Fourth Industrial Revolution

6 technology mega-trends shaping the future of society

Hans Brechbuhl
Executive Director, Center for Digital Strategies, The Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College
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The developments in digital technology of recent years are truly dramatic and their implications far-reaching. And while no-one understands all the changes these developments will bring, most individuals, many business and governmental leaders, and society as a whole, are not really cognizant of or prepared for the shifts to come.

This was the driver behind the recent report, Deep Shift: Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact, just released by the World Economic Forum. It is part of the work of the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software and Society which I have had the pleasure of serving on for the last year.

The technology-enabled shifts enumerated in the report, at their core, are fundamentally providing two things: (1) digital connectivity for everyone to everything, anywhere and at anytime; and (2) the tools for analyzing and using digital data in new ways. The report groups the 21 shifts discussed into six “mega-trend” categories:

  1. People and the internet – people’s association and interaction with the web as a mental, social and physical extension of themselves
  2. Computing, communications and storage everywhere – the ability to interface with digital technology, data and the web anywhere, anytime on any device
  3. The “Internet of Things” – the digital linking of inanimate objects, or, as my colleague Chris Rezendes so nicely puts it, “the instrumentation of the physical world”
  4. Artificial intelligence and big data – the ability to access and analyze vast and disparate data, along with the ability for computers to make decisions based on this data
  5. The sharing economy and distributed trust – digitally-enabled transparency and trust mechanisms that allow direct exchange of goods, services or money between parties outside of traditional establishments such as stores and banks
  6. The digitization of matter – 3D-printing and the creating of physical materials on the spot (personalized or on a small scale) based on digitally transmitted parameters

These trends will greatly impact how individual lives are lived, how business is conducted, how groups of people function, and how we govern ourselves. Our world is being driven and enabled more and more by software, and we are simultaneously becoming more “bite-sized” and aggregatable in what we can access and analyze. This opens up the opportunity for the offering of an innumerable number of services by and between individuals and organizations of all types from companies to non-profits and governments, but also portends large-scale change that has the potential to be difficult to absorb in both scale and speed.

The potential is huge. Imagine the positives of being able to access any service you want, or physical asset or tool you need, just when and where you need it, on whatever device; or being able to predict a serious health problem before it happens and get the needed medical attention or an organ perfectly made just for you wherever you are. These changes will not happen overnight, but are well on their way to reality and most of us don’t realize it. The potential for democratization and transparency is great.

At the same time, there are real concerns. With data created on everything, will there be acceptable levels of privacy for individual lives? With accessibility greatly enhanced and a path to almost everything possible on the internet, how can we sufficiently protect intellectual property or secure financial data? As work changes, or perhaps even becomes unnecessary for many, what will happen to the sense of worth, place and contribution to society that human beings have derived from work throughout much of recorded history?

The challenges of navigating the transition are great as well. The individual, organizational, governmental and societal adjustments are non-trivial, and the impact of these adjustments will be felt by everyone. The speed of various aspects of the transition are hard to predict, but it is not difficult to see that our world will function quite differently 10-15 years from now. Being prepared to navigate the transition begins with awareness of the shifts to come and some understanding of their implications, and this report is a start at raising the awareness.

Deep Shift: Technological Tipping Points and Societal Impact is available here.

Author: Hans Brechbuhl, Executive Director, Center for Digital Strategies, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College

Image: People take photos with the skyline of the central business district shrouded by haze in Singapore September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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Related topics:
Fourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
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