We’re in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — a fundamental shift in the business and social landscapes resulting from a fusion of technologies blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

But what’s at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Can it deliver on its promise to drive productivity gains, economic growth, and business success? Or can it do harm, like push the boundaries of inequality even further? And what should businesses do now to prepare?

If this rapid innovation fails to connect people to high-quality education and jobs, everyone will feel the repercussions. Joe Kaeser, CEO at Siemens AG said that "we must use technology to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots and lead the world to a net-net growth of GDP.” This is the only way to ensure dynamic job growth and productivity in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

At the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Salesforce Chairman and CEO, Marc Benioff convened a panel of experts to discuss how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will increasingly impact our economies, societies, and daily lives. Panelists included:

  • Al Gore, former U.S. Vice President
  • Diane Greene, Chief Executive Officer, Google Cloud
  • Lorrana Scarpioni, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Bliive
  • Joe Kaeser, Chief Executive Officer, Siemens AG
  • will.i.am, founder and Chief Executive Officer, i.am+


Customer expectations will drive innovation and growth

The pace of technological change in the Fourth Industrial Revolution isn't likely to slow down any time soon. Diane Greene, CEO of Google Cloud pointed out that what programmers can do today wouldn’t have been imaginable five years ago — and then in another five years, the technologies we’ll be embracing will be very different yet again.

“I think there’s gonna be an awakening,” will.i.am said. “There’s gonna be products — just like the iPhone is a device made for the internet. There isn't a device that’s made for AI yet, and that will happen five years from now. And hopefully, they will empower people and communities.”

Customer behavior and technological innovation are evolving alongside each other. For example, today's customers now have access to products, services, and experiences any time, anywhere, and on-demand. This has forced businesses to adapt how they design, market, and deliver products and services.

To win in this environment, companies must focus on offering unforgettable and personalized experiences in addition to their core offerings. The smartest businesses will harness emerging technologies — virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and intelligent agents — to help deliver fully immersive experiences to large numbers of customers at lower costs. 

“Over the next five years, B2C [business-to-consumer] is going to be the growth engine of the world,” said Joe Kaeser. “The middleman will be cut out of a complicated process as empowered consumers, supported by technology, drive innovation and growth. The technology is already here — people just need to get used to it.”


Businesses will need to support a new kind of workforce

Businesses also face the danger of the skill sets and competencies of employees becoming obsolete faster as technology advances. To thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they will need to build a workforce predisposed to a relentless pursuit of innovation and change. They will also need to foster more nimble cultures where employees can continuously learn and develop new skills.

According to Greene, workers are already recognizing that lifelong learning is the key to career sustainability. The idea that individuals have a career imperative to learn — and companies an imperative to help them do so — will be more widely accepted in the coming years.


Promoting diversity will help businesses thrive 

A world where disruption is the new normal requires extraordinary insight and agility. Businesses can enhance both by promoting diversity and inclusivity, especially knowing that diverse workforces perform better in the realms of creativity, engagement, and innovation.

As the technologies underpinning the Fourth Industrial Revolution become more ubiquitous and easy to use, more women will be encouraged to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. “We may even start to see more balanced numbers of men and women working in these sectors, with previously underrepresented minorities embracing and shaping technology in very powerful ways as well,” said Greene.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution will give businesses an opportunity to embrace new values

It’s time for business leaders to spark conversations about change in an effort to prepare their organizations for the future.

For Lorrana Scarpioni, CEO and Founder at Bliive, this means identifying more inclusive ways for businesses to support entrepreneurship. How can companies open up their corporate social innovation programs to support mass engagement? How can these programs contribute both social and economic value while tapping into the intelligence and creativity of whole populations?

“As we live through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we also need to bring about a revolution of morals and new values to meet its challenges,” said Scarpioni. 

New organizational models that leverage these emerging technologies could include the development of smart platforms to help startups and microbusinesses reduce costs and simplify processes. Other examples could include blockchain-based “sharing economy” models to help businesses retain value within their local economies.  

Closing the inequality gap will boost global productivity

Greater income inequality, increased unemployment, a growing dependence on government handouts, and more mass migrations are just some of the problems that could arise if businesses and governments fail to train employees how to navigate the new digital economy.

“Technology now commands much greater capital investments, with the returns going much less to labor and more to the owners of capital," said Al Gore. "At the same time, intelligence added to automation is causing apprehension and fear. We have to address that. We have to make sure the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution reach the largest number of people around the world.”


This article is part of a series on the Fourth Industrial Revolution — a concept introduced by Klaus Schwab at the World Economic Forum. For this series, we’ve interviewed a number of chief executives and thought leaders about the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the business world. Check out the other posts in the series: