In the past 250 years, the world has experienced three periods of dramatic change in societies and economies brought about by novel types of technology. The first industrial revolution involved the harnessing of steam and mechanical production; the second, the generation of electricity, leading to mass production and division of labour; and more recently, the third industrial revolution saw computing and digitisation used for generating and sharing information. These dramatic changes resulted in large gains in human well-being and economic development in general, but came with substantial costs to the environment and to vulnerable groups of people. We are now at the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), where biological, physical and digital capabilities are merging to radically reshape innovation. This raises many questions.
Will the 4IR be better or worse than those that came before? Will we open Pandora’s Box or find the global panacea to the grand challenges of our time? And perhaps, most importantly, how can we be smarter this time to avoid or limit the inevitable costs of the revolution, while harnessing and directing positive opportunities and benefits in South Africa and beyond? Previous industrial revolutions taught us that context matters, often more than the technologies introduced. For example, renewable energy technologies in some contexts have promoted greater access to energy for all, while in others they have not, highlighting the role of contextual factors such as institutions, natural resources, infrastructure, governance and public health as multifaceted determinants of energy democracy outcomes from technological interventions.
Many experts have suggested that there is a high likelihood of adverse effects associated with the 4IR, including further increases in inequality, amplified climate change impact, increased pollution and emerging environmental challenges. In the South African context, a poorly managed 4IR is therefore a cause for concern. A feature of industrial revolutions is that the changes they foster occur more rapidly than the pace at which society can adapt. As a result, many of the effects of these changes are only realised further down the line. Preparing for and navigating these uncertain consequences requires an enormous investment in developing knowledge, and empowering and making innovative changes to institutions, laws and education. It requires new ways of imagining the future, shifting from a reliance on predicting the future to developing capacities that anticipate, adapt to and navigate uncertainties. To a great extent, these shifts will revolve around the relationships between society, environment and technology, and how we can reconfigure these for positive futures.
As highlighted by the recently released global assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, current development trajectories will be unable to address sustainability challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, disease, poverty, hunger and widening inequality. Addressing these challenges will instead require large-scale and transformative changes to current modes of social and economic development. As the 4IR is likely to be highly disruptive, it may in fact provide novel opportunities to foster the extensive changes needed for a sustainable and equitable future. The new technologies, digitisation and machine learning associated with the 4IR could therefore play a positive role in addressing global grand challenges.
However, as we learnt from previous industrial revolutions, societies with capability, resources and access to knowledge are better able to harness benefits and take advantage of opportunities, while avoiding costs such as widening inequality and externalising the environment. Future positive transformations towards sustainability are therefore unlikely to happen without conscious and collective efforts to mobilise and share knowledge, remove perverse incentives, ensure equitable participation and access to benefits at all levels, and importantly anticipate and avoid costs to the environment and vulnerable groups.