Hindsight Is 2020: Covid in the Times of the 4th Industrial Revolution

Hindsight is 2020: Covid in the Times of the 4th Industrial Revolution

Each industrial revolution has fundamentally changed the way that humans control and interact with the world. Each resulted in dramatic societal change, impacting the way that people live and work. 

The 1700s saw the invention of the steam engine, which allowed for mechanical production and drove urbanization. The 1800s introduced electricity, scientific advancements, and mass production. When computers were introduced in the 1950s, entire industries were disrupted, including communication, finance, and energy.

We are now living the fourth industrial revolution, or 4IR. Our world is changing so rapidly that what we knew even five years ago may already no longer be applicable.

In some ways, COVID-19 was greatly impacted by the rapidly evolving 4IR. How we have lived amidst a global pandemic is drastically different from the pandemics of the past. Yet, in some ways, COVID-19 has continued to shape and push 4IR even further.

4IR allowed us to adapt and react quickly. Even though we want to leave 2020 behind, it’s important to take a step back and recognize everything that technology brought us this year.

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

If the fourth industrial revolution could be summed up in one word, it would be communication. While previous revolutions had substantial impacts on the way that humans live and work, 4IR took it a step further and impacted our communication. This has far-reaching implications in human behavior, from our connections with family to business models to shopping habits.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, defined 4IR in 2016. He wrote, “We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive.”

Schwab saw 4IR as distinct from the technological advances of the third industrial revolution. While the introduction of computers was the bedrock of the world we know today, speed characterizes 4IR. The lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres have blurred. 

The primary outcomes of 4IR are twofold: the digitization of products/services offered and changes in business/customer experience. No longer do changes go through a period of prolonged development. Instead, we experience changes in real-time.

Digitization of Products and Services

Businesses can no longer rely solely on sending a product into the marketplace. Reaching consumers involves data collection and analysis, looking for behaviors and trends. Products themselves are increasingly digital and emphasize communication and connectedness.

Digital Business Models and the Customer Experience

Consumers no longer have to wait for companies to find them and provide information. They can go out and collect information themselves. Businesses have to know how to reach their intended audience in the right channels.

Not only that, but the customer experience involves self-service, subscriptions, and on-demand access. Businesses rely on an impeccable customer experience. If they don’t, an unhappy customer can make their grievances widely known.

Digital models have expanded to self-funded, self-starting entrepreneurs. Everything from music to art can exist in the digital space for anyone to consume. It disrupted long-standing giants in many industries and paved the way for solo and small businesses.

Technologies of 4IR

The biggest trends of 4IR have been in automation, data exchange, the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and cognitive computing. Here are some of the biggest players we have seen.

(Keep in mind that Schwab recognized 4IR in 2016. While there is no definitive “start date,” these are all recent and rapid advances.)

3D Printing: Companies can design and print their own materials and products. Development can occur at a faster rate and lower cost. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI): Computers that can “think” like humans and recognize patterns, process information, and make recommendations. 

Biotechnology: We can develop new pharmaceuticals, create more efficient industrial processes, and improve energy and agriculture. 

Blockchain: A decentralized way of sharing data removes reliance on third parties. Supply chains, payments, medical data, and more are all secure and traceable.

Energy: 4IR technologies can reduce emissions, enhance reliability, and improve sustainability. Batteries have also had technological improvements. 

Computing: Computers, as we know them today, are nothing like the computers of the third industrial revolution. Businesses can safely store information in the cloud and access it from anywhere. Computers are smarter and can process data faster. We expect computing to be mobile, 

Internet of Things (IoT): The world is connected to the internet through devices. Everything from wearables to “smart homes” rely on collecting and exchanging information over the internet.

Robotics: Intelligent machines assist humans and keep them safe. They have practical uses in engineering, manufacturing, medicine, and other disciplines. While robotics have not entered homes yet, their business use cases are increasing.

Virtual Reality: With the lines between reality and online worlds increasingly blurred, VR goes a step further with a simulated environment. A person can move around in and interact with an artificial world. From gaming to workplace simulation, the use cases are broad. 

Impacts of 4IR on Covid

The changes brought about by Covid were nothing short of transformative. Everything we knew about interaction with humans had to be reconsidered or eliminated. Information was rapid, ongoing, and – at times – exhausting.

Yet as we reflect on 2020, many of the advances of 4IR made the situation… bearable. Indeed, if Covid had emerged fifteen or even ten years prior, the response could have been much different.

Here are a few of the ways that 4IR impacted Covid and the world’s response:

  • Cloud computing allowed businesses to continue day-to-day operations.
  • Automation could keep business processes going, even with work-from-home environments.
  • Public health officials relied on artificial intelligence to predict COVID surges.
  • Bots are used for contactless delivery, administering medication, and cleaning.
  • Big data and analytics tracked Covid cases, traced infections, and modeled spread across the globe. 
  • Robots can clean hospital rooms occupied by Covid patients.
  • Technology allowed children to learn remotely and meetings to occur online.
  • E-commerce, already well established, became the norm for everything from groceries to household essentials.

If any business or individuals were not yet entrenched in some of the advances of 4IR, Covid forced the issue. In order to remain engaged with each other and maintain any sense of “business as usual,” we had to make use of the technology available fully.

Impacts of Covid on 4IR

While 4IR had an enormous impact on Covid, it is safe to say that 4IR will also continue to be pushed forward by Covid. The rapid change that has defined 4IR hit a breakneck pace as a result of Covid. Some of the changes are permanent or will continue to evolve. 

4IR technologies could continue to automate certain jobs. Businesses that survive may look for automation to fuel their recovery. Other businesses may continue to rely on automation to maintain health and safety measures put into place.

Covid placed emphasis on how countries across the globe are interconnected. The communication occurred not only within communities but across countries working together with a common goal of fighting Covid. The introduction of a vaccine as a result of biotechnology has a global impact. 

Office environments will see permanent changes. Many businesses will continue work-from-home, which will increase reliance on cloud computing. Other offices will have a need for self-check-in, self-service, or other measures to maintain physical distance between humans.

As the workplace shifts, 4IR may impact workers that need to develop new skills. Policymakers will look at the impacts of automation on the labor force and what should be done to support a changing workforce.

As we look to a “new normal,” fields from medicine to politics will rely on data gathered since the emergence of Covid. This may drive policy decisions, medical advances, and other measures. 

It is inevitable that people will try to answer the question, “How can we prevent this from happening again?” The technologies of 4IR may drive and shape the answers to that question. Leadership in many sectors may look to the data collected and what we have learned to make future plans.

How Businesses Can Look Forward

We don’t yet know how Covid has changed the world, though there is little doubt that things will not be the same. What we do know is that the advancements that we were seeing before Covid hit have been pushed forward even more. Businesses that want to survive will need to evolve as rapidly as 4IR.

Analytics, big data, processes, AI/ML, cloud computing… all of these are going to be embedded in future business models. Growth and scalability now look nothing like previous industrial revolutions and will continue to evolve.