Digital innovation is dramatically reshaping the way we live, work and relate to one another. Advanced technologies are being combined in innovative ways, in what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Just like in previous revolutions, the chemistry and advanced materials industry is playing a crucial role. In fact, it is largely through the industry’s contributions that other industries are able to turn their ideas and innovations into sophisticated products: touch screens, the rechargeable batteries in portable devices, OLEDs in flexible electronics and the lightweight materials used to build drones are just a few examples. Materials make the virtual real.

But the chemistry and advanced materials industry itself is also being transformed through the introduction of digital technologies throughout its multiple activities. Analysing this transformation – and its impact both for the industry itself and society more widely – is a current focus for the World Economic Forum’s Digital Transformation Initiative.

Our research so far has highlighted three areas where digital innovation can deliver greater value and revolutionize chemistry and advanced materials over the next decade:

1) Collaborating in an age of trust

A new era of materials discovery and deployment will be characterized by intensified collaboration not only between companies but across a complex and highly interconnected ecosystem. Digital innovations are already at the heart of the platforms that support such collaboration, accelerating innovation and creating value in the industry.

For example, BASF’s co-creation programme is designed to encourage collaboration with customers and partners and to build a deeper understanding of challenges relating to urban living, energy and food. Seed funding for promising ideas increases the likelihood of success and the reach of the entire system’s innovation capability.

We envision seamless integration across the multiple building blocks of collaborative innovation, resulting in an efficient, distributed creative process involving scientists, regulatory agencies, customers and intellectual property lawyers. Creativity and performance in this arrangement can be further boosted by unleashing the power of data.

2) Digitizing the enterprise

Innovations in digital R&D, plant operations and supply chain are already essential elements behind the industry’s operational efficiency, but the greatest impact of digitalization may, in fact, be felt by those who work in the industry.

Through greater use of technology and knowledge-management tools, the chemistry & advanced materials workforce will become more flexible and mobile. Digital innovation will bring great benefit to workers by improving health and safety in the industry. Take for example Air Liquide’s pioneering approach to empowering its workforce with technology, in which connected eyewear provides workers with important safety and equipment maintenance information as they visit one of the company’s plants. The eyewear also transmits data to a remote team who can support the on-site technician in real time.

3) Going beyond the molecule

A mindset shift, a successful integration of new players, and new business models are needed for the industry to move from selling chemicals to selling outcomes. But this process will be increasingly enabled by the introduction of digital innovations.

Data analytics are already powering the shift to outcomes-based models. Take AkzoNobel’s ‘big data’ Intertrac Vision service, which helps shipping firms save fuel and cut emissions. It analyses more than 3.5 billion data points to determine the right coating for a specific ship. These coatings reduce biofouling (the accumulation of microorganisms, plants and algae on a ship’s hull), thereby reducing drag and boosting fuel efficiency.

Digitalization is a huge opportunity for the chemistry & advanced materials sector. However, the value that digital transformation can create is not guaranteed. It will require resourcefulness, creativity and a willingness to accept rapid change to unlock the full value of digital.

The Digital Transformation Initiative will be publishing its report into digitalization in chemistry & advanced materials later this year. The latest news and research from the initiative can be found here.