Stewardship, Alternative Capitalism and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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As Klaus Schwab wrote in his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, “Neither technology nor the disruption that comes with it is an exogenous force over which humans have no control. All of us are responsible for guiding its evolution, in the decisions we make on a daily basis as citizens, consumers, and investors.” So, what does this mean in a capitalist economy focussed on growth and productivity?

The Made Smarter review was published this week. The Review is a great read and clearly heavily influenced by the work of Schwab and others at the World Economic Forum. This is helpful as it makes it easier for us to get out of the starting blocks on the 4IR agenda as we begin each new piece of thinking from a solid base. The Made Smarter recommendations are clear and tangible and provide a business case of sorts for increased coordination at national level and funding for a hub model of support for SMEs and others to begin embracing the opportunities provided by 4IR.

References are made in the Made Smarter review to the impact on individuals and the potential benefits from the transformative impact of 4IR on job quality and wages. At its core though, the recommendations in the review are focussed on competitiveness and growth based on economic measures of productivity. If Schwab is right, and we have choices to make about the direction of 4IR, what questions do we need to be asking ourselves to avoid the traditional forces of capitalism to determine the direction for us?

I see five key questions:

  • How do we begin to develop new measures of productivity that include assessments of economic impact, community cohesion and physical health? Although difficult to quantify, understanding causal links between working lives and health will be fundamental if we are to be stewards of 4IR.
  • How do we use fiscal levers to incentivise collaboration between businesses to harness their R&D spend to avoid duplication and achieve developments of common interest? This doesn’t mean removing competition; this means organisations being increasingly clear on where it makes sense to compete and where it makes sense to cooperate.
  • How do we provide open access to 4IR systems and technology on a model akin to that of the public library? Selective access on the basis of “need” or economic value will increase rather than reduce the divide between those who have future capability and those who don’t.
  • How do we protect those whose jobs disappear in the short term from exploitation or being driven into selling themselves in ways that damage us all? This isn’t based on assumption that 4IR will reduce the number of jobs available, but on another assumption that there will be a period of ‘lag’ during which people may struggle to adjust and become vulnerable.
  • How do we redesign our education system to move away from the acquisition of knowledge and towards the development of generic skills of adaptability, collaboration, team based problem solving and emotional intelligence. The pace of 4IR is likely to increase over time rather than be a single change of speed. This means that focussing merely on teaching digital skills in traditional ways will fail yet more generations.

There is massively important work to do on the practical development, adoption and application of 4IR methodologies and technologies. Whilst it is exciting and reassuring that this work is being done to the high standards being set by the World Economic Forum and the Made Smarter team, the considerations set out above need much more work and a broader set of perspectives than those of business people, scientists, and economists.

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