The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) & Why it is Important

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Vital Role in Sustainability

By Ana Yong

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), first made reference to 4IR in his 2017 book entitled “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” which he defined as starting at the beginning of this century and relies on digital technology.

An article called “What Is The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Risks, Benefits & Responses” by dated 28 September 2022 stated that this revolution has been expressed in terms of its effects on manufacturing and industrial developments and was studied lengthily as early as 2016. It also mentioned that a 2017 Deloitte survey showed that 87% of businesses intended to produce a workforce that was prepared for 4IR.

Technologies that Drive 4IR

In the same article, listed 6 main technologies that characterize 4IR:

1. Blockchain

This “is a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system”. It is a digital register of transactions which is reproduced and disseminated across the whole matrix of computer systems on the blockchain. As this technology is very difficult to hack, it is the preferred method used for Bitcoin. According to this infographic, more than 351 thousand Bitcoin transactions took place in the 3rd quarter of 2020.

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Data Source: Cambridge Judge Business School, Graphic:

2. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI is not a new technology but because there has been an enormous growth in computing power coupled with the accessibility to an almost infinite amount of data, uses in AI have flourished exponentially. This can be seen in the use of self-driving cars which has gained a lot of attention in recent years.

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Source: Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

3. Virtual Reality (VR)

This utilizes simulation and computer modeling so that we can perform activities within a three-dimensional setting where interaction is in real-time. An article published on 16 October 2019 by Harvard Business Review explained how surgeons could be trained without being present in the operating theatre.

The infographic below shows that gaming technology using such expertise would constitute the bulk of investments by 2024 at USD 17.6 billion.

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Data Source: IDC Worldwide Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide, Infographic:

4. Robotics

Before the onset of AI, early-generation robots were pre-programmed with simple commands. Now, when AI is used together with robotics, advanced automatons are built with improved nimbleness and intelligence.

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Source: Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

5. Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT refers to “a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction”. For example, businesses use IoT to collect consumer data to investigate consumer behavior, with the intention of improving their advertising and marketing strategies to increase sales.

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6. Biotechnology

This is “the use of biological organisms/systems and processes for practical or commercial purposes.” It impacts our life expectancy, well-being, intellect, and abilities. One of the most poignant examples as told in an article entitled “ Plastic-eating bacteria: Genetic engineering and environmental impact” by Live Science dated 23 March 2022 announced that plastic-eating bacteria discovered in 2016 called Ideonella sakaiensis was consuming the plastic used in PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles. The bacteria was further re-engineered to enhance its efficacy in breaking down plastic polymers.

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Source: Microbe Notes

7. Secondary Technologies

Secondary technologies which have a role to play in 4IR are:

  1. 3D printing
  2. Innovative materials
  3. Big data
  4. Energy storage devices
  5. Renewable energy sources

How Countries use Digital Technology

An article by the University of New South Wales, Sydney called “Digital sustainability: technology solutions to climate change” dated 24 March 2022 stated that digital sustainability has 2 functions: being an enabler for change and improvement, and the role of the technology itself by promoting huge interest on the ecological impact.

1. Protection of Children

One of the most important uses of technology is to protect children. The Enough is Enough (EIE) mission reported that online sexual exploitation and abuse of children (OSEAC) increased by 422% over the last 15 years (Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography Production Offenses, 2021).

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Source: Image by Ralph from Pixabay

Under the Fourth Industrial Revolution Series by the World Economic Forum (WEF), an article entitled “What’s ‘modern data’ and how can it be used to help vulnerable people?” dated 7 December 2022 admitted that 4IR has impacted how we interact in a progressively connected world by using copious amounts of data to generate instantaneous decision-making alternatives and to allow for on-the-spot awareness of various scenarios.

This is where Spotlight, created by Thorn to scrutinize chat rooms and unlawful sites to identify trafficked youngsters, comes in. At the time of writing, 17,092 children were identified.

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Project Spotlight.
Source: Thorn

2. Job Creation and Investment in Training

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Source: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Improvements in technology have made products available to anyone staying in many parts of the world, especially during the pandemic lockdowns. We have seen an unprecedented surge in e-platform shopping and the enhanced use of social media to promote products.

As a consequence, workers must be trained to handle new technologies while new vocations are created to meet the demands of the innovative economy.

3. Adoption of Advanced Technologies

The Global Lighthouse Network, organized by WEF, helps the international manufacturing community to adopt 4IR technologies, and engage in cross-company learning and cooperation.

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Source: Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

This network has enabled a consumer healthcare establishment to utilize sophisticated controls with green expertise to set up an automated detector to reduce energy expenditure, resulting in 25% decrease in energy consumption and an 18% drop in Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

4. Help for People with Disabilities

WEF highlighted Microsoft’s new Adaptive Accessories series which comprises a mouse, pressure sensitive buttons and a hub. These tools were designed to provide a more enjoyable mouse-keyboard experience on a computer or phone. Click Microsoft Support for more details.

5. Rise of the Social Economy

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Source: Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

An article titled “How digital tech can turbo-charge the social economy” by WEF dated 26 May 2022 cited that social entrepreneurs are pivotal to reducing inequality, decreasing the effects of climate change and reacting to the pandemic.

As they already have good working relations with underserved communities, they can improve their efficiency by utilizing digital technology to prepare these groups for 4IR and to decarbonize the economy “so that at-risk populations are not left behind as traditional industries are transformed”.

Benefits of Digital Technology and How it is used Sustainably

1. Net-Zero Future

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Source: Image by annca from Pixabay

Digitalization is the key that can unlock net-zero for industry” by WEF dated 21 May 2022 (part of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting) revealed that digital technology is able to create a net-zero future by delivering real-time information to better manage industrial processes and energy utilization.

2. Adoption of Green Technology

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Source: Image by Free Photos from Pixabay

How developing countries can seize ‘green windows of opportunity’ with innovative technologies” dated 26 October 2022 by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) mentioned that international collaboration and economic aid are required for developing nations to tap into green technology.

As these countries are not weighed down by legacy frameworks, they can be more agile in the adoption process to avoid dangers linked with experimentation, research and development and early sluggish endorsements encountered by advanced nations.

3. Access to Drinking Water and Sanitation

These are important to underdeveloped economies and are tackled by Swiss Fresh Water which produces drinking water at the price of €0.01 to €0.05 per litre (3 times cheaper than low-cost mineral water). At the point of writing, the company has created more than 400 sustainable jobs in Senegal since 2012.

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Source: Image by Katja Just from Pixabay

4. Shaping Policy Formulation Strategies

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) article known as “Using digital technology to scan potential for change in sustainable development” archived between March 2020-March 2022 declared that tactics for shaping policy change are developed from data collected via social media regarding specific development issues. The growth in digital technology has empowered vulnerable groups affected by inequality and climate change to discuss and highlight their situations so as to attract conversation and attention for assistance.

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Source: Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

A pilot project in collaboration with Marble Global measured the “assessment of digital users’ perceptions of beneficial land use in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia” which highlighted that Twitter users in these 3 countries gave precedence to food security over environmental conservation. This knowledge is vital in defining governmental policies and frameworks.

5. Creating a Circular Economy

WEF’s article known as “How digitalization can help build a circular economy ecosystem” dated 25 August 2022 said that a circular economy generates no waste and to establish an authentic circular economy, industries must operate fully digital. This happens when businesses use digital technology to track and evaluate their supply chains to mitigate climate hazards and ecological damage while increasing efficiency and profits.

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Circular Economy.
Source: Porto Protocol

The infographic by Porto Protocol shows that a circular economy reduces waste by ensuring that resources are better utilized and the life cycles of products are extended and their end-life as waste is minimized.

Last Word

The technologies employed by 4IR reflect what we are capable of. And we should work to harmonize the environment and society with digital technology in order to continue to profit from such innovations.