—down to the placement and height...

Credit: Steven Hughes

Could the threat of machines stealing jobs be exactly what B.C. needs?

LlamaZoo‘s newest product sees the forest for the trees and the trees for the forest.

The visualization tool uses terabytes of data about a planned logging site from satellite and aerial imagery, geographic information and infrared surveys to create a 1:1 digital replica of the area—down to the placement and height of an individual Western red cedar. With virtual reality glasses and a handset, planners can lasso a stand of trees and instantly calculate the value of its lumber. They can fly over hills and gullies, lay out roads and cut blocks, all without putting helicopters in the air or people in the woods.

Combining disparate pieces of data into one interactive picture is what Victoria-based LlamaZoo does. For its forestry software, the firm partnered with FPInnovations, a logging industry research non-profit, and Interfor Corp. for data and product feedback. Vancouver-headquartered forestry giant Interfor thinks the tool will save at least $3 per cubic metre of wood by cutting helicopter time, field days and training, and allowing for better planning. All of that also means safer working conditions.

“It will change the way we plan forest operations, and it will transform information sharing with the First Nations and other stakeholders,” says Robin Modesto, a manager with Interfor‘s coastal woodlands division. 

Time to bite the bullet?

A harmonious collaboration of human and robot. A new technology disrupting an industry that hasn’t changed much since the invention of the logging truck. This is the promise of automation, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, the Internet of things and other emerging technologies. Done right, harnessing stacks of data makes jobs safer, easier and less mundane, and helps companies become more efficient, competitive and innovative.

B.C. is well positioned to capitalize on what some call the fourth Industrial Revolution. Already tech hubs, Vancouver and Victoria lie in the same time zone as and a short flight from other industry hot spots on the West Coast. The Lower Mainland is second only to Silicon Valley for the size of its virtual and augmented reality cluster, says Dan Burgar, president of the international VR/AR Association’s Vancouver chapter. From 15 member companies in 2015, his organization has grown to 230.

Last year Japanese IT giant Fujitsu located its global centre for AI development in B.C. Plus, the province is home to three top research universities—SFU, UBC and UVic—known for producing skilled grads and innovative technology, and several other post-secondary institutions lauded for their responsive programming.

Still, we’ve all heard the same complaints. Government policies and high taxes discourage growth. Businesses find it hard to attract and retain talent. A lack of venture capital forces homegrown companies to look across the border. And risk aversion permeates the province and the country.

“I think the reluctance or fear to embrace technology too quickly historically kept industry stable,” says Charles Lavigne, co-founder of LlamaZoo. “But sometimes you have to bite the bullet and go with what the market demands.” 

Automatic fail

This is the intersection where B.C. sits. If we make the right moves, we’ll fertilize a vibrant technology industry that sucks in investment and blooms production. Get it wrong, and the province’s economy could wither, prompting the tech sector to move to friendlier valleys. Putting B.C. in the sunny patch requires government and business working together. And a lot of data—to understand what’s happening in industry and to fuel this technological revolution.

How are we doing so far? “The data is conclusive: Canada is not productive, and automation risks making it worse,” says David Williams, VP of policy at the Business Council of British Columbia.

Williams came to that conclusion after authoring two reports in 2018. One found that Canadian workers are some 20-percent less productive per hour than their U.S., German and French counterparts. To try to catch up in the past few decades, Canada relied on people working longer hours and women entering the job market. Both strategies are now tapped out.

The second report teased out how automation will impact B.C. workers. Williams figures that 42 percent of occupations in the province have significant potential for automation over the next 20 years, and that it will touch almost every worker. Digitization should encourage strong job growth and wage gains for highly skilled workers, he says, and moderate growth and gains for those with basic skills. So-called middle-skill roles, like office-support and production-line jobs, will feel automation’s bite the most.

Put those findings together, and they point to a systemic problem: B.C. businesses spend less on capital investment, research and development, and training employees than companies in the U.S. “There’s a big opportunity here to improve our economy,” Williams says. “We need to employ new tools, new skills and new technology to make every human worker more productive.”

He thinks government has a big role to play. Higher productivity could fund a better safety net that helps educate and train people who lose their jobs to automation, and the right tax incentives and policy shifts could encourage competition. “Survival is a powerful motivator for firms to update processes and invest in people and equipment,” Williams observes.

The provincial government realizes that change is coming, says Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s minister of jobs, trade and technology. “Our government is taking action to ensure that people have the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow,” Ralston tells BCBusiness.

The Emerging Economy Task Force, which includes experts from industry and academia, is advising the government on navigating the automation shift. Since taking power in 2017, the NDP have created the B.C. Employer Training Grant to enable companies to up-skill staff. They’ve also invested more than $60 million in tech-focused seats at universities, co-op opportunities, scholarships and entrepreneurial training, and appointed innovation commissioner Alan Winter to advocate for B.C. tech firms at the federal and international levels.

To help ideas become businesses, Crown agency Innovate BC runs 12 accelerator programs. Federally, there’s the B.C.-based Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, an industry-led collaborative effort that aims to allow small and medium-sized businesses to scale and to make the country a global leader in digital innovation. 

Show us the money

Companies say they need more to thrive. Even for an established business like Llama- Zoo, co-founder Lavigne says it’s challenging to secure financing. “There is a shortage of true venture capital in B.C.,” he explains. “We have to look south to Washington or California to raise money.”

The lack of capital shifts shareholder power out of Canada and talent along with it, says Nikolas Badminton. The tech industry veteran, researcher and futurist may move to Toronto because “Vancouver is a tough city to work in. The funding is not here.” Vancouver and Victoria’s affordability is part of the issue. “In San Francisco, a kid can make $200,000 right out of college,” Badminton says. “Even though it’s an expensive city, she can pay rent with that.”

The government can’t create a more adventurous venture capital industry, but it can encourage one with laws designed for the next era. B.C.’s rules about privacy, ethics and liability are five years behind, says Jan Kietzmann, an associate professor of innovation and information systems at UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business. Modernizing them starts and ends with education. Few people really understand cloud computing, blockchain and artificial intelligence. To most, virtual reality is a game, and automation is the stuff of doomsday movies.

“I see other jurisdictions being proactive in how they can utilize new technology,” Kietzmann says. “We’re not, because many people still associate artificial intelligence with science fiction, or believe that AI-powered applications are still years away.”

It’s not real and practical until a guy who makes wood products for a living slides on the headset in a Vancouver office tower and is suddenly laying out a logging site in a remote valley on Vancouver Island.

“A major administrative overhead for tech in B.C. is policy,” Kietzmann says. “A big part of the reason policy is hard to change is because we don’t always have people with the necessary expertise in the positions that can make these changes. Better-informed people in government, business and society would make better choices.” 


Vancouver-based Mustel Group, led by owner Evi Mustel, conducts market research for clients that include Telus Corp., the City of Vancouver and London Drugs, and is a regular contributor to BCBusiness. In March, Mustel interviewed 501 Metro Vancouver residents on topics related to the future of work, narrowing this group down to the 274 employed respondents for certain questions. Some results do not total 100 percent due to rounding.

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