Unlocking the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the planet

Back in 1970, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement, American Futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term 'Future Shock'. Toffler highlighted that the late-20th Century was experiencing a phenomenon unique in human history in which technology was changing faster than people. This in turn led to widespread discomfort and confusion as well as frequent social and economic upheaval.

Unlocking the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the planet

Future Shock is never far-from-mind as we track developments in what’s commonly known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Coined by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the 4IR is an umbrella term used to cover multiple technologies that, taken together, has the potential to revolutionise many aspects of work, life and business. An esteemed panel, including myself, discussed the sustainability implications of the 4IR at edie Live and this blog builds on those fascinating discussions.

Core technologies fitting within the Fourth Industrial Revolution include: Advanced Materials, The Cloud & Big Data, Autonomous Vehicles & Drones, Synthetic Biology, Virtual and Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Robots, Blockchain, 3D Printing, and the Internet of Things. Individually these are fascinating breakthroughs in their own right, but collectively they have deep implications for business and society. Even today 4IR technologies are beginning to disrupt how and where we educate people, how healthcare can predict, diagnose and personally treat diseases, how we plan, build and operate cities. PWC have even claimed that ‘making the 4IR a sustainable revolution is the opportunity of this generation’.

All this matters to innovators as technology scouting is a widely recognised and important tool used in an innovation process. It can be crucial to track new trends and developments so you remain the disruptor not the disrupted. Yet new technology can be especially alluring, turning our heads easily towards new functions and cool features, so it is important to remain objective. Technology can both give us cancer and cure cancer, so its what we do it that matters. Digital technology famously promised us a paperless office yet we still print a billion photocopies every day whilst office paper use increased by 35% last year. 4IR technologies will be no sustainability silver-bullet; we must ensure sustainability benefits are baked-in by design and by regulation.

So what is the state of 4IR for the Planet today? More in-depth summaries can be found here and here, but for anyone new to the Fourth Industrial Revolution here is a quick snapshot of three technologies that have caught my eye and what they imply for sustainability folk:

  • Blockchain has a real buzz at the moment, essentially a distributed electronic ledger to record and confirm transactions reliably and accurately across complex, global value chains. I’ve been inspired by L03 use of the tech to trade renewable energy in Brooklyn communities, whilst WasteLedger use Blockchain, with a sprinkling of AI and IoT, to track electronic, packaging or construction waste accurately as it moves across supply chains. Big Blockchain opportunities clearly exist in trading, transparency and traceability.
  • Artificial Intelligence uses software algorithms capable of performing tasks normally done by humans more quickly and accurately, bridging gaps in inefficient human knowledge and behaviour. GE is using AI ‘robots’ to sort and recognise recycled materials, whilst Rho AI uses algorithms to match energy innovators with investors fast.
  • Advanced Materials use developments in material science to deliver significantly better functionality like lighter weight, strength, conductivity, etc. I find the promise to grow bioplastics locally from algae mind-boggling, while conductive smart paints could aid sustainable construction and maintenance


4IR technology becomes transformative when they converge around systematic challenges, like clean energy, smart transport or sustainable cities and buildings. For example, new buildings could use smart sensors and IoT-enabled devices linked to the cloud and AI to improve building efficiency and utilisation. This would allow businesses and home owners to generate energy from advanced paint-on film PV cells, store this in next generation batteries, then distribute it through micro-grids to be trade across the community using Blockchain.

Its fascinating to see how this will play out between incumbents and new entrants; notably the automobile industry are not at leading developments in autonomous vehicles or drones, it is tech companies driving this, so it remains to be seen who will win commercially in this shake-up.

I would recommend two further 4IR watch-outs through my sustainable innovators lenses too. The first was beautifully highlighted by fellow edie Live panellist Hugo Spowers from Riversimple. In this model customers buy a mobility service, including hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and all the fuel you need to move around on a monthly subscription. Riversimple owns, maintains and ensures car’s efficiency and longevity over time. There is little new technology here, just a novel business model and we will surely need more of this kind of innovation to make 4IR technology viable and acceptable. Secondly, 4IR must embrace one of the big movements in corporate innovation; which is the rise of human-centred approaches, such as design thinking and lean methodologies. These put people and customers at the front-and-centre of innovation, and this will be crucial if 4IR for the Planet is to deliver on its promise and avoid the shock of the new.

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