The 4th Industrial Revolution and new frontiers: why think tanks should be prepared

1 May 2020
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2019: think tanks and technology 14 items

[This article was originally published in the OTT Annual Review 2019-2020: think tanks and technology on March 2020.]

A couple of years back, when our research organisation in the global South started to think about the impacts of digital revolution, the topic was hardly getting any air play in our part of the world. Well, it’s not that the goods and services of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) had not penetrated the market or our lives, but it had not yet entered the realm of development jargon, nor the research community. We had heard of block chains, knowledge economies and artificial intelligence, but had not really started to process what these may mean for our areas of work. But today we are much more conscious of the disruption it can cause to the job market, to education systems, and to infrastructure.

So why should think tanks care?

4IR is at the forefront of: improving economic growth and industrialisation; increasing access to social goods, such as education and health benefits; improving our efforts to combat climate change; and of course, providing us with convenience and greater leisure and entertainment options.

However, to capture the complex picture that 4IR impacts paint, and to have policy to deal with the consequences and possible disruptions, we need robust and nuanced evidence.

We are worried about the inequalities it can cause or deepen – both in terms of countries that are left behind in technology uptake, and the types of economic and social conditions that prevail, as well as in terms of technical skills among individuals.

There are also many unknowns and possible inequalities that can arise due to the lack of clear laws and guidelines on boundaries of ownership and access. For example, platforms like Uber go beyond state borders and beyond things like regular employer-employee relationships.

And while the beauty of 4IR is its algorithm, it is becoming clear that the end result doesn’t ‘automatically’ lead to non-discrimination of certain groups (such as women or people with disabilities) when it comes to finding the most suitable candidate for a job, for example.

Applying more technology may lead to deeper inequalities or create new inequalities that in turn need new transboundary mechanisms and processes to deal with them. This is where ‘thinking’ on getting the balance right – in terms of how technology is used, for whose benefit, and at whose expense – becomes paramount.

Thus, think tanks, research organisations and other organisations that work on issues of inequality, sustainability, labour, education, gender and so on, need to factor 4IR into their work. For think tanks in particular, who seek to influence policy, it becomes necessary to build this angle into their frameworks, evidence, and analysis.

In certain contexts, dialogues on 4IR may not even exist yet, and so the first step for think tanks would be to start this conversation.

In developing countries there is little evidence on what types of jobs will be lost, or who is at greater risk, or what may be some of the inter-related consequences. The rapidly growing body of research in the more advanced economies cannot be applied directly to the different socio-economic and socio-cultural realities of developing countries. Therefore, it is necessary to build this body of knowledge.

In addition, there are efforts to build policies and tighten regulations on aspects of digitisation. However, these are being done with limited capacity, while the technology itself is changing so rapidly that it is not such an easy task with current policymaking processes. Thus, it is necessary to think about new ways to manage these processes.

Think tanks must also internalise 4IR. Think tank staff need to equip themselves with the knowledge to tackle the subject and the technology itself. This requires understanding technical aspects and merging this understanding with development or policy lenses. It can mean learning, re-skilling, and working with others. It also means making use of technology to enhance research methods. One such initiative already growing roots is big data analytics. While this type of data and analysis offers opportunities for enhanced evidence, the technology should be used with care, guidelines and ethical considerations.

Thus, there are gaps in capacity and knowledge that need to be filled. And for think tanks to stay relevant, it offers new challenges and new frontiers to explore.