The WEF and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: What You Need to Know

Home to DocuSign and many of the world’s prominent tech giants, San Francisco ranks high on the world’s list of modern-day technology meccas, alongside the likes of Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Stockholm. It’s within these contemporary urban centers that the seeds of the future are sown as companies develop the products, services, and software that alter the way the world operates.

San Francisco has been a launch pad for some of the most innovative and world-changing technologies in recent memory. It stands to reason that the city would serve as the location of the World Economic Forum’s new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Center aims to bring together professionals from a wide range of industries to facilitate conversation and advance public-private collaboration efforts to govern technological development in the digital age.

What is the purpose of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

world economic forum logoThe Center, which was opened on October 10, 2016, will be a unique offshoot of the World Economic Forum, which is headquartered in Davos, Switzerland, but also maintains offices in Beijing, New York, and Tokyo. Though located on US soil, the Center will operate as an internationally-collaborative entity where scientists, academics, prominent companies, international organizations, tech pioneers, policy-makers, and youth can hold discussions that will shape the governance of technology as it continues to grow at an exponential rate.

The opening day of the Center featured a panel discussion about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Panel members included Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and United States Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.

Among the innovative concepts, technologies, and developments that the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution will focus on are drones, artificial intelligence and robotics, 3D printing, blockchain, and the Internet of Things. These technologies, at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, represent a future characterized by dramatic change for the entire human race. They will naturally begin to pose a host of ethical and legal dilemmas that no one country can resolve independently.

What do we mean by the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

To understand the value behind the goals of the World Economic Forum’s newly-established Center, one must first understand what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is. From the late 1700s to modern day, the world has already seen three industrial revolutions.

The first was driven by the invention of mechanical production equipment powered by steam and water. The second relied on the power of electricity to maximize production capabilities. The third, generally accepted to have begun in 1969, centered on the use of electronics and information technology to automate processes.

This third, digitally-focused revolution has allowed for the development of tools, services, products, and concepts that are culminating in the advent of the fourth. The Fourth Industrial Revolution itself is a technological movement that will inevitably result in ambiguous boundaries through which the biological, physical, and digital spheres intersect.

Some argue that the fourth revolution is merely an advanced stage of the third. However, many experts assert that the unprecedented speed of modern technological development mandates industrial change of a size and scope that will transform the way the world produces, manages, and governs systems of every kind.

What are the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

automationThe effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution both pose challenges and present opportunities for society going forward. From a positive standpoint, the rapid growth of technology may create a higher level of global income and improve overall quality of life, most significantly for those individuals in a position to comfortably access the digital world. More products will be created to enhance the efficiency and satisfaction levels that an individual experiences in his or her day-to-day life.

Challenges, however, will include the possibility of disruption in labor markets as workers are displaced by machines which automate processes once completed by hand. This, in turn, may lead to increased social tensions between those who hold low-paying, low skill positions and those who qualify for high-paying, high skill positions.

From the perspective of business owners, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require companies to adopt speed as the new currency of business in order to keep pace with digital disruption. Successful companies of the digital age will need to be aware of the four primary areas in which the revolution will have an effect: collaborative innovation, the enhancement of products, organizational forms, and the customer experience. Structuring an organization that is capable of bearing and responding to the abrupt changes in cutting-edge technology and customer expectations will be paramount to surviving in a business market shaped by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

What will the Fourth Industrial Revolution mean for governments?

The concepts that will be brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will push humankind to a developmental point where it must put policies into place to govern technology for the good of humanity. The public sector will be presented with new means of surveilling and controlling digital infrastructure, but will also need to contend with citizens capable of more direct engagement with their governments. Public officials will need to strike a balance between transparency and efficiency in order to effectively operate as a political entity.

Further complicating matters will be the implementation of regulations that truly protect against the consequences of rapidly-evolving technology. As it stands, policy-making that addresses technology is structured to handle a rate of development more comparable with the Second Industrial Revolution than the fourth.

The wide discrepancy in rate of change between these two paces of development renders the current approach much too linear and routinized for the groundbreaking growth of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Government agencies will need to work directly with businesses and civil society to develop agile plans that allow them to adopt quickly and efficiently along with market changes.


By: Keith Krach