On the Brink: The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What it Means and What to Do


The first industrial revolution used water and steam. Thomas Newcomen’s first working steam engine was installed at a coal mine near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712.

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society.

I’ve been reading some of the thinking and work that’s emerging from the World Economic Forum currently underway in Davos.

For example  The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond from which the quotations in this post are taken.

It’s all about a coming storm of change that will be unprecedented in scale, scope and complexity. And the impact on business, government, economic and social arrangements and on our personal and work lives will be radical.

Charlie Chaplin tries to cope with the assembly line in Modern Times

The second revolution used electricity for mass production. Charlie Chaplin tries to cope with the assembly line in Modern Times

This graphic from the World Economic Forum that shows the timeline history of the four revolutions.

Inside the Amazon warehouse. A worker gathers items for delivery.

Inside the Amazon warehouse. A worker gathers items for delivery.The third revolution used electronics and information technology to automate production

The fourth industrial revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

This fourth revolution builds on the third great upheaval of the electronic age of information but it will be quite distinct in terms of its speed, scope and impact.

Previous revolutions emerged at a linear pace. This one proceeds at an exponential speed and with a disruptive force on a transformational scale.

Whole industries are affected and the changes reach deep into entire systems of production, management and governance.

Think of some of the  driving components that are already here or right on the horizon like a great tsunami about to roar onshore:

Future Factory: Siemens’ Electronic Works facility in Amberg, Germany, integrates manufacturing, production and automation systems to process 1.6 billion components from.250 suppliers with 99% reliability.

  • Billions of people connected by mobile devices with huge processing power, storage capacity and unlimited access to information.
  • Technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous self-driving vehicles
  • The Internet of Things
    • 3-D printing
    • Nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, quantum computing and
    combinations of innovative technologies and all of the above.

Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and software that translate or invest. Impressive progress has been made in AI in recent years, driven by exponential increases in computing power and by the availability of vast amounts of data, from software used to discover new drugs to algorithms used to predict our cultural interests. Digital fabrication technologies, meanwhile, are interacting with the biological world on a daily basis. Engineers, designers, and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.

Assuming this to be broadly true:

What do we tell the children?

Or put another way – what do we need to do now to do our best to ensure that our students are ready for the challenges and opportunities in a world so radically transformed?

Bright Horizons or Storm Clouds Ahead

As with the revolutions of the past this extraordinary upheaval has the potential to lift global income levels and quality of life. Think of the changes of the last ten years in how we buy things, get news, listen to music, watch films, order a cab, deposit a check, make travel arrangements, access connect with each other, get the information we need in everything from medicine to law to finding a good school and the best dishwasher.

The future of things: Toyota’s violin playing robots

Long term gains in efficiency and productivity are likely to continue to affect communication and transportation costs leading to new markets, more efficient supply chains and economic growth.

But think of the potential for disruption to the labor market. And the social implications for a society already experiencing the fear and anxiety of the disappearance of the middle class.

All those consumer conveniences and changes listed above – these disintermediations  – signaled big changes in jobs and employment and not everyone benefitted from them. This revolution  has the potential to lead to even greater inequality.

The hollowing out of the middle class is already an a problem and we see the impact of that in this election season. It’s fueling the uncertainty and anxiety about incomes and the future..

The big beneficiaries of this revolution will most likely be those who have the capital to invest in change, shareholders and those who can lead the innovation with their intellectual and creative thinking. High end, high skilled jobs will be plenty but the demand for unskilled labor will decrease and those in the middle squeezed.

This helps explain why so many workers are disillusioned and fearful that their own real incomes and those of their children will continue to stagnate. It also helps explain why middle classes around the world are increasingly experiencing a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and unfairness. A winner-takes-all economy that offers only limited access to the middle class is a recipe for democratic malaise and dereliction.

The Luddites of the first industrial revolution were not ant-technology for the sake of it. They were being deskilled, displaced and made redundant. How it plays out – new, safer, better jobs v. exacerbated gaps between the returns to capital and returns to labor – is yet to be seen. There’s plenty of room for the optimists and pessimists among us.

However, there is little doubt that skills and talent will continue to matter as a critical deciding factor. And this is where education comes in. Dewey told us years ago to prepare children not for our past but their future.

What does that mean in the context of the fourth revolution?

  • For what roles are we preparing our students?
  • What skills will they need to thrive and how have we determined what they are?
  • How will they learn them, from whom and where?
  • What experiences should they have now that will have the best chance of providing those skill-sets and mind-sets?
  • And if the future world is to be one of rising social tensions and inequity – what ethical compass will they need to help them navigate the changed ethical and moral boundaries?

Social Media and its Discontents

As the cliche has it – the future is already here – it is just not very evenly distributed.

The discontents of that unequal distribution are fueled by instant and constant communication and the tribalism of social media. The very tools that can help share information and connect people lead also to the setting of unrealistic expectations and the social bunkers of group think. They are easy channels for the propagation of extreme ideas, disinformation, misinformation, comforting mythologies and dangerous ideologies. And think for a moment of the connections between media and terrorism and how the one fuels the other.

The Impact  on  Business, Government, Economics, and People – how we live, work and relate

We live in a world of disruptive surprise and as the changes roar down upon us we have barely time to catch a breath before the next wave crashes ashore. The implications of all this change and disruption are huge. And potentially deeply concerning. The opportunities of this future world are many. And so are the challenges. How will we navigate the moral and ethical boundaries. Please read The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond for more on this.

But – as always there are choices and decisions to be made:

In the end, it all comes down to people and values. We need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them. In its most pessimistic, dehumanized form, the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to “robotize” humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul. But as a complement to the best parts of human nature—creativity, empathy, stewardship—it can also lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. It is incumbent on us all to make sure the latter prevails.

So here’s a question for educators and parents:  

How do we help grow the people with the moral, ethical, practical and intellectual capacity to lead in that future?

How do we prepare students to take up the challenges of the moral and ethical boundaries with which they and we will be confronted. 

How do we think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation that are shaping our future? 

Any ideas?


  1. Regardless of the advancements of the moment, which seem to be every changing and never ending, I think we best serve our children by teaching them to be conscious, aware, flexible, problem solvers and collaborative in nature. I think it is important to instill empathy and an understanding of not only how their own lives work, but how the lives of other around the world work.

    That may be too base of an answer, but I feel that with the spiral nature of growth and expansion, it is difficult to pinpoint any one thing that will better prepare them then to teach them to be lovers of learning, seekers of knowledge, embracers of change and creative leaders.

  2. I’m with you on all of that Christine. And as I begin to work on some of the answers to my own questions I believe we need to double-down on all of components you mention. I think it is these values, experiences, skills, aptitudes and attitudes that give us the best hope for the future. Thanks for the comment.

    Wondering what others think.

    To be continued ….

  3. Brian:

    Those are some great questions! And put all these economic/ industrial changes alongside the challenges of climate change and – yes- wow! – we are facing and handing off a whole truck-load of stuff for kids to grapple with.

    And they will need some pretty good thinking tools to fend off the appeal of demagogues and opportunist politicians. And those are the indirect threats!

    I do think there can be optimism though. We just need to do what Christine suggested in an earlier comment. Not easy of course but it has to start with us.

    So – what are your and PDS’s answers to those questions? Any plans?

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