Every day we see the emergence of new technologies. And every day we see a widening gap between progress and society’s ability to cope with its consequences. Whether it is an impending shift in the nature of work as technology changes production systems, or the ethical implications of reengineering what it means to be human, the changes we see around us threaten to overwhelm us if we cannot collaborate to understand and direct them.
Unprecedented and simultaneous advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, quantum computing and others are redefining industries, blurring traditional boundaries, and creating new opportunities. We have dubbed this the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another.
This revolution is arriving on the back of a slew of transformative technologies. But it is much more than the sum of these technologies. The first industrial revolution came in on the back of a wave of innovation – the invention of the steam engine and the cotton mill, for instance – and represented a history-altering wave of systemic change such as urbanization, mass education and industrialization of agriculture. The second industrial revolution, with electrification and mass production, saw the advent of entirely new social models and ways of working, and the third industrial revolution – the digital revolution – provided the electronic and computing foundations for the radical shrinking of the world we have seen over the past five decades.
The same will be true this time – individual technologies will be influential, but the real change will be in the social and economic systems that shape our lives and how we live them.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution metaphor is most useful as a mental model to help business, government and society navigate the radical shifts that will occur as these technologies become embedded in our lives. We are encountering new business models as well as ethical, safety and social issues as emerging technologies come to life. But we have yet to collectively solve some of the most basic questions on critical issues such as the ownership of personal data, security of social infrastructure and systems, and the rights and responsibilities of the new leaders of our business landscape.
For a prosperous future, we must ask how all of us, and the technological systems we design and build, can serve the proper ends and not be confined to the means. Our efforts must focus on the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on human beings, society and the environment, and not just focus on technological progress or economic productivity.
I see four principles which should guide our policy and practice as we progress further into this revolution.
Firstly, we must focus on systems rather than technologies, because the important considerations will be on the wide-reaching changes to business, society and politics rather than technologies for their own sake.
Secondly, we must empower our societies to master technologies and act to counter a fatalistic and deterministic view of progress. Otherwise, there is no room for optimism and positive transformation, and society’s agency is nullified.
Thirdly, we need to prioritize futures by design rather than default. Collaboration between all stakeholders must play a central role in how we integrate these transformative technologies. Otherwise, our future will be delivered by default.
And lastly, we must focus on key values as a feature of new technologies, rather than as a bug. Technologies used in a way that increase disparity, poverty, discrimination and environmental damage work against the future we seek. For the investment in these technologies to be justifiable, they must bring us a better world, not one of increased insecurity and dislocation.
The social and economic challenges posed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution are too much for any stakeholder to tackle alone. Business has an enormous amount at stake, as creating the conditions for safe and socially prosperous technology development and deployment is critical. Active government engagement is crucial, but without engagement and collaboration with those leading the revolution, governance will always be a step behind. And without an informed civil society understanding and engagement around the issues, we are likely to miss complex interactions on humanity, society and the environment.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the systemic changes it will usher in emphasize more than ever the critical need for collaborative engagement around increasingly complex and fast-moving issues. We need new ways of working together to tackle issues that arise faster than ever, provide clarity of operating environment for business, and provide society with confidence that it is moving forward into a technological future where the opportunities and benefits outweigh risks and unknowns. Leadership in these complex times requires nothing less than a wholesale shift of our mental models, a step change in collaborative engagement, and the ability to collectively envisage the futures that we want to create, and manage ourselves away from the dystopias which technological progress can conjure.
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