The first industrial revolution pioneered the machine-assisted production line, and created modern notions of the factory and the city. The second industrial revolution ushered in a new age of modernization and the advent of computing. The third industrial revolution digitalized that progress, and is still ongoing. But what will the Fourth Industrial Revolution bring, and how will companies, individuals, society and governments adapt to and harness the changes it will pioneer?

Artificial intelligence is ubiquitous, from smart thermostats to robotics. Blockchain computing, quantum computing, biotechnology and neurotechnology are on the rise. Instead of the traditional factory, we may have the “smart factory”, where global manufacturing systems are not just digital, but also virtual. These changes are systemic, and different in scale, speed and complexity from those that have come before. They also pose fundamental challenges for government, business, civil society and each one of us, as humanity and the global order adjust to new realities.

The Forum’s Global Shapers Community will play a key role in identifying global issues and local solutions. By video link, we heard from Bhopal on digital and agile governance; Gaborone on implementing progressive technology policies; Tunis on enabling transparency and accountability; and Yaroslavl on developing the future workforce. In India, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is still on the horizon, while digitalization is transforming society.

African solutions are different in a unique context, for example the advent of mobile banking, whereas other countries have focused on online banking. In Tunisia, the dexterity of youth in using new technologies outstrips that of governance, and more institutional reform is needed to foster innovation. While, in Russia, conservatism in education and the gap between the interests of industry and entrepreneurship must be addressed.

Before society and government harness the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to improve infrastructure, education and leadership models. Governance can move quickly or slowly, and has a history of regulating innovation. It is open to debate whether government should regulate now, determining an ethical framework for innovation, or to regulate slowly, only reacting if there is a clear breach. A principle-based regulation could guide new technologies such as AI, facilitating faster, better technology, or it could get in the way. Perhaps the best approach is to experiment and explore while respecting fundamental civil liberties and rights.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia (2006-2016), said, “One of the key factors that allowed my country to leapfrog was an absence of legacy technology, because we were so far behind.” Countries bootstrapping their way up should try to use modern technology, he stressed, not discarded outdated technology, even if provided free of charge. “Technology is like oxygen,” he said, “it is all over and all around us.” To adapt to it, societies need to foster participatory governance – not just through referenda, but by getting people involved in the daily practice of democracy.

The third industrial revolution is still not over and should be consolidated using digital technologies to strengthen business, government and society. For the Fourth Industrial Revolution to drive growth, we need vision from the top. Innovators and civil society should mobilize, and clear and digitally literate political leadership can speed advance while ensuring that it does not only benefit the top 1%.

We need to pay more attention to education and retraining to make the workforce employable in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Data technologies and collective intelligence technologies can accelerate progress, while big data platforms can also be used to voice citizens’ grievances online.

Most fundamentally, the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be a conversation between different elements of society – programmers talking to legislators, regulators talking to innovators. The Western world is not the centre of this debate. This is a global movement with the potential to transform the world in which we live.