In the 47 years since I founded the World Economic Forum, I have witnessed first-hand that when we change the way we talk, we begin to think differently too. Likewise, changing the way we think leads to changes in the way we act. This is true for all of us – whether you are a private citizen at home or making consequential decisions as a head of government, the language we use and the way we think about the world shapes our subsequent behaviour.
The shift in attitudes and approaches toward shaping the environment agenda over the last decade is quite a good example of this. When, in 2005, the World Economic Forum began to advance cross-sector dialogue and highlight the potential for public-private cooperation to help meet pressing global environmental challenges, such as climate change and water security, there was an absence of substantive collaboration among influential stakeholders on these sorts of issues. People tended to talk about and act on environmental challenges in quite separate ways, depending if they were working in government, business or civil society organizations, for example.
Today, though much work still remains to be done, a decade of significant public-private engagement involving all types of stakeholders, has shaped a new, more collaborative agenda for action, such that business leaders, civil society heads and policy-makers talk, think and act about the need to protect Earth’s biosphere in quite a different way than 10 years ago. Indeed, in 2015, nations of the world – after a collaborative design process - agreed that the 17th Sustainable Development Goal itself be entirely focused on advancing global partnerships for the environment and sustainable development.
It’s therefore extremely gratifying to see that, since the publication of my 2016 book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, we have started to change the way we talk about technology and its impact on the world. More and more people are becoming aware of the power of emerging technologies to transform our economies, our societies and even who we are as human beings. Discussions in the media are now often concerned with questions of ethics, values and the social impact of new technologies. It’s common now to ask how artificial intelligence might be used to influence us, whether cryptocurrencies are more effective for promoting social inclusion or criminal activity or to worry about what kind of skills we need to develop in order to thrive in an era where technologies are both more pervasive and more powerful. The term “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” has become common parlance, conveying the magnitude of the changes underway.
The challenge, however, is that we don’t have a decade to slowly shift mindsets before moving to act on the challenges surfaced by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The speed, scale and scope of change that is underway today, coupled with the fact that entrepreneurs, companies and policy-makers are already creating rules, norms, techniques and infrastructure around new technologies, means that in 10 years it will be too late. The structure of new technologies will be more or less set, and the perspectives and values of those who created them will be firmly embedded within the many technologies that surround us and which have become part of us.
Our understanding of previous industrial revolutions is that, while they create huge wealth and opportunity, they also create significant harm: many people miss out on the benefits entirely, and it is most often those populations with the least voice or power who bear the negative consequences. It is therefore not good enough for us to leave the evolution of our technological future to chance, or to trust that market forces will create the future we want. Instead, we need to talk, think and act today.
That’s the motivation behind my new book, Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It seeks to expedite the way we understand, discuss and make decisions around emerging technologies. It outlines the most important dynamics of today's technological revolution, highlights important stakeholders that are often overlooked in our discussion of the latest scientific breakthroughs, and draws upon more than 200 leading global thinkers to explore 12 different technology areas crucial to the future of humanity.
Thinking and acting round the Fourth Industrial Revolution demands a new type of leadership – an approach we call “systems leadership”. Systems leadership in this context doesn’t just mean leading on the design of the technologies themselves but also acting as a leader on how they are governed and the values they exhibit in how they affect people from all backgrounds.
New ways of thinking and acting are required from all stakeholders, including individuals, business executives, social influencers and policy-makers. But the different power and roles of stakeholders means there are different opportunities for governments, businesses and individuals to grasp today.
The most urgent task facing governments is to open the space for new approaches to technology governance. In particular, governments need to adopt the concept of “agile governance” of technologies, matching the nimbleness, fluidity, flexibility and adaptiveness of the technologies themselves and the private-sector actors adopting them. This means thinking not just about what new rules might be needed, but finding entirely new ways to create and update rules over time in collaboration with other sectors.
For businesses, the most important strategy is to experiment more, while simultaneously investing in people. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is still in its early stages, and the potential of new technologies is far from fully understood. However, we can anticipate some of the revolution’s dynamics, including the fact that disruption more and more often emanates from the periphery of industries and organizations. Only by directly experimenting with technologies can organizations see for themselves what they can do. Given that experimentation is best done by those closest to a business, this also means making concerted efforts to upskill employees and embracing an entrepreneurial mindset.
Finally, for citizens, the most important action is to be engaged on these issues, making their voices heard as voters, consumers, employees, members of civil society organizations and community leaders. Those of us lucky enough to be alive today have a responsibility to future generations to ensure they can live and find meaning in a sustainable, inclusive, technologically-driven future.
Have you read?
We should, therefore, all be part of building aspirational visions of the future, influencing how technologies are developed and adopted. As we change the way we talk, we change the way we think and create new opportunities to act. Let’s act, together, now, to make those aspirational visions of the future real for as many people as possible, all around the world.
Professor Klaus Schwab’s new book, Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution, launched on 18 January 2018, and is available here.