Insight – What is the 4IR and where are we with it now?


The challenge is going to be managing the transition of the income streams from yesterday’s technology to tomorrow’s.

Digital is the main reason just over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000.Pierre Nanterme, CEO of Accenture

The purpose of this page is to give an outline as to what the 4IR is all about and how it may impact on what you do. The more aware businesses are of future threats they may face the better able they will be to meet those threats and turn them into opportunities.

When life-changing concepts occur, there is very often a significant time delay between the initial idea and the development of the idea into practical everyday use. The first Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanise production, the second Industrial Revolution used Electric power to create mass production and the third Industrial Revolution used electronics and information technology to automate production. The growth that followed the first, second and third Industrial Revolutions once the idea had been developed to a commercial level was linear.

What is being predicted, and being seen to happen with the 4IR, is that the growth of the idea is exponential. The 4IR is building on the third Industrial Revolution, it is the digital revolution combining technologies and creating new concepts in Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, autonomous vehicles and 3D printing to name just a few.

Even with linear growth the previous Industrial Revolutions created their own problems and social unrest on a large scale. The Luddites were a group of textile workers and self-employed weavers who destroyed the machinery that they saw as taking its work away from them. The protest lasted from 1811 to 1816, starting in Nottingham and became a region wide rebellion with mill owners shooting protesters before the military finally suppressed it. the word “Luddite” now implies one who is opposed to progress, be it computerisation or technological, the very core of the 4IR.

Digital camera technology was first invented in 1975, but it was not until the 2000’s that the quality became sufficiently acceptable and commercially cost effective that it took off. The real challenge to the camera industry was when it was integrated into the mobile phone and it was this disruptive innovation of the technology that took the camera industry by surprise. The first mobile phone produced with a camera was in 2002; by January 2012 Kodak had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States. In January 2013 Jessops entered administration and all 187 Jessops retail stores ceased trading. Both companies, with considerable investment, have been reinvented, so there was a future for them; they just failed to react in time. Could that have been avoided?

To some extent Kodak and Jessops were amongst the first victims of the speed of change and the potential impact of the 4IR and the technological rapid advancements that have disrupted the markets. Further evidence of this is supported by some work completed by Professor Richard Foster of Yale University which shows that the average life span of a company in the S&P 500 index has decreased from 61 years in 1958 to just 18 years in 2015. In the words of George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, we should not now be surprised by the potency of the 4IR, whilst hindsight is essential for reflection, foresight is going to be needed to survive and thrive in the 4IR.

Today’s businesses not only operate in much more dynamic markets than they have ever done before, but also in disruptive markets. News travels almost before it has been made, and customers’ wants, needs and expectations are constantly changing as new markets emerge making it ever more challenging for businesses to ensure that their product and/or service is in alignment with the market they operate in. Think Uber Taxis, the impact of Amazon on the retail sector, the development of the mobile phone and the impact it has had on our lives, the whole world of communication and how we get information, the list is virtually never ending.

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