The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has emerged as one of the major economic trends shaping our times. It has been characterized by a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. It is an evolutionary phase in the history of technology that is transforming how we live, work and relate to each other and to our built environment (Citation2016).
The advent of this technological change has raised significant issues around its impact on people, communities, businesses and the economy. It is creating a paradigm shift that has the potential to fundamentally alter how we do business and even redefine what work is, as we move away from traditional manufacturing jobs to ones that are more service-oriented. These emerging technologies, which are often described as ‘intelligent machines’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ are merging with human life through the use of voice-activated assistants, facial recognition software and autonomous vehicles. This ‘intelligent automation’ is creating an unprecedented level of disruption and uncertainty for the future of both the workforce and the economy.
It is not hard to see why this transformation has become the ‘talk of the town’, with most companies and organizations already implementing some form of it. However, the speed and scope of this change is so rapid that it is challenging for regulators and legislators to keep pace. It is also creating significant challenges for the workforce, requiring them to adapt and learn new skills quickly.
For business, the 4IR is reshaping customer expectations, product enhancement, the way assets are maintained and collaborative innovation. It is also redefining organisational forms, as the digitalization of processes and systems makes them increasingly interconnected. This has a profound effect on the organisation’s value proposition and its ability to create and deliver customer value.
A concerted focus on workforce engagement is vital to a successful 4IR transformation. It is not possible to scale up a new model of doing business unless workers are willing to adapt and learn the necessary skills, including those related to machine learning and artificial intelligence. This can be done through upskilling and reskilling existing employees, or by hiring external talent to fill gaps in specific areas of the business.
The challenge for governments is to ensure that these changes are beneficial, especially for the most vulnerable. Despite the rhetoric of ‘inclusive growth’, it is clear that many countries are being left behind by the fast-paced changes and will need to take further steps to address inequalities. This is an urgent imperative if they are to avoid further economic and social problems. This requires a shift from the rhetoric of ‘inclusive growth’ to concrete actions that will help to achieve inclusive, resilient and sustainable development. This can only be achieved with a strong industrial ecosystem and supportive policy regimes that are capable of responding to the needs of the new fourth industrial revolution.