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9th Global Discourse on 4IR Part 2

by Reyana Nacerodien

The 9th WIEF Global Discourse in Dhaka identifies important social, economic, political and environmental trends that has shaped, and will further shape, the 4IR. Here’s the final part of two summaries of the half-day discourse themed 4IR: Seizing Possibilities for the Future.

The world has the potential to connect billions of people to digital networks, dramatically improving the efficiency of the organisations and even manage assets in a way that can help regenerate natural involvement potentially undoing the damage of previous industrial revolutions. So says Syed Tamjid ur Rahman, Vice President of the Bangladesh Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (BD4IR) at the 9th WIEF Global Discourse discussion on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Dhaka.

The potential of the 4IR and all the potential it brings, is at times overshadowed by the uncertainty that technological change and, indeed, disruption brings about. Experts working at the forefront of these changes and their implementation share their knowledge to contextualise the 4IR and offer guidance in addressing key considerations that arise.

Timeline of the Industrial Revolutions
Professor Emeritus at Southeast University and founder Vice Chancellor of the Bangladesh Open University, Dr Muhammad Shamsher Ali, explains the journey of the four industrial revolutions:

The First Industrial Revolution introduced the use of steam power to mechanise production. Around 1760 steam engines and factories changed the landscape of European and American economics and society as steam was used to power everything from textile manufacturing to agricultural production. This facilitated urbanisation, and steamships and railroads changed mobility and connected people. The downside was a workforce of unskilled, cheap labour often including children who worked long hours in unsafe conditions.

The Second Industrial Revolution began with advances in electricity and this occurred with an accidental observation by Dutch physicist Oersted. The Second Industrial Revolution saw a number of ground-breaking inventions in transport, telecommunication and manufacturing including the use of electric power to generate mass production. Inventions such as gasoline engines and air planes helped humanity to go faster, do more and faster.

The Third Industrial Revolution brought the internet and other technological innovations which have ushered humanity into the digital era. From the 1950s, the move from analogue electronic and mechanical devices to digital disrupted industries. Electronics and information technology began to automate production and control global supply chains.

‘150 years ago, we were not having this life with all the beautiful electrical and electronic devices – we had civilisation of a different kind,’ recalls Dr Shamsher. ‘In retrospect, these developments from the steam engine, to the age of science and mass production, to the rise of digital tech – our world has changed fundamentally. We are once again at the precipice of another change with the 4IR.’

The Present
While the Third Industrial Revolution was predicated upon digital information technologies, 4IR is a hybrid of digital, physical and biological worlds that challenge existing business models, institutions and countries’ assumptions about the way the world works. 4IR is led by new and innovative technologies such as AI, automation, robotics and IoT. With the new technologies that this fast-paced revolution creates, people as well as organisations and countries need to learn how to take advantage of these new opportunities and thrive. In order to do that, there are points of contention that need strategic address. A PESTLE analysis is used to illustrate these:

It’s true that a strategic 4IR plan for any region or country will need to be led by considered, aligned government policy. What has been the case to date, is that policy has often struggled to keep up with the pace of technological change. Panellist Dr Hasan Shafi, a partner at consultancy firm A.T. Kearney, Inc in Malaysia says, ‘The struggle is the holistic nature of the plan needed. It’s really around creating an inclusive sustainable setup that will require the government, the business, the academia, the richest organisations, the startups, everyone to come together to make it happen. Often times we come up with a very conflicting policy. It’s got to be one, and together, a holistic one.’

Perhaps an additionally daunting task is where to spend the money. Dr Hasan further proposes a detailed evaluation of the region or country to inform such a plan that includes a robust strategic outlook will serve to guide key decisions on industries of focus, regional collaboration opportunities, ways of entering or growing within selected sectors, the future view of these sectors, the labour force that exists and is needed in future – all these factors inform what investment is required. ‘There’s no point in trying to do a lot of things in a lot of sectors. It’s going to be a waste of everyone’s effort and money,’ he warns.

Experts agree that the technological revolution changes how we work, live, learn, relate to one another and even what it means to be human. Already the global reality is that of consumers incorporating new networked media and communications in their daily lives and a macro trend has emerged that sees co-evolution of technology and socio-cultural. A more defining consideration with 4IR on the social front is the idea of sustainability for all people. In the world of work, technological change is both evident and inevitable.

During the welcoming remarks of the Discourse, Professor Dr M Anwar Hossain, a member of the Board of Governors of the SEACO Foundation and the first Vice Chancellor of the Islamic University of Technology in Dhaka, speaks of the changes needed in both skilling and reskilling the workforce needed to power 4IR. ‘The focus and mode of formal education at all levels needs to be looked into, particularly keeping in mind that, due to fast changes and varied applications of the technologies, one will have to adjust and readjust jobs several times during their whole professional life,’ he reminds. Training for a sustainable and sustained workforce is then a major topic for consideration in these times.

Globalisation, urbanisation, climate change, and Internet proliferation are the macroeconomic megatrends that are already shaping the 21st century. It’s a given that these seemingly irreversible forces that have already made an indelible mark on economies and societies, will continue to do so for coming decades. Both organisations and countries alike can’t deny the need to get on board.

Looking to science fiction, the late American writer and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics doesn’t seem too far off. The disruption of 4IR is felt in law too. 4IR developments have already brought new kinds of conflict before the courts such as the more recent decision around the onus of blame in a motor vehicle accident involving a self-driven vehicle. Already in 2017, the EU launched a blockchain study to look into regulatory intervention. No doubt, as our lives evolve, the laws that govern our societies will need adaptation and even creation to keep up applicability to our contexts as they are redefined by technological progress.

Our environment defined by climate change forms part of any discourse about the present and, indeed, about the future. Chief guest at the Global Discourse discussion, Professor Dr Gowher Rizvi, international affairs advisor to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh poses a question we all should consider, ‘Can our society, our environment, our nature which is already fast depleting be organised where everybody’s aiming for faster growth, thereby depleting non-renewal resources of our earth?’

Indeed, the innovations of the 4IR have the potential to improve management and governance of the global environment by reducing carbon emissions and resource usage across production in a number of industries. Such developments can mitigate the effects of climate change and help us adapt to its consequences. The management and implementation thereof will be the defining factors in realising the potential for sustainable growth and development.

Emerging Market Economies preparing for 4IR
Though 4IR raises a number of concerns for some, the potential prospects are evident. For emerging market economies, the opportunity to leapfrog their developed counterparts and fast-track there development trajectory exists and some are already working towards making this a reality. Here we draw up a quick list of EME preparing for 4IR:

Areas of concern such as education, policy, infrastructure and overarching strategy raised by speakers at the 9th WIEF Global Discourse discussion on 4IR are already being addressed in Malaysia through set-ups such as that of the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT). Under the purview of the Department of the Prime Minster, the think-tank was formed to prospect for business opportunities for the benefit of the country through strategic exploitation of technology. As an initiative, MIGHT leads and nurtures strategic programmes in high technology sectors in the country such as housing and construction, pharmaceutical, energy and even aerospace to support their development, mitigate risks and ensure progress and prosperity.

In Rwanda, the country may be somewhat behind in Internet accessibility for its citizens, and so, in digital literacy too, but the country is ahead of the curve in terms of specific digital-first regulation. Initiatives are underway to ensure that digital skills are developed offering hands-on basic digital literacy training to five million citizens. What’s more impressive is that policy and regulation as enablers for the 4IR are already in place. At present, many countries are grappling with regulation surrounding drones but in Rwanda, as early as 2016, drones have been used to deliver critical medical supplies to inaccessible, remote areas. The drone delivery programme, conducted in partnership with Zipline, a California-based drone start-up, is leading the global charge given its impact and scope while the agile regulation ensures the Rwandan government is on the pulse of the rapid development of drone technology.

Thailand is spearheading the future of robotics. The country is applying focus to the automotive industry given the possibility for growth in automation and robotics. The government plan is to ensure an innovation-driven economy by enhancing existing expertise through additional investment such as in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), Thailand’s USD45 billion infrastructure development project. Projects like this address both the demand and supply sides of the robotics industry by encouraging uptake through mechanisms such as tax incentives for companies that invest in business activities related to the robotics and automation industries and technologies.  In this way, the country is encouraging its pioneer status in the robotics revolution.

Through crossborder collaboration, Ethiopia is making use of blockchain technology to harness the full potential of its highly-lucrative coffee exports. In conjunction with the Swiss-based Cardano Foundation, the technology is used to record, track and trace coffee beans from local farmers to offer the customer an enhanced level of confidence given the traceable source and purity of produce. The premium product with associated charge is then validated through digital means. Companies like Starbucks have already bought into the idea of digital traceability of their product as supplied by the country, aiming for real-time traceability by 2020.

For details on the Global Discourse programme and bio of each speaker, visit event webpage. Read part 1 of the summary of the 9th Global Discourse in Dhaka here.

9 Dec 2019
Last modified: 11 Dec 2019
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