If you asked me when I was starting primary school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d tell you all about my aspirations to work at Blockbuster. A job that let me watch videos all day? That was the pinnacle of success. Needless to say, that dream didn’t exactly pan out for me. By the time I graduated from college, not only had my career hopes changed, but Blockbuster wasn’t hiring anymore and was only a couple years away from closing its doors forever. Its business model and the technology it was founded on were obsolete. The job I have now, a “digital content marketer,” didn’t exist when I started primary school. Heck, it didn’t really exist when I graduated college. I don’t write this to be nostalgic — or to date myself — I write it because it tells the story of what we are living through right now: The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
That was the topic of discussion when The World Economic Forum (WEF) was held in Davos last week. We talk about this a lot at Percolate; it was actually a major theme of our Client Summit and Transition last year. What the WEF is calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we called the deployment phase of the Information Age. The WEF contends that the speed, scope, and impact of technological change defines our era as an entirely new revolution — we suggest, referring to Carlota Perez’s framework, that the true impacts of a revolution aren’t fully felt until technology has existed long enough to be deployed in the form of meaningful applications. Nonetheless, we agree that what will come in the next five years will change human life virtually everywhere, and faster than we could have ever imagined. And while technology is transforming the job market, it’s also giving us the tools we need to take advantage of how it’s changing.
How the fourth industrial revolution will change our lives
Why exactly is that? The WEF looks at it as the moment in our lifetimes when technology advances — beyond the foundational computing power and mobile connectivity developed in the the last century — in innovations such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, genetics, and biotech have moved to the point of tangible and reality-changing application in daily life. This moment “is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres,” according to the WEF report.
Meaning, those technologies are now at the point of deployment where they are changing our relationship to others, to work, and — what feels the most like sci-fi — to ourselves. Thus, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming our societies, economies, and, indeed, our bodies.
What once seemed very far away is happening quickly — many of these advances will be fully deployed by 2020. In less than five years WEF predicts that we’ll see things like widespread use of 3D printing in manufacturing, new energy supplies, and advanced use of robotics in transportation.
The Impact of the Revolution on Jobs
But we’ll also have to contend with unfounded ethical and privacy issues, as well as a disrupted labor market. Let’s address the scary part of all of this: is all the talk of robots taking our jobs and then rising up to control the humans just paranoid and hyperbolic rhetoric?
The short answer, yes. But there are real concerns, namely, rising inequality and job loss at massive scale. The WEF forecast some 7.1 million jobs — mainly in the white collar administrative sections — will be lost because of the disruption in the labor market. Higher-income countries will be the hardest hit, and compounding the impact is how technology advances will increase inequality. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF, explains those who are dependent on labor benefit from technology removing their dependence, but those dependent on capital are replaced by technological innovation and no longer have the means of earning income.
Schwab posits: “technology is therefore one of the main reasons why incomes have stagnated, or even decreased, for a majority of the population in high-income countries: the demand for highly skilled workers has increased while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. The result is a job market with a strong demand at the high and low ends, but a hollowing out of the middle.”
Technology Empowers People and Workers
These are very serious issues, but focusing solely on that conversation ignores two things. First, there is the huge upside for billions of people — women in particular — that advanced technology brings. The Fourth Revolution comes with improved access to healthcare, education, information, and economic opportunity, which create new talent pools and new customers. And furthermore, those things set a foundation for greater transparency and choice for all of us, as both consumers and citizens.
And second, humans have full agency when it comes to building the future we want. Mark Burgess, CEO of CFEngine reminds us that technology is created to make our lives better. He contends that technology is a proxy for our intent and as we build and adopt new technology we need to keep in mind our intent. To do that though, we must abandon short-term thinking in business strategy and focus resources toward R&D, skill development, and creativity.
Those two ideas are intertwined. As technology improves, so does access to healthcare, decreasing mortality rates and the burden of disease. Advances in biotechnology and connected health are the obvious factors, but innovations like safer self-driving cars have to be considered here too.
Free of disability or disease, people are better able to learn — and technology helps there too. Connectivity has cleared a path for marginalized communities to higher education. With education and access to information, people are more politically free. Greater security and political freedom means more stable and peaceful societies — which allow economic activity and education to flourish — perpetuating a virtuous cycle of health, education, peace, and prosperity.
Now with more educated people with greater buying power, businesses have access to both top talent and larger consumer audiences. On the labor side, improved access to education, employment, and further training — especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields — through remote-working or -learning opportunities is a step in the right direction according to the WEF: “As study after study demonstrates the business benefits of workforce diversity and companies expect finding talent for many key specialist roles to become much more difficult by 2020, it is time for a fundamental change in how talent diversity issues perceived and well-known barriers tackled.”
That’s just one link in a changing value chain. New digital platforms — think Amazon or Netflix, which helped to kill my aspiring Blockbuster career — are pushing out established incumbents by improving on price, quality, and speed. And required skills to contend with these shifts have to be developed, meaning it is incumbent on us — as both employees and employers — to invest in training. Both public and private sector leaders have the opportunity now to shift their thinking from immediate returns toward sustainable growth through new innovation brought to market with a highly trained workforce, but now is the moment to make those kinds of long-term decisions.
WEF contends that, “Currently, only 53% of CHROs surveyed are reasonably or highly confident regarding the adequacy of their organization’s future workforce strategy to prepare for these shifts. The main perceived barriers to a more decisive approach include a lack of understanding of the disruptive changes ahead, resource constraints and short-term profitability pressures and lack of alignment between workforce strategies and firms’ innovation strategies.”
R&D, training, and a shift in organizational thinking can solve for those pressures, but they need to be addressed now to have the desired effect in the next five years. That’s because technology trends are shifting customer expectations, too.
Technology, Creativity, and Marketing
With greater access to information and disposable income, customers are at the center of the economy, making the customer experience a critical focus for business.
Enter marketing. We’ve already seen disruption in our jobs. From an ever-increasing number of new channels to ad-blocking, the thing we have to combat these threats to our effectiveness: our creativity.
The good news is that technology is helping us to do that better, too. New technology automates or complements our current workflows and frees up employees’ minds to take on more sophisticated work. This gives way to a cognitive, non-routine workforce, which contributes to a more creative enterprise. The best companies will be able to strike a balance between the power of the orchestration of systems and technology and the brilliance of enabling a creative workforce.
The data supports this. As marketers, we need these creative positions in our organizations, and there is a greater business case for them too.
Ultimately, investing in R&D, training, and creativity is actually what will ultimately normalize the disrupted job market and create new jobs. The WEF predicts that we’ll see another 2 million jobs created in fields related to computers, engineering, mathematics, and architecture (decreasing the total job loss in the Fourth Industrial Revolution).
This all all comes back to our intent. It’s how we take full responsibility for the future, or Schwab writes:
“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.”
This is what makes us innately human: our ability to build and leverage technology as part of building a better world.