Fourth Industrial Revolution: Research Program

Today there is a growing consensus among leading industry, policy and academic circles that there is something “big on the horizon”. However, what it is and where it might be leading is the subject of raging debate and radically different interpretations and scenarios of possible development.

For some analysts, often referred to as techno-optimists, we seem to be entering a period of momentous historical transformation – a Fourth Industrial Revolution (henceforth the 4IR) – that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another: an Inflection Point toward exponential growth. Its dominant economic manifestations are clusters of technologies that generate profound shifts across all industries, business models, disruption of incumbents, and the reconfiguration of production, consumption, transportation, logistics and delivery systems. Its societal manifestations involve a paradigm shift in labor and employment, communication and entertainment practices. Result? A positive transformation more comprehensive than anything seen before.

For others we seem to be entering a protracted structural crisis. According to this view we are facing a long process of generalized economic and social decay of capitalism driven by long-term dynamics with no credible alternative to replace it. The clusters of technologies that the techno-optimists identify as the drivers of exponential growth are seen here as a harbinger of long-term decline. What the “big thing on the horizon” is here is Entropy, i.e., the lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder. Result? A prolonged period of social and political instability within and across countries and growing tensions and conflicts in uncharted international political waters.

A third position maintains that we are at an Interregnum, the mid-point between “installation” and “deployment” of new technologies. Historically, “installation” is characterized by the turbulence of “creative destruction”. The diffusion of a new paradigm leads to widespread displacement of old skills and to polarization between new and old industries, regions and incomes. During “deployment” new possibilities are diverse and unconnected. These represent potentialities because they can be shaped in various ways to create alternative cost and profitability structures, new forms of demand, skills, and synergies along supply chains, distribution networks and consumption modes. Result? A long-term techno-economic and socio-technical paradigm shift that leads to a profound transformation in the modes of work and consumption, as well as ways of life across society.

Which one of these broad scenarios is more likely to materialize? This is the question this research program sets out to consider. Its goal is not prognostication. Instead, its objective is to lead a broad kaleidoscopic exploration of where we are and map the “limits of the possible” of these three trajectories as historical possibilities. Put another way, the main rationale of the program is to analyze and assess the drivers of the 4IR but also the sources of resistance and consequences that could undermine it and redirect it in different directions than those originally envisaged by its patrons. Read more