You can’t get far in Davos this year without stumbling across virtual reality hubs, robo-demos, 3D printed food, and hologram learning. It’s all the rage here, but that’s as in 2017 its becoming all the rage in the real world. The science fiction of an eighties child, is fast becoming the reality of today.
This is, as the World Economic Forum (WEF) reminded us this week, the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR).
The phrase is used by WEF to encompass the explosion in technological innovations characterized by connectivity, speed, breadth and depth of transformation.
Underpinned by the digital economy, rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), robots, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, and quantum computing innovations (to name just a few) are rapidly transforming industries and societies across the world.
The developments come at a time when scientists report that the Earth’s system has never been under so much pressure since human civilisations began to thrive 10,000 years ago.
Human and economic development in past industrial revolutions has come largely at the expense of the planet; our climate, water, air, biodiversity, forests and oceans are increasingly under strain. Scientists have identified that four out of the Earth's nine “Planetary Boundaries” have been passed. Risks are only likely to heighten as the global population swells to nine billion by 2050 and with it, food, materials and energy needs grow.
This immense global challenge needs transformative solutions to radically alter business as usual growth and development patterns.
How can 4IR technological breakthroughs be harnessed in the 21st century to enable environmental and social progress, alongside economic progress?
As the new paper published by PwC today shows, setting the course for a ‘responsible’ 4IR now, will be key.
What’s so special about the 4th Industrial Revolution?
There are two key attributes that differentiate the 4IR from the industrial revolutions that preceded it: speed and efficiency. This is what creates a remarkable opportunity for technological innovations to secure the sustainability of our planet.
Firstly let’s look at speed. Our generation’s industrial revolution is much more connected and global. Building on the innovations of the 3rd industrial revolution – the rise of digital technology, computing and the internet - the 4IR has become the most rapid period of innovation, ever. 4IR technologies can penetrate the mainstream, impact many sectors, and ‘go global’, in as little as a few years.
The second feature is efficiency. In short, the 4IR is smarter. 4IR technologies have the ability to deliver a unit of outcome with fewer units of energy. The digital economy underpinning the 4IR is intrinsically connected, making it possible to increase global and local optimisation, and to become more efficient (e.g. autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, IoT). Efficiency is not a given of each 4IR innovation but a possibility at design (more on this below).
Companies are still in the early stages of grappling with the 4IR and what it means for their business, but CEOs are under no illusions as to its importance.
In this year’s PwC Annual CEO Survey, innovation is ranked as the top business priority to strengthen. 71% of CEOs are concerned at the speed of technological change for their growth prospects.
As companies and entrepreneurs across sectors look at how to use 4IR innovations to protect and create value in their core business, our new report “Innovation for the Earth” shines a light on the opportunity for innovators and businesses to take a broader view, harnessing these advances to build solutions that also deliver benefits for our people and planet.
As entrepreneurs, businesses and investors look to deploy and scale these technologies to create strategic advantage, there are huge opportunities to apply the technologies of the 4IR to real Earth challenges today, and in doing so, create commercial advantage.
Our new report focuses on the top ten 4IR technological innovations that could be the most influential over the coming decade if proactively harnessed to shape industry and businesses worldwide and help to address the planet’s sustainability.
Putting 4IR technologies to work for climate change
Taking a deep dive on the challenge of climate change, our new report demonstrates how the top ten 4IR innovations are already driving emerging solutions to the key climate solution levers: clean power, smart transport systems, sustainable production and consumption, sustainable land use, and smart cities and homes.
Solutions range from entirely new business models that could disrupt traditional industries, sectors, and infrastructure, to optimising existing products and services, for example around energy efficiency and waste.
For example, advanced materials including graphene and nano-solutions are close to under-pinning battery breakthroughs for inexpensive, quick charging energy dense batteries. This could disrupt the market for carbon intensive internal combustion engines and make electric cars performance and competitive.
Virtual power plants connected to each other via the cloud, and utilising the IoT can aggregate emerging energy sources including solar panels, micro-grids and energy storage installations, and optimise these resources using big data and machine learning.
Then there is ‘Industrial IoT’ (IIoT) which is rapidly being adopted across manufacturing industries, combining smart machines, smart materials, and smart products to create gains in energy efficiency, waste, and performance.
Many of the solutions fuse together a number of 4IR technologies across the digital, biological and physical space, and there’s no doubt that many of Earth’s challenges that stand to benefit a great deal from these advances.
We identify five key emerging 4IR innovation game-changers that fuse together 4IR technologies and present substantial potential to build a zero-net-emissions economy over time.
New examples will emerge, and the challenge for innovators, investors and governments alike is to support identification and scaling of these new innovations, and ensure they are designed for maximum positive impact on people and the planet.
Avoiding unintended consequences
The systems change required to deliver a clean, resource-secure and inclusive economy can be enabled by technology and supported by public policy and investment. But these same technological advances could also have unintended consequences in accelerating risks to the Earth if they are not designed and scaled in a smart and sustainable way.
Discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos are addressing the risks and opportunities of 4IR technologies hand in hand. From the impacts of automation on jobs (a frequent headliner this week), to data privacy, cyber security, and the risks of bio-technology “bio-errors”.
On the environmental side, the expanding digital economy that underpins the 4IR has a huge and exponentially rising need for data transmission, data storage and computing power. It gives rise to increasing GHGs and digital waste alongside the energy and emissions savings it generates.
For example the IoT’s energy consumption must be addressed upfront as it expands from a network of 23 billion connected energy-consuming ‘things’ today to 50 billion by 2020. Energy efficiency and utilisation of clean energy sources must be critical common features of this vast network of devices, sensors and appliances. Given the distributed nature and ownership of the ‘things’, this will be a challenge that requires strong policy support.
Resource efficiency is not a given of each 4IR innovation but it is a possibility at design. This makes smart and sustainable 4IR technology design and performance standards or targets a business and government imperative today.
Governments and industry must come together to develop, as carefully as possible, technological governance structures which are fit for purpose and enable a ‘responsible’ 4IR. Structural change habitually creates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but the 4IR could be the largest and fastest structural transformation of the global economy the world has seen.
To really succeed in creating sustainable growth that protects the planet and people, technological transformation needs to be a means to deliver responsible growth, not the end-game in of itself.
A call for Earth-shots
The world of “moon-shots” innovation made famous by Silicon Valley is one of audacious experimentation on technologies to propel humanity forward. Funded by philanthropists and big companies, like Google’s “X”, Musk’s “SpaceX”, and Zuckerberg’s “Biohub”, famous moonshots include science fiction –esque attempts at life extension, the production of ‘true’ AI; flying cars; space elevators; and efforts for humans to land on (and perhaps colonise) Mars.
In the 21st century, innovators in companies and start-ups are the engine-room of the 4IR. There is perhaps an unprecedented opportunity for companies, entrepreneurs and investors to shape, develop, and build, the future. And for governments to enable this, whilst protecting (all) public interests.
Now it’s time to call forward the “Earth Shots”; to harness 4IR innovations to develop breakthrough solutions to solve the most pressing challenges for the Earth itself.
Celine is a member of the WEF Global Future Council on Environment and Natural Resource Scarcity (2016-2018), a Council which is focused on the intersection between 4IR and Environment.