Fourth Industrial Revolution

A commitment to discovery will allow innovation to thrive

Attendees try out the Samsung Gear VR 4D Experience during the 2017 CES in Las Vegas, U.S., January 5, 2017.

Image: REUTERS/Steve Marcus

Chuck Robbins
Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Cisco Systems, Inc.
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

If there is one thing I believe in, it’s the power of innovation – when creative thinking, research and great execution combine to deliver value and improve lives. That’s something I think all of us have faith in.

At the same time there are some global dynamics that risk stifling the pace of innovation which brings so much progress to the world. While spending on research and development is on the rise, virtual barriers are going up, with tightening approaches to labour, immigration, data sovereignty and business regulations.

Technology has the ability to break down barriers, but it must be given the space to do so. Combining technological advances with innovative thinking can yield a wealth of possibilities, drive growth and value for companies, cities and countries, and address a number of sustainability issues that affect millions around the world. To encourage creative risk-taking and innovation, we must all focus on several key areas.

Commit to reskilling

To start, we must commit to ensuring that the right talent is in the right place for the right jobs. The need for workers with specific, highly technical skills is increasing, and that demand is spreading across all sectors, from retail to manufacturing to healthcare. In technology, for example, job roles are becoming more complex, and to be successful, individuals will need a balance of depth in data analytics, security, device management and application development, while also mastering softer competencies such as creativity, innovative design and entrepreneurship. As the job ecosystem changes, the key is to help workers who might feel locked out of the job market to get reskilled for new roles.

At Cisco, we have seen great success with the Cisco Networking Academies, a programme that for nearly 20 years has given more than 6 million students worldwide the skills needed to build, design and maintain computer networks. The Networking Academy programme has 9,600 academies in 170 countries, and more than a million students are enrolled. Surveys show that 70% of alumni have found a new or better job, increased job responsibilities, or gained a higher salary through the programme.

By leveraging our Networking Academies, expanding them into more countries, and continuously expanding the curriculum, we can pull in job-seekers who might otherwise feel that employment is unattainable. The Academy provides them with the most critical skills for the future, enabling them to both participate and thrive in the digital economy.

A humanoid robot works side by side with an employee in the assembly line at a factory of Glory Ltd., a manufacturer of automatic change dispensers, in Kazo, north of Tokyo, Japan, July 1, 2015.
A humanoid robot works side by side with an employee in the assembly line at a factory of Glory Ltd., a manufacturer of automatic change dispensers, in Kazo, north of Tokyo, Japan, July 1, 2015. Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato
Partnerships are critical

Equally important is the need to connect people across industries and across continents, to collaborate on solving the world’s biggest problems. No individual, no matter how educated they are, will be successful alone – collaborative, innovative thinking and partnerships are key to achieving our collective full potential. Industry has not just an opportunity, but also an obligation, to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. If we approach global hunger, access to clean water or reskilling our workforce as we would any other business challenge – and do so collectively – there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.

These partnerships are necessary now more than ever, as many are looking to create virtual walls to prevent the free flow of information. Cross-border data flows now generate more economic value than traditional flows of traded goods – as McKinsey estimates, total cross-border internet traffic increased 18-fold from 2005 to 2012, and data flows accounted for $2.8 trillion of global GDP in 2014. But there is an increasing tendency to control the flow, as government policies and commercial practices are combining to hold back a true, open internet. Experts across stakeholder groups in government, business and research should come together to create a community of shared beliefs to advance the free flow of information that is fundamental to growth and innovation.

Extend innovation to everyone

For innovation to thrive, we must also ensure that its benefits extend to everyone. That work is already well under way – for instance, those living in villages in India can now receive visits from a medical specialist to address critical health issues that might have gone unaddressed. Cisco has also worked to respond to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, by donating equipment to establish Wi-Fi hotspots and connectivity for refugees on the move and in camps; providing volunteer time and in-kind technical support through our Tactical Operations and Disaster Incident Response teams; and awarding cash grants to strategic non-profit partners to provide internet-based information and coordination services to refugees and NGOs on the ground. This unique application of technology not only helps others, but can also drive business value that extends across borders and regions.

Technology and innovation hold great promise to drive growth, address fundamental issues that affect many, and help people all around the world prosper. But those possibilities can only be achieved through a commitment to discovery.

I ask business and government leaders around the world to commit to building a curious world that embraces innovation like never before. Real progress can only come when we have a workforce that’s prepared to lead us into the future, and meaningful partnerships focused on global impact that extends to each individual. The technology itself is here and ready to drive change. We now just need to commit and move with conviction.

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