Deep Dives

Preparing For The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Emerging technologies are disrupting many industries, bringing about rapid, large-scale change with wide-ranging consequences, requiring systems thinking and increased collaboration between stakeholders.

World Economic Forum technology pioneer Impossible Foods makes a plant-based patty that cooks, smells, tastes, and even “bleeds” like real beef.

It one of a growing number of food startups threatening the future of the $90 billion meat industry.

If plant-based protein production facilities and labs that manufacture meat from animal stem cells take the place of farms, feed lots and slaughterhouses, the meat value chain could be dramatically transformed.

So could the environment.

Indeed, if only 10% to 30 % of the world’s population switches from eating real meat to alternative proteins it would not only free up to 400 million hectares of land (about the equivalent of 1000 sports stadiums), it would do away with up to 960 mega tons of Co2 emissions and save up to 12% of total fresh water used by agriculture, according to a World Economic report entitled “Innovation With a Purpose: The Role Of Technology Innovation In Accelerating Food Systems Transformation” scheduled to be releasing during the annual meeting January 23–26.

It is just one example of how emerging technologies driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution are disrupting industries and bringing about change with wide-ranging consequences.

So what is driving the revolution? A combination of technologies which include Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and machine learning, blockchain, autonomous vehicles, advanced robotics, additive manufacturing, advanced materials and nanotechnologies, advances in science such as next-generation biotechnologies and genomics, and new energy technologies.

“These advances are merging the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril,” says a Forum description of the Fourth Technological Revolution. “ The speed, breadth and depth of this revolution is forcing us to rethink how countries develop, how organizations create value and even what it means to be human.”

The impact is driven home by clicking on a transformation map on the Forum’s website which shows all of the sectors touched by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The map is based on a knowledge tool recently launched by the Forum to help users explore and make sense of the complex and interlinked forces behind transformational changes. (

The sweeping changes ahead require what Forum Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab refers to as “systemic leadership” in his new book “Shaping The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which was released on January 15.

“The scale, complexity and urgency of the challenges facing the world today call for leadership and action that are both responsive and responsible,” Schwab writes in his book. “ If ‘values-driven individuals’ across all sectors work together “we have the chance to shape a future where the most powerful technologies contribute to more inclusive, fair and prosperous communities.”

Food production is a case in point. Today it is badly in need of transformation. “Billions of people are poorly nourished, millions of farmers live at subsistence level, enormous amounts of food go to waste and poor farming practices are taking a toll on the environment,” says the “Innovation With Purpose” WEF report released at the annual meeting.

Technology innovations, combined with other interventions, can play an important role in enabling and accelerating food systems transformation, helping achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, the report says.

It points to areas such as gene editing tools and microbiomes that could give farmers the potential to meet an expected 40% surge in demand for food by 2050.(See the story on pages 34 and 35 and The Innovator’s interview with Emmanuelle Charpentier, the co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tools.

“But achieving a true transformation of food systems requires a holistic approach — one engaging all stakeholders and deploying a wide array of actions such as improved policy, increased investment, expanded infrastructure, farmer capacity-building, consumer behavior change and improved resource management,” the report concludes.

Precision medicine is another area in which the Fourth industrial revolution promises to have a positive impact on health and well-being. It could usher in a new age in which medicine can take into account genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors to treat people more effectively. But collaboration is necessary to ensure that this rosy future is evenly distributed. Among the issues that will be explored at the Forum’s annual meeting is how to make sure populations from developing countries don’t get left behind.

Avoiding a two-speed society is also a concern when it comes to technologies transforming production. Capgemini projects that smart factories have the potential to add $500 billion to $1.5 trillion in value to the global economy within five years. But a new report by the World Economic Forum reveals that only 25 countries are in the best position to gain as production systems stand on the brink of exponential change. Unless action is taken Latin America, Middle Eastern, African and Eurasian countries could be left behind.

Governments must work not just to protect their economies but also to safeguard public interest as new technologies are put into place. Today control over people’s personal data and profit from its use and sale are in the control of a few tech giants. The introduction of modern cryptography and blockchain, an immutable digital ledger that allows third parties to validate that an attribute has not been changed or misrepresent, promises to change that, giving each person a sovereign digital ID. This development, along with the assigning of secure identities to objects, is expected to have far-reaching benefits for society and business, offering greater efficiency, security, and trust. However, adoption of these technologies touches on issues that cross sectors and industries, requiring cooperation between companies, government and civil society.

The introduction of autonomous vehicles onto city streets is also a public-sector –and not just a technology — issue. Cities should seize control of their transportation future rather than letting it be steered by for-profit companies launching disruptive services, according to the initial results of an autonomous car project in Boston, which is scheduled to be presented at the Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.

To integrate innovative private and public transportation services, the Forum recommends deploying a mobility platform that gives access to new entrants while allowing local governments to control the system to ensure it serves the broader needs of the community.

Cyber-security requires systems thinking too because threats are outpacing the ability of governments and businesses to overcome them unless all stakeholders begin to cooperate, according to a new report by the Forum in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group.

To that end the Forum will announce the creation of a new Global Centre on Cyber-security at the annual meeting Jan. 23–26. The Centre “will play a vital role in connecting industry, government, and civil society stakeholders to address some of the biggest challenges in cyber-security,” says Alan Cohn, Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cyber-security and a former director of Emergency Preparedness and Response Policy at the U.S. of Department of Homeland Security.

The Forum is also connecting with industry, government, and civil society stakeholders on the impact of artificial intelligence. It has hired respected expert Kay Firth-Butterfeld to head up AI and Machine Learning at its new Center for The Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. She sees her role as helping companies and countries to only commission and create ethical, human-centered and responsible AI.

While her efforts may go some way towards allaying worries that AI will run amok, there is growing concern from all corners of society that automation will wreak havoc on the global workforce.

The fears appear to be well-founded. Building on a January 2017 report on automation, McKinsey Global Institute’s November report “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions In A Time Of Automation”, evaluates the number and types of jobs that might be created under different scenarios through 2030 and compares that to the jobs that could be lost to automation.

It estimates that between 400 million and 800 million people around the globe could be displaced by automation and will need to find new jobs by 2030, based on it most rapid automation adoption scenarios.

While new jobs will be available, based on McKinsey’s scenarios of future labor demand and the net impact of automation, people will have to find their way into those new jobs.

“The report is a call to action,” McKinsey senior partner Eric Hazan said in an interview, as the shift could be on a scale not seen since the transition of the labor force out of agriculture in the early 1900s in the United States and Europe, and more recently in China.

“Due to AI automation out of those displaced 75 million to 375 million people may need to switch occupational categories or learn new skills by 2030,” says Hazan. “This is massive. Governments and large companies will need to work hand in hand to help people transition smoothly from one job to another and from one occupation to another. There is a considerable need for re-skilling and training and is seems that not a lot is being done.”

The report predicts that categories with the highest percentage job growth going forward will include:

  • healthcare providers
  • professionals such as engineers, scientists, accountants, and analysts
  • IT professionals and other technology specialists
  • managers and executives, whose work cannot easily be replaced by machines
  • educators, especially in emerging economies with young populations
  • “creatives,” a small but growing category of artists, performers, and entertainers who will be in demand as rising incomes create more demand for leisure and recreation
  • builders and related professions, particularly in the scenario that involves higher investments in infrastructure and buildings
  • manual and service jobs in unpredictable environments, such as home-health aides and gardeners

Companies have to anticipate the impact of automation on their workforce. “People inside companies need to be re-skilled, companies need to create the conditions for that and this new way of working,” says Hazan.

McKinsey’s study suggests that governments could craft policies that make it easy for people to move jobs and professions by building digital jobs platforms for those seeking employment and developing training programs that focus on people rather than job categories.

“There is a whole discussion that needs to be had about whether government training programs are fit to the challenge, given the amount of training and re-skilling that needs to take place in the next 15 to 20 years,” says Hazan.

“As in every industrial revolution, people will lose their job and will need to find another one, he says. “The difference is that during the first and second industrial revolutions nobody was taking care of the people who lost their jobs. But we are now in a position as a society to help people anticipate the changes ahead and receive specific training.”

Public education has to be overhauled to prepare people for the jobs of the future. And governments need to ensure there are sufficient investments in startups and the digital transformation of brick and mortar companies “because the new jobs, the ones we don’t imagine yet — will only appear if all of the traditional industries are investing in innovation and technology,” says Hazan.

Given the challenges ahead it is a good bet that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will continue to take center stage in Davos not just this year but for years to come.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.