Katrina Skwarek
Mar 17, 2016

The fourth industrial revolution: opportunity or loss?

Is technology friend or foe to the labour force, and do brands have a role to play in making sure workers don't get left behind?

Katrina Skwarek
Katrina Skwarek

If the Paris Climate Conference confronted us with the pressing question of ‘what next for the world?, the Davos World Economic Forum has brought front and centre the much-needed question of ‘what next for humanity?’.

As the world becomes more and more ruled by technological efficiency (the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’), concerns grow that this will continue to help a small minority to profit whilst the wider majority struggle to make ends meet. Those already heavily disadvantaged, the poorly educated, the migrants, are likely to be impacted first. Low on specialist skills, they are easily replaced and the first to be made redundant by technological efficiencies. A UBS report released during Davos goes further, warning that we’ll likely see a “polarisation of the labour force as low-skill jobs continue to be automated and this trend increasingly spreads to middle-class jobs”. It's not just the poor in developing markets that will be affected; the middle class in developed markets will continue to be squeezed.

From a consumer perspective, this technological shift is already resulting in a growing tension: from Uber to Amazon, consumers are having to face (and stomach) the impact of technological shifts that drive profits up and wages down. But as we are repeatedly seeing across our work, consumers are increasingly uncomfortable with this forced choice between people and price, and so are beginning to actively look for more compelling offerings that speak to both.

There is, therefore, a growing opportunity for corporations, NFPs, NGOs and governments, to work separately or together to find innovative ways of challenging the status quo—proving that people and technology aren’t mutual adversaries. In fact, recent research by Deloitte shows just this: Technology can indeed be friend rather than foe to the human work force. The jobs that technology overhauls are often those that are more arduous or dangerous: “The dominant trend is of contracted employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business-services sectors”.

The problem is that few are prepared or trained for this process of transition; limited skill sets leave many redundant rather than ready to transfer to other industries. Some companies are already recognising this: in 2011 Samsung founded its ‘Electronics Engineering Academy’ to ensure the next generation of workers are being trained up in order to take advantage of the growth of tech rather than be disadvantaged by it. Likewise, heralded as one of the most promising uses of technology in the developing world, "impact sourcing” trains disadvantaged communities in internet-based skills that allow them to work remotely and flexibly. In 2010 the market for impact sourcing was valued at $4.5 billion, and employed 144,000 people in developing countries. This has now grown to 560,850.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

As we are helping more and more brands, NFPs and NGOs to collaborate on such opportunities, we’re beginning to see an exciting and innovative pooling of resources to aid this technological transition. This raises an exciting possibility: Could great brands, NFPs, NGOs and governments work together to help the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ change tack and prove that technology and people can work together for a more profitable future for everyone? In this light, we stop believing it’s necessary to make a false choice between what’s good for people versus what’s good for the world.

Katrina Skwarek is a senior research executive and member of the Social Purpose Team at Flamingo London



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