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Putting innovation to work: global challenges and Industry 4.0

Op-ed by Dr Martin Porter, Executive Director of i24c, published in the March 2016 issue of the World Commerce Review.

Given how often it is being cited, you might be forgiven for thinking that we are all clear about what is meant when we refer to ‘Industry 4.0’. But scratch beneath the surface and it appears to be much less clear.

Is it a description of a technological revolution across all of our industrial sectors, defined chiefly by the new technologies emerging in information and communications, big data, life sciences, artificial intelligence and robotics? Or, slightly more ambitiously, is it plan for how to exploit and further develop these technologies to achieve ‘smart’ economic growth?

In fact, if it is to mean anything, it should be the heart of a new industrial strategy that delivers ‘green’ and ‘inclusive’, as well as ‘smart’ growth. It could and should be an exemplar of a wider economic strategy aiming at ‘high road’ competitiveness, addressing the profound social, economic and environmental challenges facing modern European societies in a truly systemic and integrated fashion.

This is not as big a leap to make as all that, in fact. As was evident at both the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this January, and last year’s European Business Summit, the challenges and opportunities presented by the latest industrial revolution are clearly front of mind for the world’s policy, business and NGO leaders, and many worried about the possible social consequences. The digital revolution and its fusing with related advances in robotics or life sciences clearly has a technological dimension, but rather than primarily fret about the potential negative implication, we should consider how these advances can be harnessed and scaled to meet urgent global challenges where a much wider ‘socio-technical’ innovation is essential.

Take the transition the fossil-fuel free economy that world leaders agreed on at COP 21 in Paris last December. Decarbonisation of our economies is one of the biggest challenges we face. Only deep, rapid and probably disruptive innovation will enable us to hold global average temperature increases well below 2°C while enabling the European economy to remain competitive. Indeed, by focusing on ‘breakthrough technologies’, the launch of Mission Innovation3, and its private sector counterpart led by Bill Gates, is missing this wider point, however welcome their endeavour is as a signal that the time to act is now.

By harnessing the technological innovation promised by Industry 4.0 to the grand challenges faced by society, such as climate change, resource scarcity and the dangers to social cohesion threatened by changes to advanced economies, we have the potential to deliver not only long-term competitive advantage, but also economic, social and environmental resilience and exibility. But for the industrial technological revolution to have social benefit on the scale required, we need to consider how systemic innovation can be successfully fostered at the same time.

Read the full op-ed on the World Commerce Review‘s website.