Pondering disruptions and industrial revolutions

I am asked almost daily about my opinion about “the fourth industrial revolution”, technological disruptions and the impact on jobs.

Depending on who asks, I might fire off a statement like “I don’t believe there is a fourth industrial revolution underway”. Or perhaps I might be a little bit more popular and say “I don’t think there is one, but probably many smaller revolutions going on”. I must be honest, I have also told several leaders in business and government, “definitely, and you had better pull up your socks and scan the horizon so that you don’t get caught with your pants down”.

I do feel a certain responsibility towards those that ask me these questions. I am all too aware that my response might encourage somebody to think more seriously about their organisation’s ability to sense change and to respond. Or my response might paralyse, or maybe even give somebody a reason to remain complacent. The truth is, we simply do not know the exact answer or extent of the technological changes around us.

When the change is as complex as it is now, and so dispersed across many actors in the economy and the world, we simply do not know. We can measure patents, imports, exports, value add, jobs, but we simply do not know how many entrepreneurs, government leaders or citizens are reading up on new ideas, trying new combinations, dreaming in the middle of the night of new business models and arrangements. These changes, when they aggregate into a pattern or a groundswell, often only make sense looking back. When we look back we see those moments where shifts took place, where tipping points were reached, where narrow or broad revolutions took place. But in the present moment, it is just foam, sweat and conflicting messages in the news that seems to make us numb.

Maybe it deserves a blog post on its own, but what we have to bear in mind is that in the original meaning of an industrial revolution, the “industrial” should be understood as technological change. The revolution describes what happens to many forms of social institutions. That means small and large, formal and informal social institutions are too clumsy, too rigid, fitting an older order but not ready for the new order. So it is not the autonomous vehicle that will disrupt us (well, maybe us geeks might be very distracted by them); the disruption will come from the massive investments that would be required in transport infrastructure, in the way we move around, in the way governments regulate, collect taxes, and so on. Maybe it challenges how companies are organised, maybe it completely challenges global supply chains or creates new markets that are much better than older markets. The physical technology, when it outpaces the evolution of the social technologies, disrupts the latter.

I must say this in stronger terms. When the evolution of the physical technologies is too far ahead it destabilises the society, because the required social technology modules are not available. It destabilises because the “have’s” can draw from other societies social institutions, while the rest are left out behind a huge and growing barrier.

For me, that means that we should figure out ways to enable experimentation and innovation in social technologies because this is the hard part. Investing in a specific physical technology and the required knowledge to use is still the easier bit. Figuring out how to crowd in a broad cross-section of the society, how to get more people to try new ways of managing, new forms of enterprise, new arrangements of market and non-market actors; that is where we need resilience and creativity.

In South Africa, I feel that we are all too focused on the physical technologies, the gadgets. Yet, our societies ability to raise new enterprises, to experiment with new management models, new ways of doing business enabled by new technologies, is just too low. Despite having richly diverse demography, having people with great experience and qualifications unemployed or employed and frustrated, we are simply creating or encouraging too few people to venture out and start something new.