We know that the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are drastically changing our world. This change is happening at a faster rate and greater scale than at any point in human history – and with that change come significant challenges to the ability of our public institutions and governments to adequately respond.

From the plough to vaccines to computers, technological innovations have generally made human societies more productive. Over time, people have figured out how to mitigate their negative aspects. For example, electrical applications are much safer to use now than in the early days of electrification. Though we came close to disaster, since the Second World War the international political system has managed to contain the threat of nuclear weapons for mass destruction.

However, the accelerating pace of change and the power of new technologies mean that negative unintended consequences will only become more frequent and more dangerous. What can we do today to help ensure that new technologies make life better, not worse?

New disruptive technologies

Image: World Economic Forum and McKinsey

This question was at the forefront of a discussion we led at the November 2018 Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils on methods for strengthening the positive aspects of emerging technologies. Here, we outline a few considerations that emerged from that conversation for maximizing the benefits, and minimizing risks, of technological change:

1. It is not possible to future-proof technology. Trying to future-proof technology will backfire, as it presupposes that we can know all possible unintended consequences. We can’t. Yes, it is critical to think of possible second order effects and mitigate against any negative ones, but we can’t rely on prediction alone: both legal and policy infrastructures must be designed with the agility to rapidly respond to what we don’t see coming

2. Technological development should be vision-driven. International and national communities should set deliberate societal objectives from technological development. For example, the current concern with whether automation will end most human labour assumes we have no choice in the matter. While economic viability may force certain outcomes, societies should be deliberate about what they want the future of work to be, not let the future emerge as a result of inaction.

3. Healthy societies need healthy remedies. When things go wrong with new technologies (as they inevitably do), people should have access to effective remedies. This does not just mean legal redress. For example, in the case of large-scale job losses due to automation, remedies could include retraining programmes, enhanced unemployment benefits, or some form of universal basic income that is informed by empirical research into effective economic and social models. Governments are best placed to deliver most remedies, but the private sector has a critical role to play in funding and creating an infrastructure for them, especially if the private sector is creating the harms and reaping the economic rewards. Most importantly, remedies must be responsive to different negative impacts on diverse populations – for example, a teenage refugee girl may be impacted very differently than a sedentary middle-aged men by biometric technology or workplace automation. If we fail to design an effective system of remedies that responds to diverse needs, the public will lose trust in technology, in government and in the businesses driving innovation.

4. Investment should incentivize long-term social good. We are used to hearing about the role of governments and the public sector in technological development – but investors are also critical stakeholders. Historically, the primary metric for investors has been the monetary return on their investment. However, while the last decade or so has seen a growth in impact investing and the rise of ethical investment funds, such practices are still the exception. For investors who want to reduce the risk of societal harms from their investments, we propose a simple change in framing: prioritize the 10-20 year impact of the business you’re investing in over short-term gain.

5. International cooperation is a must for effective growth. The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are borderless and complex. This stretches the ability of legislative and political systems to deal with them effectively. Sound national policy can be rendered moot by a lack of international governance (for example in fields like gene editing), or where policies are in tension with one another, such as privacy policies that militate social media takedowns versus freedom of expression, or legal accountability policies that weigh in favour of access to information. As such, we believe that international bodies have a critical coordinating role to play in technology governance.

While our conversation has only just started, we look forward to working with diverse stakeholders to design a vision-driven approach to approaching the risks and benefits of emerging technologies over the coming months – an approach that helps ensure the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not benefit the few at the expense of the many, and ultimately strengthens our collective future.