In January, the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland saw members of the global elite extolling the virtues of the so-called "4th industrial revolution". The catch-all term, also known as "Industry 4.0," ties together a wide range of cutting-edge digital technologies - such as 3-D printing, machine intelligence, the internet of things, cloud computing, and big data - into a vision of a future world of work. In this brave new world, smart factories will operate by automation with machines exchanging data seamlessly. The consequences for the work force in both developing and developed countries will be huge.
To start with, the hoped-for productivity gains from the 4th industrial revolution will have a global impact on the amount, type and quality of jobs available and on worker competitiveness. Most of the worries expressed so far about the rise of the robots have focused on job losses in developed economies. But there will be consequences, too, for those developing countries that depend for their competitive advantage on low-cost, low-skilled labour. For example, we could see the re-localisation of low-skill jobs (and even many medium-skill jobs) back to developed countries that possess robots. That could turn global value chains on their head, potentially spelling their demise as a development strategy, as mentioned in some of the targets and commitments of the new United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.
So how can developing countries confront this possible widening of the digital divide, and its potential threat to their development strategies? One thing they need to do is turn the possibly liberating power of open data and big data to their own advantage. If data are the lifeblood of the robot revolution, then they must also be used to defend and compensate those who might lose out from these disruptive technologies.
Open data and big data can be important tools for helping entrepreneurs in developing countries maintain a stake in global value chains. Take the example of business-2-business web marketplaces like China's Alibaba, which connects small- and medium-sized businesses to global markets. The more these businesses in developing countries can get online and engage in e-commerce, the greater chance they will have of following the changing patterns of global value chains. Another promising example is the US data-driven trade-analysis solutions company, Panjiva, which uses machine learning and data visualization tools to mine publicly available customs data. This allows entrepreneurs to identify and source new suppliers and new importers. While today a European importer might be using such tools to find a supplier in Asia, as the 4th industrial revolution kicks in, these tools may soon be connecting entrepreneurs from the developing world to robot factories in Germany, for example. But for this to work in everyone's interest, open data standards and big data analysis skills need to be more widely embraced and prioritized in developing countries. This also means putting in place the right institutions that can allow their use to spread - and empower - citizens.
Outside factories and boardrooms, the technologies of the 4th industrial revolution can be used to enable a wide range of new services to help guarantee and protect citizen rights. The impact of these technologies is also already being felt through the expansion of public "smart" services: Smart cards and RFID technology, for example, are being used to create unique identification numbers for citizens in many developing countries, not only to improve civil registration, but also to enable financial inclusion and payment of government benefits as countries expand social protection. Agricultural productivity can also be improved: In East Africa, for example, cell-phone services are offering real-time price data to farmers.
One of the biggest challenges to embracing these new technologies in developing countries may be that the relevant policies and legal frameworks are in their infancy or non-existent, as UNCTAD's Global Cyberlaw Tracker reveals. Data literacy, official statistical capacity and investment in 4th industrial revolution technologies are particularly low in these countries. Legal standards and frameworks are outdated or non-existent, and individual rights with respect to data collection and privacy almost unheard of.
To realize a "digital dividend" from Industry 4.0, the World Bank's recent 2016 World Development Report says countries need to put in place "analogue components". This means providing a level playing field for healthy competition between tech companies; raising the tech skills of all workers; and holding brick-and-mortar government accountable to citizen's online rights. These "analogue components" are at play in the ongoing dispute in India over Facebook's Free Basics service, which rolls out limited online services on mobile phones to underserved markets. Some see it as a promising idea for expanding the digital citizenry, helping improve poor people's skills and use of new technology. However the telecoms regulator in India has just come out against the service because it provides free access only to some websites, rather than to the internet as a whole.
By its very nature, technology can be both liberating and disruptive. Attempting to resist it can also be futile or counterproductive. But the promise of the 4th industrial revolution suggests that disruptiveness does not have to mean divisiveness. Open data, big data and smart services, working hand in hand with the right policies, can go a long way to counterbalancing the disruption caused by robots, machine intelligence and the internet of things.