Adapting our skills to meet the demands of the 4th industrial revolution


“The new systems of digital revolution are powerful, but they are also a bit scary because they have the potential to fundamentally change us as humans,” Nicholas Davis, Head of Society and Innovation at the World Economic Forum Geneva summed up one of the key dilemmas of our times. In his keynote presentation at CeBIT Australia 2017, he enabled attendees to zoom out a bit from their daily focus on how to make things happen to understanding how our decisions today may impact our future - and what skills we need to develop to thrive in this environment.

The future is not predetermined

When talking about the fourth industrial revolution it’s easy to get a bit fearful and overwhelmed because at the end of the day there’s no way of knowing for certain how our decisions will affect the job market. Yet Davis cited studies and headlines claiming 44% of jobs were at risk of automation as unhelpful in the debate on how to move forward in this period of accelerating change.

“I think the best thing to do is look at the tasks people do and how they are changing,” said Davis. “What we will find when we take that view is that 70% of automation is changing the way we do a job, but it won’t completely replace us.”

However, there were industries that will be affected sooner than others. “We assume that truck drivers will start to be replaced by self-driving cars in five years time. This will impact around 200,000 jobs in Australia which is something we’ll need to take care of through upskilling and retraining,” predicted Davis. “What’s important to remember is what will happen to us in the future is not predetermined. As organisations and individuals we have the power to shape the future.” 

The 4th industrial revolution in historical context

When looking at human development in the context of all four industrial revolutions, the outlook is positive at first glance. People in the developed world are now thirty times wealthier than 200 years ago. Yet some emerging trends are painting a slightly more complex picture. “For the first time in 5 decades the US experienced a drop in life expectancy last year,” said Davis. “While the difference has been small, it is a sign that we’re not delivering the benefits of technology as well as we used to.” Combatting rising inequality required society to confront some tough question about:

  • How to distribute the benefits of technological advancements fairly
  • Managing externalities
  • The skills we will need in the future

Adapting to change

What made the 4th industrial revolution different to the ones that came before is that for first time the services sector is much more affected. Suddenly lawyers were worried about the pace of change that had already become the norm in IT departments and other sectors. “The issue is that we’re currently looking at 21st century problems with a 20th century mindset and 19th century institutions.”

In the workforce of the future, non-cognitive skills were becoming increasingly important and there was a demand for people who can talk about complex tech in the context of our lives and businesses. The question that remained was how that transition of skill requirements can be successfully mastered without leaving a big part of the world’s population behind.  

“As a society we should have a serious chat about giving everyone the space to weather the storms of change in the market,” suggested Davis and added that the idea of a universal basic income needed to be part of that discussion, as well as the issue of diversity and inclusion of around 600 million smallholder farmers that so far haven’t had access to the benefits of the first industrial revolution.

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