“We must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments. There has never been a time of greater promise, or greater peril.” - Klaus Schwab, Founder, World Economic Forum
Change is something that not everyone is fond of. Some adapt to it quickly while others lag behind and lose out. The fourth revolution (digital revolution) is going to change the world in an unprecedented manner. Though still in its nascent stages, its impacts can be found almost everywhere - connected homes, smart watches, digital workplaces and robots replacing human roles. While there are many scary thoughts about the changes that the digital revolution will bring about, some simple steps can help us stay ahead and master the revolution.
A Peak into History
The world has constantly evolved through revolutions. For the early man, fire and wheel drastically changed their way of living; gave them new lifestyles and professions. The first industrial revolution powered by the steam engine reduced time, distance and effort for mankind. The second industrial revolution propelled an era of mass production using electric power. The third one in the 20th century heralded by the invention of computers and powerful computing devices automated production. Each change has been dramatic, formidable, resisted by many and at last succumbed to by all. The fourth revolution is expected to have similar effects but is going to be many times more impactful. The velocity, scope and systems impact of the fourth revolution will be a breakthrough one with no historical precedent.
The Digital Revolution
The lines between the third revolution and the fourth are thin with many elements of the third having set up the stage for the fourth revolution. But the fourth evolution is going to be very different and will be is characterized by disruption in every industry and fusion of technologies that will blur the lines between physical, biological and digital spheres. While the third revolution set stage for connecting people, the fourth is going to give it an additional dimension of connecting all objects too. It is going to create many zettabytes of data, automate and robotize some of the most common everyday tasks as well as some of the most complex problems. The fourth revolution will transform the way businesses and governments function. Pierre Nanterme, CEO of Accenture points out how the fourth revolution is affecting businesses - “Digital is the main reason just over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000.”
The digital revolution has the power to transcend to every bit of work we do.
While this revolution (like others before) will bring about benefits like easier living, less efforts and quicker means on a much bigger scale, it also comes with bigger and tougher challenges for humanity. The robotization of work will see many job roles becoming redundant, leading to unemployment or under-employment. It is estimated that 5.1 million jobs will be lost by 2020 because of automation. This will mostly be in the low or mid-skill, routine white-collar office functions.
It will create an imbalance in the society where only a few high-skilled workers will be able to find employment and have decent wages. The lower middle class, poor sections and women are going to be some of the most affected as jobs like data entry held mostly by these groups will become redundant. Re-skilling and finding suitable employment opportunities for a majority is going to be the biggest challenge that this revolution brings.
The connectivity of people and objects will generate huge amounts of data which will be difficult to store and control. Preventing the misuse of data is going to be a daunting challenge. While digitization brings greater connectivity, it also reduces human feelings of empathy, kindness and compassion. People of the digital world often behave like robots, immersed in their mobile phones and smart machines, unbothered about social issues and devoid of human concern. Such a situation can be dangerous and can even pave way for unprecedented forms of anarchy and crimes.
Mastering the fourth revolution
Understanding the nature of the fourth revolution and being able to predict how it will transform lives will aid in devising strategies and action plans to help individuals, businesses and nations be ready when the transformation comes around.
Education &Skill Enhancement
One of the main action items to master the digital revolution is to enhance the ability of the workforce to meet the digital revolution standards. With many low and mid level jobs going to be axed, it becomes pertinent that the skill sets of the workforce be augmented to match the requirements that new avenues of the job market will demand.
Vishal Sikka, the chief executive of IT giant Infosys clearly captures the path in which our education system has to evolve to match the needs of the dynamic digital world.
“We must transition away from our past; shift the focus from learning what we already know to an education focused on exploring what hasn’t happened yet.”
Education should be focussed on encouraging curiosity and exploratory skills among the students while equipping them with digital tools. This will help build up a generation that will not only master the fourth revolution but will also be able to pave way for the fifth and maybe even the sixth and seventh revolutions.
Developing digital skills is the responsibility of every worker, business and government. Initiatives like MOOCs, re-skilling training by companies and government-authorised training courses can help in this. Smart course curriculums and STEM-based education can help master this revolution. Countries, companies and persons who have adopted these will benefit as the full effect of this revolution will dawn upon us with the coming years.
Over the years, many have argued internet to be a basic right as well gone to the extent of classifying it as an essentiality of life, after food, water, clothing and shelter. U.S. President Obama too mentioned internet to be considered a basic utility.
The digital revolution rides on internet that connects people and objects. Yet in many parts of the world, especially in developing and under-developed countries, there are areas which are yet to be touched by the internet revolution. And even in places which have internet access, it might be intermittent and slow. Improving the telecommunication infrastructure so that internet and connectivity can be brought to even the remotest corner of the country becomes important to participate and triumph in this revolution. If you are not connected with the rest of the world by means of smart tools, then you will most likely miss this revolution.
Partnerships with private players or international collaborations can help governments meet the infrastructure needs quicker.
Most nations around the world still live with rules and regulations designed in an era that has passed by. Governments need to find the right policy approach to challenging issues like liability and safety of autonomous systems, emergence of Internet of Things and ownership and use of industrial data. They also need to put in place institutions that can address complex issues in a quick manner. As the world becomes more interconnected, with the walls of privacy often crumbling, laws need to be put in place that address issues of data security and individual privacy.
With greater inequality expected in the society, the government will also need to relook at criminal laws as well as schemes like pension and unemployment benefits. Maintaining a balanced social structure will become a tougher task as digitization widens social gaps, reduces income and increases connectivity and sharing of information.
Technology for Innovation
Governments should provide grants and tax exemptions to labs and companies that foster innovation and help in mastering the revolution faster. These can also fuel job creation which will in turn boost the economy. Technology should be used to promote socio-economic growth and to maintain peace. It should also be used to overcome other challenges facing humanity such as climate change. Creating new jobs, even in non-technology fields will become essential to accommodate the entire workforce. New job roles need to be identified in areas of public policy, literature, theatre, legal systems, technology etc.
“We cannot wait until there are massive dislocations in our society to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” - Robert J. Shiller, 2013 Nobel laureate (Economics)
The preparations to tackle the digital revolution should start early on and at every level - individual, company and national. Individual workers should not wait for their employers to take the initiative to bring about digitization. They should prepare themselves too and be pioneers who bring about this change. Nations should also think about how to better utilize this change to create new types of jobs and chart a path for the future which is inclusive and socially balanced. The universe shouldn’t get stumped with this revolution but should instead master it and pave way for greater transformations that glorify mankind.