The digital transformation

Today we are in the midst of a new industrial revolution that differs from all others that have gone before. In 2011 at the Hannover Fair, this new industrial revolution was coined the “fourth industrial revolution” (4IR) by Professor Klaus Schwab. The 4IR is about digitalisation, the introduction of connected "smart" devices combined with data analytics and AI. The 4IR is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace, and is being driven by major technological developments, including:

  • high-speed mobile internet

  • AI and automation

  • the use of big data analytics

  • cloud technology

Running parallel to the 4IR is the fifth industrial revolution (5IR). Definitions for what 5IR means vary. Some people believe that the 5IR will be a further evolution of AI. Others maintain that it will be all about the potential of quantum computing. Still others argue that 5IR is going to be the tipping point where humans meet machines and combine in the workplace.


The key difference between 4IR and 5IR

Most commentators believe that there is little difference between the two, except that the 5IR needs to address head-on the crisis of trust with technology we are seeing emerge with the impact of the 4IR. The 5IR, according to many commentators, will ask the big questions about how we can make the world ‘better’ rather than just ‘more efficient’ or ‘more productive’ – and at the same time ask how we can protect the rights of all citizens in areas such as privacy, as emerging technologies become more and more pervasive and prevalent in our lives.

Read more on how 5IR will change the world.

As the world enters a new decade in 2021, we stand amid the 4/5IR technological revolutions that will continue to fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another on all levels. This global transformation will be unlike anything we, as humans, have ever experienced before when looking at the scale, opportunity, and complexity of what has taken place to date and what is yet to come.

Smart factory with factory employee operating tablet
Smart factory with factory employee operating tablet

Industry 4.0 (so-called smart factories) will continue to evolve at a rapid pace in the near future. However, this concept simply focuses on the interconnectedness of machines and systems to create optimum performance and improve skills and productivity. We are now seeing the birth of industry 5.0, which is touted as taking Industry 4.0 a step further and refining the interaction between humans and machines.


A brief history of industrial revolutions

Prior to what is now known as the fourth industrial revolution, the world experienced three others.

  • The first industrial revolution, a process that began in Britain in the 18th century and later spread across the world, used water and steam power to mechanise production.

  • The second industrial revolution saw another giant leap forward in technology and society during 1870–1914 with the use of electrical power to enable mass production.

  • The third industrial revolution began in the 1950s and used electronics and information technology to further mechanise and automate production.

Today, as we enter the 5IR, we are again living in another perfect storm: the digital age. This storm is composed of five major areas:

  • Artificial intelligence

  • Big data

  • The Internet of Things

  • 5G

  • Quantum computing

We can understand the role of each of these forces of disruption and transformation through metaphors. Artificial intelligence is in essence the brain, big data the food or fuel, IoT and 5G represent the interconnectedness of this powerful system (the nervous system), and quantum computing is a level of power and processing taken to levels that a decade ago we would have had difficulty imagining.

But this storm is not alone – it’s allied to other forces of disruption and transformation that act with a capacity and speed never before seen in human history. These include:

  • 3D printing

  • Intelligent robotics

  • Virtual, augmented and mixed reality

  • Genomics (the study of an organism’s complete DNA)

  • Mobile computing

  • Smarter cities

It is quite difficult to foresee or even predict, in a brief period of time, the scope and capacity of these emerging technologies.

The exponential rate of evolution and disruption of emerging technologies challenges humankind to be more adaptable, agile and flexible in order to transform this powerful storm into opportunities and harness its potential, while at the same time being conscious of the risks and threats presented to humanity by its pervasiveness and evolution.

The digitalisation movement is supported with intertwined layers of:

  • Virtualisation (everything on the cloud)

  • Cognition (digital agents and devices getting smarter)

  • Robotisation (more robots: physical and digital)

  • Augmentation (upgrade of our capabilities due to artificial intelligence)

  • Automation (machines taking over all routine jobs)

Futurist Gerd Leonhard says that “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than it has in the last 300 years” and “we may be the last generation that knows what offline means”.

If we believe Gerd Leonhard, every 10 years of emerging technology equates to a minimum of 150 earth years of evolution! And the pace of emerging technologies in the 4IR and the 5IR is accelerating. Can you imagine what new emerging technologies may appear and the changes that may well occur by 2025 or 2030?

In the next section, we will look more closely at some examples of current emerging technologies and discover how their growing impact and evolution will impact our lives and work.

Part summary

After completing chapter 1, you should be able to:

  • Explain what digital transformation and the fourth and fifth industrial revolution mean

  • Explain what characterises an emerging technology

  • Discuss some of the main impacts of emerging technologies today including the need for upskilling/reskilling.

You're on the right track! 🚊
That was Chapter 1

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2. The Internet of Things