The 4th Industrial Revolution, is it all in the mind?

by | Dec 4, 2017

In this second blog on the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), Cambium LLP Associate and Director of Information Architecture at the AMRC, Richard Lanyon-Hogg and colleague, Dr. Aiden Lockwood, Technical Fellow at the AMRC, argue that people must step out of their cocooned intellectual echo chambers.


“Even if you don’t like what is happening with the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), at least peer outside and understand it.”

As the history of Smartphones shows, technological change can sometimes spread with stunning speed. Ten years ago, Apple released its first Smartphone and with eighteen releases of revisions and improvements, it’s clear that technological innovation is relentless.  For any sized organization wishing to embrace digital technologies, it means you cannot stand idly by hoping “all will be well!” and “it won’t happen to me”.

Whilst radical innovation can suddenly bring about new opportunities and major disruption, minor and incremental improvements in technologies have been shown to ‘nudge’ progress without inducing a fear of being left behind or learning how to do something entirely new.

Deployment of new features or user interface improvements across familiar technology is a great thing for the end user, however occasionally improvements can only be realised through radical new thinking. Consequentially, some people think the entire digital transformation approach needs to change, on the basis that the electric light did not stem from continuous improvement of the candle.

But; there is possibly a broader issue facing the companies and workforce of today.  Our mental approach to change, or put another way, how our cognitive thought-processes react to new technologies.  Consider this thought: as our attention spans have shortened, and as we zoom along trying to make mental shortcuts (heuristics) to make decisions rapidly, is it possible when it comes to innovation we may naturally be being handicapped due to ‘cognitive biases’, or even a ‘cognitive capacity limit’.  Quite possibly, we may ‘anchor’ to a piece of data we are exposed to while making a decision, regardless of pertinence or just simply doing what we’ve always done because we know no better.  We may also ‘frame’, often drawing different conclusions from the same underlying information, depending on how it is presented.

Over the last 50 years, many technological innovations have spread with stunning speed; don’t expect 4IR to be any less dramatic.  This may terrify some people, it may also liberate others. There are potentially many amazing benefits, and of course, anybody used to “old fashioned” ways of working might question whether any new-fangled technique with its amazing benefits will outweigh all the effort and cost.  Therefore, can a company, and its workers, afford to let the 4th industrial Revolution pass them by.

I sense societal historians will look back at this decade as being the tipping point when “if your skill is in your hands, watch out for the cobot and robot, if it’s in your head, watch out for the algorithm”.  Rather than being fearful and caught short, look upon 4IR not as a 19th century Luddite viewed a weaving machinery; but as a revolution to embrace.

Technology driven 4IR is a new playbook for companies and individuals to explore, to enable new visions, strategies and operational platforms for products and services.  Don’t wait for the Business Management Schools to hand down tablets of new theories, this new 4IR playbook is there for you now, for you to discover your businesses “known unknowns”, e.g. improving operational performance and driving out cost, and “unknown knowns”, e.g. who are my new customers, what can I offer and how do I service them?

History teaches us that whatever happens, over time the likelihood is that one day somewhere in the world what you do will be done smarter, faster, cheaper and to a better quality, potentially resulting in your downfall. The message here is to embrace change, not fear it, and embrace the change in a complementary way. Hand crafted products could be made faster, cheaper and better not by replacing skilled workers by robots, but perhaps providing them with quality information and equipment that enriches their job and also gives customers insight into delivery information or quality information in a way which they prefer.

Here is a challenge for you: Are you questioning whether the purported amazing benefits of 4IR really outweigh all the effort and cost required?  Could you be cocooned in an intellectual echo chamber?

Another thought: as the 4th Industrial Revolution gathers pace it is creating a generational split. Some folk may instinctively recoil from e.g. Artificially Intelligent Self driving vehicles; but it almost seems natural to others reared in a Smartphone world.  The next time you physically turn a key in the ignition, to the next generation what you might be doing might soon seem unimaginably quaint.

But here’s the rub, the technological revolution is unstoppable; generationally we will all be affected.  It’s down to individuals, communities and society as a whole to determine how we’ll respond..

Try and resist the idea that 4IR is a new movement that will damage your company and make workers anxious; go out and explore and better understand the current technologies that underpin the 4th Industrial Revolution.  Study the lessons of the early adopters, what worked, what didn’t. Visit F2050 at the AMRC and see and learn at first hand from High Value Manufacturing engineers and IT Enterprise Architects their insights and experiences.

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