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Jenny Durkan talks Amazon and automation at Seattle Interactive Conference. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

For the past month, Seattle’s civic leaders have been trying to make sense of Amazon’s plans to establish a second headquarters elsewhere in North America, and debating what kind of message they are sending to the city’s biggest employers. Seattle mayoral hopeful Jenny Durkan thinks this misses the point.

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She believes Amazon — and the technology industry at large — are contributing to a much bigger threat to Seattle’s jobs and economy.

“People are missing the big story,” she said on stage at the Seattle Interactive Conference on Tuesday. “Every journalist is asking the wrong question … Technology is innovating so quickly and changing our economy so quickly. That’s what causing all these problems we’re having in Seattle because we are at this turning point and Amazon is really the canary in the cage.”

Durkan dismissed questions about whether Seattle is creating an unfriendly environment for businesses and instead focused on the threat of automation to jobs. She referenced a vision from Madrona Venture Group for a stretch of I-5 that would be entirely dedicated to autonomous vehicles by 2040. Though she was supportive of that plan and Seattle hosting a pilot project for self-driving cars, she is wary of the implications for workers.

“Estimates are, autonomous vehicles will be here in five to seven years and when fully implemented, 20 million Americans will lose their jobs overnight,” Durkan said. “Good paying jobs. Jobs that support families. What happened in the Rust Belt — Michigan and car manufacturers — will be nothing compared to what happens just from that one kind of technology.”

Durkan believes that because Seattle is an innovation hub, it will be particularly vulnerable as an early adopter of these disruptive technologies. She laid out this grim vision during the conference:

What will we do when everyone who is a UPS driver, an Uber driver, a Lyft driver, a long-haul trucker, doesn’t have a job? Are they going to become coders? Are we going to go to a basic income formula? It’s coming and it will be here before we even prepare. We’re fighting about, is Amazon too big? Should it pay more for its growth? Can we be nicer to them? What we should really be saying is, what’s the next wave? Because that’s the wave that could crush Seattle.

Durkan is calling on Amazon and other members of the Seattle tech community to start planning for the job displacement that autonomy could cause. She laid out her plan to partner with the tech industry in her new smart city agenda. If elected, Durkan says she will launch a study on the potential consequences of autonomous vehicles and eventually establish a pilot program for the new technology.

“If you think addressing just the issues around Amazon is going to position us for the next generation, I think you’re wrong,” Durkan said. “If we’re not being bigger and more far-sighted about the technology that’s being developed right here in Seattle, how it’s coming on board, and how it’s going to affect daily life …we will become a Detroit.”

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