Fourth Industrial Revolution

2030: from technology optimism to technology realism

SDGs, AI, cyberattacks, EV, CRISPR, Global Goals

We need to unlock the potential of technology for our toughest challenges Image: UNSPLASH/David Iskander

Dr Celine Herweijer
Group Chief Sustainability Officer, HSBC
Antonia Gawel
Head, Climate; Deputy Head, Centre for Nature & Climate Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen
Knowledge Lead, Science and Technology Studies, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Technological Transformation

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • We stand at a critical juncture to put technologies to work in a responsible way.
  • The Fourth Industrial Revolution can help achieve the SDGs this decade.
  • 70% of the targets could be enabled by already deployed technology applications.

Today’s technological revolution is a time of enormous promise, but also new challenges. As we enter the 2020s it is clear that we are far from unlocking the potential of technology for our toughest challenges.

We are entering a new era where powerful Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) are being infused at exponential speed into the world around us. As organizations and countries race to harness these new technologies to spur growth and competitiveness, we stand at a critical juncture to put these technologies to work in a responsible way for people and the planet.

To achieve this, a fundamental gearshift is urgently needed, from the current race to deploy new technologies for short-term growth and commercial gain, to a more long-sighted and responsible approach that actively harnesses technology to tackle society’s most important problems. A new order of employees and citizens are also demanding this.

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The speed and scale of technological advances in recent years alone has been immense. In the last two years: 90% of the data in the world was created; AI can now detect more than 50 eye diseases better than a doctor; the first fully electric aeroplane made its successful Virgin voyage, and 5G is no longer a potential future, but the reality in more than 13 countries. Meanwhile the risks associated with Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies went from theoretical to media headlines as scientists engineered the first CRISPR baby to be born, the potential for democratic elections to be influenced through the misuse of technologies was revealed, cyberattacks escalated in severity and impact causing multibillion dollar losses to business, and as self-driving cars were increasingly introduced in cities so too were the first casualties.

Five years ago 192 United Nations member states came together to commit to tackling 17 ambitious Global Goals (or as they are also known Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)) by 2030. These range from ending extreme poverty and fighting inequality to addressing the urgency and emergency of climate change and nature loss. Yet, progress towards delivering many of these goals is far from being on track, and in some areas, the situation is reversing. Business as usual could have catastrophic impacts for humanity and the environment.

The SDGs could not provide a clearer framing for where we need to assertively point the power of new technologies. Now it is up to us – technology companies large and small, industry, policy-makers, citizens and consumers alike – to use this power for good, before we run out of time.

A growing landscape of “for good” solutions

In How New Technologies Can Be Key to Tackling the Global Goals, a new report by the World Economic Forum and PwC, launched at the Annual Meeting this year, we showcase the significant opportunity to harness new technologies for the Global Goals. This report accompanies the launch of Frontier 2030, a global platform that will convene public, private and civil society leaders, ready to commit action and collaborate to unleash technology to fast-track progress for people and the planet.

Through an analysis of more than 300 use cases where Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies can help address specific goals, we identified top applications in terms of contribution to the achievement of each goal and the barriers to scaling up these applications.

The rising technology savvy generation live with and understand well what technology can do, but also have vastly different expectations of leaders than previous generations.

We identified existing applications being deployed today and so-called “moonshots” – Fourth Industrial Revolution-enabled game-changers in the R&D phase, that if cracked could, in the coming 5 to 10 years, provide a step-change in achieving specific goals. From quantum-computing determined optimal carbon capture materials, through to AI-enabled development of new antibiotics to address microbial resistance to current antibiotics, we showcase breakthrough innovation quests where technologists and governments alike can focus research and investment effort. Some will work, others won’t, but it’s time to turn the ingenuity and resources of technology towards the breakthrough solutions that might bring us closer to achieving an inclusive, net-zero emissions future.

Strikingly, we found that 70% of the 169 targets underpinning the Global Goals could be enabled by Fourth Industrial Revolution technology applications already in deployment today. The scope to accelerate progress in the coming decade is, therefore, sizable. We also found, however, that only a fraction of this potential is actively being utilized at scale.

Getting to scale: Frontier 2030

These use cases are encouraging, but they are limited, and they are often lacking where the benefits are largely “public good" in nature or in the geographies and demographics in most need. A lot more needs to be done to shape an alternative trajectory. For those further-off moonshots, an ambitious and collaborative public-private R&D effort is needed to make these breakthrough solutions a reality in the short space of time we now have available.

In collaboration with the Global Future Council on Public Goods in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we have identified eight key ingredients required to unlocking the potential of technology in support of the Global Goals in an assertive and timely fashion.

The factors that will shape progress towards the Global Goals
The factors that will shape progress towards the Global Goals Image: How New Technologies Can Be Key to Tackling the Global Goals by the World Economic Forum and PWC

Leadership and a call to action

The good news is that citizens and employees worldwide are taking the lead in demanding and pushing for this transformation. The rising technology savvy generation live with and understand well what technology can do, but also have vastly different expectations of leaders than previous generations. Now is the opportunity for leaders to step up into this new wave of opportunity and expectation.

In support of this, we outline a leadership level “call to action” for executives and government leaders:

For executives we have identified necessary action in the following areas:

  • Adopt responsible technology policies throughout the entire business
  • Provide products and services that help customers deliver SDG outcomes
  • Prioritize significant targeted corporate R&D focused on big societal challenges
  • Actively push advocacy for enabling policies and regulations to achieve the SDGs
  • Engage in (many) more NGO/academia partnerships and philanthropic efforts on technology for public goods
  • Pioneer internal pricing models such as carbon pricing as incentives for SDG performance
  • Set societal upskilling targets as well as targets for democratized data and tool platforms
  • Set board-level accountability, integration into enterprise risk management

For government action is likely to include, but not be limited to:

  • Develop responsible technology codes and standards and data protocols in consultation with industry
  • Harness public procurement levers, including sustainability standards for digital assets, supplier responsible technology requirements
  • Prioritize investment in Fourth Industrial Revolution-enabling infrastructure including broadband, cloud, satellites and energy grids
  • Lead in basic and applied R&D finance at the intersection of technology and societal/environmental impact, including opportunities for more citizen-based research and open data initiatives
  • Catalyse innovation and deployment of new solutions, including incubators, accelerators and price support mechanisms
  • Undertake ambitious sectoral and environmental policy such as subsidy reforms, incentives and mandatory disclosure
  • Update structural policy to be fit-for-purpose for a Fourth Industrial Revolution world, including labour market reforms, taxation reforms, social safety nets and education investment

A call to action is needed to move quickly beyond celebrating a smattering of “for good” use cases to leadership commitment to principled investments, time and expertise on one hand while enabling government policies and regulations on the other. The rapid pace of change of technological innovation is not expected to slow, so we must do more to assertively channel technology to support progress and protect people and the planet.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Harnessing technology is no silver bullet, but the Fourth Industrial Revolution could be a cornerstone of our ability to achieve the Global Goals this decade. It’s time for us to back the promise of technology.

The new Frontier 2030 platform launched by the World Economic Forum at the Annual Meeting 2020 seeks to build a motivated public-private and civil society ecosystem to take forward this opportunity. From mobilizing a leadership “call to action” to new coalitions of the willing to develop collaboration on breakthrough innovation, policy advocacy, country collaboration, responsible technology codes of conduct, and data and tools collaboratives.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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