Understanding the Bigger Picture of the 4th Industrial Revolution

Smart, interconnected wind parks with flexible rotor blades allow optimization of energy yield.

Understanding your socio-technical historical context is paramount to your ability to maximize opportunities and achieve your goals in work and life.

In this article, we will thoroughly look into both the challenges and opportunities of the so-called fourth industrial revolution and debunk certain myths surrounding it, e.g. the supposedly trouble-free trickle-down effect of the newly created wealth or the underestimation of its global impact.

Chapter one offers a brief overview of past disruptive industrial revolutions and leads us to the prospects of potential future technological developments.

The next chapter deals with both the risks and chances of the upcoming industrial revolution regarding social, economic and environmental concerns.

In the last chapter, I will weigh the pros and cons and formulate a conclusion of the subjects of discussion addressing the leading question: “Are the macroscopic consequences of the fourth industrial revolution to be met with skepticism or embraced confidently?”.

At the end of this discussion, there is an extensive suggested reading list featuring the respective resources I consulted during my research for this article.

I. What does Industry 4.0 mean?

A Brief History of Industrial Revolutions

Over the course of the last 200 years, production has undergone three so-called industrial revolutions, time periods of drastic change, and is about to undergo the fourth one now.

In the late 18th century, the Western industrial world experienced a radical shift as steam engines among other innovations revolutionized the efficiency of production processes and thus allowed mankind to surmount the limits of human muscles in factories. That was the first industrial revolution.

The second revolution occurred in the late 19th century and is also known as the “scientific revolution”. The use of electricity and chemical processes promised various opportunities to expand and make manufacturing even more efficient, especially in the mining, agricultural and locomotion industry. The innovation of aviation also paved the way for the globalization of the next centuries.

About one-hundred years later, the third industrial revolution emerged as computers were invented and the development of the internet began. For businesses, this meant the possibility to administrate and manage their book-keeping as well as various processes and transactions way more efficiently than ever before concerning both time and costs.

Now, in the 21st century, a fourth revolution is about to unfold resulting from the advancement of multiple complementary disruptive technologies, especially the smartification (artificial intelligence) and interconnectedness of billions of devices (Internet of Things), that transform entire value-chains of products (e. g. automated and flexible manufacturing systems or logistics chains secured by tamper-proof blockchain technology), dissolve the borders between old industries or even create completely new ones (e. g. the rise of digital platforms). These latest dynamics are subsumed under the label Industry 4.0.

However, this time, the whole world – not only a few privileged developed countries – will be affected in mostly unforeseeable ways as we will see in the following chapters.

Prospects of Future Industrial Developments

“Human creativity and innovation have always propelled us forward. They’ve created jobs. They’ve raised living standards. They’ve made our lives healthier and more rewarding. And the new wave of innovation which is beginning to sweep through industry is no different.”

-Marco Annunziata (https://www.ted.com/talks/marco_annunziata_welcome_to_the_age_of_the_industrial_internet)

So, which innovations and changes can we expect from the Industry 4.0?

Firstly, manufacturing robots will become far more advanced. In today’s industry, less than 10% of nonrepetitive, difficult tasks are done by robots. This figure, however, is expected to grow to ca. 30% by 2025; humans and robots will collaborate in various fields to maximize work results and efficiency (see Marsh, 2013).

Secondly, specific technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, nanotechnologies, genetic engineering and additive manufacturing, alias 3D printing will take on greater significance. 3D printing has already made an immense contribution to research and development in form of rapid prototyping.

Especially the combination of multiple disruptive technologies yields potential for various changes, e. g. the rise of data-driven business models in the intersection of AI and IoT: Rolls Royce’s innovative “power-by-the-hour” model, for example, offers jet engines “per subscription” combined with different smart services for the airlines like predictive maintenance or flight route optimization (e. g. for more efficient fuel usage).

Another important development is the transition from “mass production” to “mass customization”. The emergence of highly-efficient automated manufacturing systems – that are also flexible thanks to 3D printing – enables producers to serve individual customer demands with the same cost and time efficiency as with mass-produced products. This might ultimately lead to a production batch of one. For example, Essilor, a French manufacturer of ophthalmic lenses, made about 300 million lenses in 2010; more than 100 million were unique.

Of course, such complex and “smart” production systems require a lot of coordination. This is where the “Internet of Things” (IoT) comes into play which refers to the connection and data exchange of all kinds of gadgets, devices and machines via the internet. Prospectively, more and more products will become “smart”: smart homes, phones, contact lenses, cars, watches and even whole self-coordinating factories. The number of smart devices connected to the IoT is expected to grow from 22 billion now up to 50 billion worldwide by 2030 (see Tankovska, 2020).

Now, it’s time to use your fantasy and imagine the endless possibilities starting from here. This article only shows a snippet of the areas where disruption is happening – there are so many more to look into (e. g. the application of nanotechnology to synthetic biology)!

II. What are the Risks and Chances of Industry 4.0?

Socio-Economic Dimensions

In the following chapter, we will look into some of the disruptive socio-economic consequences of the fourth industrial revolution.

By 2022, the global economy is expected lose about seven million old jobs, especially in administrative fields, and gain ca. two million new ones, mostly in the service sector and personal care due to demographic change, according to an extrapolation by the World Economic Forum. This is the epitome of Joseph Schumpeter’s gales of creative destruction.

The automation of work also infers the risk of rising income and wealth inequality, given that mostly middle class jobs in production and administration will be affected by rationalization measures. In addition to that, more than 30% of workers will be required to have professional skills which they do not meet yet. As the demand for physical abilities will decrease in many areas, the demand for higher cognitive abilities, e.g. creativity, reasoning and general problem solving and social skills will strongly increase (see Leopold, 2016).

Therefore, smart production systems, robots and machines will inevitably replace humans in many fields, even mental work like translation or writing. For example, the advance of Google’s “autonomous car” could jeopardize the jobs of millions of professional drivers.

However, there is also a major upside to this development: unprecedented freedom. If people do not have to bother with ordinary work any longer, they can focus on innovation and start doing more things they enjoy. This could lead to people living much happier lives and result in an unprecedented inflow of new ideas that could help solve the economic, social and environmental problems mankind has to face in the 21st century.

Having said this, more than 50% of Western workers are insecure and anxious about their employment regarding the trend of job automation.

The idea of a universal basic income might be a solution to this problem and eventually release people from their existential fears. This concept would empower people to meet their needs, even without a paid job. It is also a sign of esteem towards important work that usually does not get paid, such as nursing family members or voluntary work.

In order to figure out the viability of this sublime undertaking various experiments are being conducted lately. For example, in Germany, a team of researchers around Prof. Jürgen Schupp from the University in Berlin is currently initiating a longitudinal study where 120 people will receive 1200 euros per months for three years. The focus of this study will be to assess the participants’ behavioral changes, e. g. whether they grow lazy or engage in more creative endeavors and how they will spend the money, e. g. for themselves or if they engage in more volunteer work etc.

From a political perspective, the reallocation of monies via a functioning social security system could be a viable option. A universal basic income program surely does not come without immense costs; such an endeavor would require a strong solidary society and an effective institution of taxes in related fields (e. g. taxing autonomous factories or environmental pollution) to work out effectively.

While the concept of a universal basic income is not easily implemented, it surely offers the opportunity to counterbalance the socio-economic damage inflicted by impoverishment, and counteract the widening gap between rich and poor and eventually evolve mankind into a new era of innovativeness, freedom and social justice.

Environmental Dimensions

A key feature of the first industrial revolution – and the three big periods of industrial change that followed – was the profligate manner in which manufacturers used natural materials and released harmful man-made substances into the environment.

– Peter Marsh (2013. The new industrial revolution: consumers, globalization and the end of mass production. p.122.)

Ever since the industrialization of the Western world, both manufacturing and logistics have increasingly caused a lot of external costs, i.e. took a heavy toll on the surrounding society and environment with the consumption of finite resources and all kinds of emissions and unwanted byproducts, such as hazardous greenhouse gases, light, noise, odor, waste, toxic substances et cetera – causing environmental, maritime and atmospheric pollution and mostly irreversible damage across all biospheres.

For example, the newly interconnected and globalized economy is utterly dependent on the freight shipping industry to transport more than 80% of cargo worldwide. This circumstance puts a strain on the environment in multiple ways. First, the gas emissions of ships cause air pollution and promote global warming. Secondly, marine organisms suffer from the immense noise pollution in their natural habitats.

Since the 1970s, humanity has been in ecological overshoot, with annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year. Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. […] We use more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate through overfishing, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester”.


Politically and economically, several approaches have been attempted to counteract the aforementioned negative consequences – that happen to be accelerating over the course of the fourth industrial revolution, e.g. the introduction of an emission trading scheme (ETS), greenhouse gas reduction targets, the “energy turnaround” (Germany’s “Energiewende”), Rio de Janeiro’s Agenda 21 and the tendency of rising energy and natural resource prices and taxes.

Furthermore, there has also been a positive dynamic on the part of the consumer behavior recently. Consumers are now very conscious of the industry’s social and ecological effects. In addition to that, they tend to prefer socially and environmentally responsible production – with better resource efficiency, compliance with sustainability policies and more intelligent corporate waste management systems – in contrast to the traditional, exclusively cost efficiency oriented production.

Therefore, in order to secure their competitiveness on a long-term basis – that is meeting the consumers’ needs and expectations in a modern buyers’ market – producers have to incorporate ecological and social responsibility (CSR) into their business strategies inevitably. In this early stage, entrepreneurs can still choose between two options: they can either take on the role of pioneers who proactively pave the way for a sustainable development now or passive traditionalists who might get forced to react subsequently; hammer or nail.

Various world market leaders have already acknowledged the necessity of becoming pioneers in this field, such as German sportswear manufacturer Adidas, and put in efforts to make their production more environmentally friendly. Siemens, for example, is producing energy-efficient electric motors. Tesla Motors, an American car manufacturer, has led the automobile industry into the age of sustainability producing electric-powered vehicles. As another example, Sweden’s Electrolux is turning recycled plastics from the ocean into vacuum cleaners.

However, production processes will always come with external effects, at least to a certain degree. For instance, looking at Germany, manufacturing is still responsible for about 29% of total energy consumption and causing up to 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, even though there are already many regulations regarding the corporate internalization of external costs compared with other industrial countries (see http://www.iass-potsdam.de/en/research/emerging-technologies/industry-4.0).

III. Bringing It All Together

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

(Brundtland. World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. p.41.).

Following this definition of sustainable development and the argument that we need natural resources for the preservation of our species, the objective cannot be to completely disburden nature, but rather to acknowledge our dependent position and harmonize our resource consumption, manufacturing and emission rates with regard to nature’s regenerative capacities and revert to consciously living off its interest instead of its finite capital.

Revisiting the starting question (“Are the macroscopic consequences of the fourth industrial revolution to be met with skepticism or embraced confidently?”), there is no definite answer, but rather a plethora of aspects to consider from various perspectives.

Just as the inventions of past industrial revolutions helped mankind to overcome the limits of human physique, the fourth industrial revolution could help mankind to overcome the limits of the human mind and usher in a new era of wealth and innovation.

There are, in fact, various risk factors lying in ambush, such as the increasing income gap, concentration of power and wealth, environmental overload, a political framework that is certainly not ready for the impending automation of work and resulting structural changes yet et cetera.

In the long run, all of these factors need to be kept a very close eye on, so that a sustainable development can ensue and its most essential objectives achieved: intergenerational and intragenerational justice, respectively.

It is the government’s duty to provide an effective political framework that producers comply with and that also prepares its citizens for the industrial revolution 4.0 with enhanced education and training and the advocacy of life-long learning.

This could result in the economy remaining productive and citizens being happy despite the automation of many old jobs and the emergence of new jobs with new requirements. Finally, this should lead to an improved standard of life for all people, even the least privileged ones.

Taking on the challenges of the 21st century won’t be simple, but with attentive farsightedness and the right attitude – the willingness to challenge the status quo – it will be feasible. In a future article I will address the hurdle of challenging the status quo in depth from the perspective of behavioural economics and dive deeper into the age of generative AI – so stay tuned! 😉

So, what are your thoughts and feelings on this upcoming dynamic? Are you an advocate or an opponent of universal basic income and why? What alternative solutions can you think of? I’m looking forward to reading and replying to your comments.

Suggested Reading List

  1. Marsh, Peter. 2013. The new industrial revolution: consumers, globalization and the end of mass production. p.122.
  2. https://www.ted.com/talks/marco_annunziata_welcome_to_the_age_of_the_industrial_internet
  3. http://www.ted.com/talks/olivier_scalabre_the_next_manufacturing_revolution_is_here
  4. Tankovska, H. 2020. IoT connected devices worldwide 2030. https://www.statista.com/statistics/802690/worldwide-connected-devices-by-access-technology/
  5. Leopold, Alexander. World Economic Forum. 2016. The Future of Jobs.
  6. http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_mcafee_are_droids_taking_our_jobs
  7. https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/the-1-200-euro-experiment-longitudinal-study-on-unconditional-basic-income-launches-in-germany-a-ba6541aa-dddd-4355-9559-a4ab0b6f7655
  8. Santens, Scott. The Future of Work Summit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGAYZCtl2co
  9. http://www.ted.com/talks/rose_george_inside_the_secret_shipping_industry
  10. http://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/
  11. http://www.iass-potsdam.de/en/research/emerging-technologies/industry-4.0
  12. Brundtland. World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. p.41.

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