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Are we ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Davos 2016

The focus of this year's World Economic Forum is how technology is fused into almost everything in the physical, digital and biological worlds. Reporting from Davos is Don Tapscott, best-selling author and adjunct professor at the Rotman School.

More than 40 heads of state and government, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with 2,500 leaders from business and civil society, are making the trek to Davos, Switzerland to strategize about how to achieve the promise and avoid the peril of the digital age. And the focus of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

The first industrial revolution was born of the mechanization of production, using water and steam power, and it focused on the railways and steam-powered factories. The second introduced mass production and mass media with the advent of electric power. The third, the digital revolution, saw us using electronics and information technology to automate production and it gave rise to the Internet, mobile computing and social media.

"Technological innovations are starting to shake the windows and rattle the walls of the global economy."

- Don Tapscott, writing in The Toronto Star 

Now, we are in a fourth — in which technology is being fused into almost everything in the physical, digital and biological worlds. Ubiquitous digital technologies, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, the so-called Internet of things, 3D printing, nanotechnology, robotics, biotechnology and big developments in materials science, energy storage and quantum computing are starting to shake the windows and rattle the walls of the global economy.

Together they are creating entirely new capabilities and dramatic impacts on just about everything — our political, social and economic systems and the future of civilization. Attendees have been sent some pre-reading — a digital copy of a new book called The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Prof. Klaus Schwab.

It’s worth the read. Schwab argues this revolution is disrupting every industry in every country and it’s time for humanity to buckle up and steer it in the right direction.

However, like all of the revolutions that came before it, this Fourth Industrial Revolution brings disruption and a human cost along with its seemingly limitless applications. Soon the rise of smart factories may replace factory workers, leaving millions unemployed. Not just blue-collar — technology is now targeted at the heart of the professions from doctors and druggists to limo drivers and airline pilots.

How can technology be deployed in ways that contribute to inclusive growth rather than exacerbate unemployment and income inequality? How can breakthroughs in science and technology help in solving problems of the global commons from climate change to public health? How will emerging technologies transform the global security landscape? How can governments build institutions capable of making decisions when the challenges they face are more complex, fast-moving and interconnected than ever before?

The challenge of Davos this year will be to forge some new, shared understandings and catalyze some important actions to ensure that this revolution serves people. What may be needed is a new social contract in society.

- Don Tapscott is a best-selling author, most recently of The Digital Economy, and adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management. He’s reporting on Davos for the Toronto Star. @dtapscott

Read the full article in The Toronto Star.

The Global Economy in the Digital Age

Don Tapscott is a best-selling author and adjunct professor at the Rotman School

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