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Thinking out loud

Technological disruption over time

This is the fourth post in this series about disruption. This post was updated on 15 September 2020.

I have previously written about technological change cycles where I explored how the nature of innovation changes over time. This time I would like to explore disruption more from the perspective of the challenge to a business model as well as the broader sociological impact of disruption. 

Time is another dimension that must be considered if we are to understand disruption. In the short term, new technologies often disrupt incumbents (firmly entrenched existing players) who are dominant in a particular technology market segment. New technologies force existing companies in the market to rethink their products, services, operations and networks. They may decide to resist change, or adapt or retreat to market segments where their scale and operations are still competitive. 

In the shorter term, the most significant disruptions are at the level of functions and applications (or products and processes), and the disruptions are often felt by competitors who identify with a particular market or technological paradigm. The new technology may allow a better or different way for a function to be performed, and as a result a new need may be created. All competitors must scramble to get newly-introduced competing solutions integrated into their current offerings.

In the medium term, technological change may disrupt consumers and global technology markets, as new products and services might make existing alternatives incompatible or redundant. As the uptake of a newer technology increases, it may become more visible to other (unrelated) markets and user types. The result is that a technology that was developed for a particular niche market may be taken up or adapted to new markets. Technology providers benefit from more scale, and their attention often shifts from developing the products/services to improving their processes and systems. Users benefit from better-developed products/services and support, increasing compatibility and the establishment of standards, etc.

In the longer term, technological change disrupts investments in fixed infrastructure and social institutions such as universities, economic regions, job markets, regulators and industries. Some jobs, industries, key infrastructure or technologies may become redundant. From a spatial perspective, the way municipal boundaries or functional economic regions are drawn may be challenged, and regional infrastructure may suddenly become redundant or expensive to maintain.

In the longer term, technological change disrupts investments in fixed infrastructure, social institutions like universities, economic regions, job markets, regulators and industries. Some jobs, industries, key infrastructure or technologies may become redundant. From a spatial perspective, the way municipal boundaries or functional economic regions are drawn may be challenged, and regional infrastructure may suddenly become redundant or expensive to maintain.

As new technology becomes more prevalent and as it reaches a more mature phase, its influence may spread to other more indirect markets in a slow, ever-expanding series of mini-disruptions. This is where convergence and spill-overs become a risk to those who are ignorant or complacent, as technological developments in unrelated economic activities may spill over into a deeply rooted and rigid technology marketplace. It may take a long time for this kind of disruption to slowly build up, but once it arrives, the changes are sudden and often catastrophic to the economic actors who are affected. 

The challenge is then not the new technology per se, but the organisational and social innovations that have been refined in the new technology market place. Many improvements at the product or business process levels can be copied (or perhaps licensed). However, new business models with different forms of financing, novel arrangements with suppliers, new partnership structures or with creative business logic are very hard to copy. It is especially hard to respond to business model innovations when an organisation is already set in its ways (or is successful). This is the real disruption, and it is not only the private sector that is vulnerable to this – The public sector and even the NGO sector can be disrupted by business model innovations.

In the course of my career I have worked with many leaders of companies and public organisations or technologists who have been caught off guard by technological change. They all describe the same pattern.

They were once globally competitive and could benchmark their operations, technologies and efficiencies against global peers. Then some competitors started choosing alternative technologies that were emerging at the time. Some competitors fell behind, while others appeared to have a small advantage. However, they were increasingly losing competitive bids for contracts. Some competitors were able to clinch contracts at prices and volumes that were just out of reach. By working hard, and staying close to their customers, they could make up for some of the disadvantages. They could justify their current path and decisions based on sunk costs and their reputation. They improved some processes and changed some arrangements, but were aware that other important priorities were not receiving attention. The status quo could be maintained for many years. Then suddenly, almost overnight, the performance gap was too big. The new technology was taken up by some local competitors, or one or two customers started insisting on the use of the new technology or higher performance standards. No amount of blood, sweat and tears could secure a deal. At this moment, they were disrupted. They had been left behind. They could not meet the criteria, the volumes or the market prices. It was not just a question of ordering a new production line, as the new technology required different systems, different suppliers, different volumes and different skills throughout their organisations. Key staff left. Funders no longer extended credit so easily. 

They were suddenly behind on all fronts. It started happening slowly, and then it happened suddenly. Their financiers, government officials and industry bodies all claimed they had been overtaken overnight. But this sudden disruption took many years. 

In hindsight, they could see where they had made the wrong decisions. Often it was not a big decision that caused them to fall behind, but rather the cumulative effect of many decisions building up over time.

In hindsight, they could see where they had made the wrong decisions. Often it was not a big decision that caused them to fall behind, but rather the cumulative effect of many decisions building up over time.

Some of these (disrupted) companies are still operating today, but they are now just a shadow of the successful companies that they once were. They still have some loyal customers who use their services, but they are no longer the leading suppliers or the default choice in their industries. One of these companies that I know well used to manufacture precision metal parts for the automotive sector to very high tolerances, and now they manufacture coarse grinding balls used to crush rock in the mining industry. Another company used to make trains, another used to make buses, and another used to design and build aircraft. They have all been disrupted over a period of more than ten years. It started happening slowly, and then it happened fast.

I also know of regions that have been disrupted. The town where I grew up also went through this (see my angry rant in a post about this town from some years ago).

Change in my home town also happened slowly. First, the biggest company in town moved some headquarters functions to a nearby city. They had problems attracting certain kinds of staff and supporting service providers to the small town where I lived. More functions followed a year or two later. Local government was not focused much on reversing this outflow of talent, investment and expertise. Next, certain equipment maintenance functions were moved elsewhere to consolidate operations in another city. Spouses and families moved in pursuit of jobs, and the local brain drain was gathering momentum. At some point, the existence of the local railway station and the small airfield could no longer be justified. Non-related industries such as agriculture suffered. As more and more functions moved from the town, more and more shops, restaurants and smaller companies closed down. It felt like the whole town had changed in just a few years. What started as a technological disruption in one sector quickly affected many others. 

In many of the examples that I have shared in this post, technological disruption started elsewhere through the technology choices of other organisations and companies. Without anybody noticing, the seeds of disruption had been sown. The effects would only be felt some years down the line, and then it was simply too late to start scrambling around to try and reverse what had happened.

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Technological change Technological disruption Thinking out loud

Who is being disrupted, and by whom?

This is the third post in this short series on disruption. This post was updated on 15 September 2020.

In simple terms, technological disruption implies at least two actor groups: those that are being disrupted, and those that are doing the disruption. However, to assist societies, institutions, governments and businesses to be better able to adjust to, mitigate or even lead technological disruption this simple description is not useful.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler

Albert Einstein

Closer scrutiny of any technological disruption reveals many more actor groups that are both directly and indirectly involved in technological disruption. The more you dig, the messier the picture becomes. There are four groups that quickly spring to mind: you will probably be able to think of more if you focus on a technological disruption about which you have more detail.

  1. On the technology supply side, there are many concurrent contests where promoters and early adopters of new technologies are trying to gain a foothold in technology markets by achieving a viable scale. If an existing technology market is too firmly established (or protected), then an alternative technology market may emerge. Over time, this new technology market may disrupt the incumbent technology market, leading to further disruptions in many other related markets downstream. However, Clayton Christensen made us aware that in many cases incumbents are able to quickly learn from new disrupters, and they are often able to use their scale and operations to adapt quickly to their operations, and so beating the new challengers. It is only in rare instances that a new technology disrupter manages to unseat an incumbent, but there are many celebrated examples where this has happened.
  2. On the demand side, there are those who are disrupted when their suppliers, clients, employers or regulators select one technology over another. Markets and actors are disrupted by other markets and actors that they are dependent on. Users of technologies may have to master new skills to continue performing certain functions. To replace an older technology with newer technology may also involve investing in and mastering a whole range of other technologies. Occasionally an incumbent could even be disrupted by its own technology development. Remember the story of Kodak and the development of digital camera technology? Another more recent example is Apple’s iPad technology that disrupted its own computer technologies, but at least Apple has since adapted and even thrived. There are many examples out there with happy and sad endings.
  3. Occasionally, an incumbent could even be disrupted by its own technology development. Remember the story of Kodak and the development of digital camera technology? Another more recent example is Apple and the iPad technology that disrupted its own computer technologies, but at least they have since adapted and even thrived. There are many examples out there with happy and sad endings…
  4. Wherever markets are forming, changing and disappearing, a range of market-enabling and market-supporting institutions are affected. These institutions could be in either the public or the private sector, or in some hybrid form. An institution could be in the form of a combination of formal rules and informal norms as well as regulations, or it could be in the form of organisations. Whenever a new technology market emerges, it challenges the incumbent market and supporting institutional arrangements. Think of how the formal hospitality market is challenged by the emergence of homestay holidays and the ease with which a property owner can now rent out a property online. This has consequences for existing providers of hospitality, for regulators, for local authorities, other property owners affected by these transactions, and also for buyers of the new hospitality services. The implication is that the speed with which a country can create, adjust and adapt its market-supporting institutions will have a direct bearing on the pace and the effect of how disruptive the new technology may be, and how equal and fair the uptake of the new technology will be. It is very hard to add new market regulations and rules after technology has already become widely adopted.

When considering disruption, it is useful to think a bit further than the disrupted and the disruptor. We have to consider the networks that these two groups form part of, but we must also think of the social institutions and market-supporting organisations that enable these technology markets to exist in the first place.

Society bears the costs of late disruption

Attempting to mitigate the risks of any possible disruption may be a nuisance for many businesses that are just trying to cope. However, when many companies or whole industries do not adequately consider potential disruptions, the costs of disruption spread from the shareholders to the broader society. It is therefore important that policy makers, government departments, local governments, industry-representative organisations and labour representatives should also take into consideration technological change and the interdependence between different systems. 

In markets where competition is too low, or where the markets are dominated by just a few thought leaders, incumbents may be able to avoid being disrupted in the shorter to the medium-term through their defensive innovation strategies. However, in the longer term, these champions may become more vulnerable to technological disruption. This means that all the other systems are at risk whose success is highly dependent on the success of the leading firms.

It is a bit difficult for policy makers and industry bodies to imagine how disruption can be managed. It may even be necessary for countries and regions to intentionally disrupt their own industries and local social arrangements, as I heard they do in Singapore. I was told that the logic of purposefully introducing disruptions is that having more frequent small disruptions is better than losing big battles against global competitors already operating at scale.

The old Zollverein Coking Plant World Heritage Site in Germany is one of my favourite places to visit to witness how technological change can challenge a region. Click here to see more photos of industrial heritage in Germany

Over my 25 years of working experience, I have worked with disruptions in many different forms and contexts. To me, disruption is not an abstract term. Sometimes it is about being optimistic, trying to introduce a change. Other times it was about pain, trying to find a way out of a mess. I have worked with governments and industry bodies that were trying to find ways to resist disruption, or that were desperate to figure out how to catch up after being left behind. I supported innovative teams to use the logic of disruption to explore how they could break into or gain a foothold in an established market. I have experienced the desperation of stakeholders in regions where key industries have been disrupted, where those that have remained behind are struggling to reignite a depressed economy. I have also worked with technology extension programmes that were trying to introduce (disrupt) new technologies into existing markets. These experiences all exposed me to different practical challenges of disruption, being disrupted, disrupting others and trying to resist disruption. I am sharing these experiences because disruption is a very different experience based on who you are and what you are trying to achieve. 

Categories
Technological change Technological disruption Thinking out loud

Defining disruption

This is the second post in this short series on disruption. It was updated on the 15th of September 2020.

Disruption can be defined as the act or process of disrupting somethinga break or interruption in the normal course or continuation of some activity, process, etc.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Disruption means that somebody or something is interrupted by somebody or something else; plans may no longer be valid as priorities have changed. It means more than just being surprised that something is now possible, as being disrupted implies inconvenience.

When we think of global disruptions, periods of economic turmoil or political change typically come to mind. For instance, the effects of the global financial crisis are still echoing around the world. The effects of the technological disruption enabled by the increasing reach of the internet are still reverberating around the world. Think of how smartphones have challenged fixed-line communication technologies, and how internet connectivity is reaching into factories, schools, churches and households. 

There are other forms of disruptions, such as natural disruptions that are often felt more intensely at local or regional levels. Disruptions caused by politics is a reality in many regions and countries in the world, with the biggest disrupters being regional or global conflicts.

Supply chains can also be disrupted by regional and international events. For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many supply chains were disrupted as ports closed, and as suppliers, routes, logistics centres and shops were closed.

Our local retailer ran out of stock during the Covid-19 lockdown due to a combination of panic buying and the disruption caused to supply chains. This disrupted our dinner plans and required us to completely re-think our frequency and way of shopping.

What makes any form of widespread disruption hard to plan for is how interconnected different systems are. A disruption caused by political turmoil may quickly lead to economic and technological disruptions, or a disruption caused by nature may lead to political, economic and technological disruption. We often do not know how the systems we rely on in turn depend on other systems.

From a resilience perspective, this interconnectedness is called “coupling”. In highly coupled systems a small disruption in one area could lead to a domino effect elsewhere. In loosely coupled systems, failure or disruption in one area could be contained or isolated in that area. With the increasing convergence of technologies, the interdependencies between systems are increasing. Just think of how many systems would be disrupted if a country’s internet connectivity were to fail. 

Every leadership team should be aware of the potential disruptions that may affect their operations, their networks and their plans. These disruptions may originate externally to the organisation, or they may originate within the organisation. Being more aware of potentially vulnerable points in the organisation and the broader context can help to rapidly reallocate resources and reconfigure arrangements when something unexpected happens. I find it interesting that some domains use “surprise” disruptions to build something akin to muscle memory for their organisations. Think of emergency response teams such as medics or firefighters using scenarios to challenge their assumptions and to reveal dependencies. 

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Advancing manufacturing Technological change Technological disruption Technology and innovation management Thinking out loud

Disruption, radical and incremental innovation

I am continuing with my sprint to write down the ideas and concepts that I am explaining regularly at different events and meetings (The earlier posts are all available on www.cunningham.org.za). The ideas about the fourth industrial revolution being disruptive are now discussed and repeated even by people who have very little understanding of technology or innovation, nevermind management (see post “what is the difference between 4IR and Industrie 4.0?”). There are subtle yet important differences between disruptive, radical and incremental innovation. These differences matter for policymakers, entrepreneurs and economic development practitioners.

In business management literature a distinction is often made between incremental, radical and disruptive innovation[1]. Incremental innovation introduces relatively minor changes to an existing product, process or technology, while radical innovation is based on a different set of engineering, scientific and business principles and often opens up new markets and applications. While incremental improvements may be small, the cumulative effects of an ongoing series of incremental improvements could be huge.

Incremental innovation exploits the potential of an established design and often reinforces the dominance of established firms. It mainly originates from within the sub-sector or system, and the informed or connected firms are often aware of the changing trends[2]. While it hardly requires new science, incremental innovation draws on incredible skills, deductive reasoning and experience, and over time can have significant cumulative economic consequences. Most businesspeople hardly recognise incremental improvement as innovation, although when prompted, many are able to identify several incremental improvements to their products, processes and organisational arrangements. Incremental innovations are chosen by the market if they offer savings, or add more value to what already exists. The market chooses an improved idea if it exceeds their existing expectations.

Radical innovations occur when new technologies are introduced into an existing market or technological domain. In the evolutionary technological change process, a radical innovation can start one of the change cycles (start a fluid phase), or it can be a blip in the performance of the technology during the amplification or selection phases.

Christensen (2000) argues that both incremental and radical innovations based on a specific technological paradigm often benefit incumbent firms, and describes them as sustainable innovations (for incumbent firms).  Incumbents and markets can recognise the benefits of the radical innovation and quickly adapt to it, or integrate it into their operations.

Disruptive innovation is different in that it often favours the new entrants (called the attackers by Christensen), who often combine different product, process and marketing innovation with a different business model. This part of the business model is really important.  Disruptive innovations are hardly about the product/service or the process, it is really about a different business model. These business model innovation often originate in niche markets where an innovator works very closely with niche market players to refine an idea in an iterative process before it is taken up by other markets. Incumbents have a really hard time to defend against this because they can copy some of the products, service or process features, but they often cannot copy the culture of the attacker.

Christensen et al. (2015) explains that disruptors often challenge incumbent firms with new business models, and attack incumbents by targeting marginal or even low-end markets[3]. Firms with resources and adaptive management systems are often able to exit these markets or to shift into new (often higher-value) market segments. While incumbents may be able to adapt their products and processes, it is often a matter of time before newer business models of the attackers outperform their traditional arrangements.

There are examples of famous and powerful firms going under or losing market dominance because they were disrupted by a new technological paradigm introduced by actors from another sector. Recent research comparing the US Fortune 500 companies in 1955 and 2017 shows that only 60 firms were in both lists (Perry, 2017). It is already hard enough for firms to stay abreast of technological changes and innovations within their sector and in related industries, therefore many established firms are often blindsided by technologies developed in other sectors that may in future disrupt them[4].

Some remarks about these ideas:

For most companies, radical and incremental innovations occur on a frequent basis. It may require rethinking a product, making changes to a process, finding new material suppliers or changing prices. While a competitor launching a new product, or announcing a change in pricing may disrupt your plans or cause a lot of stress, this is not what is meant with disruption. Disruption means that you cannot proceed in the same way. The markets you have served in the past now have new criterial which they use to select between alternatives and you have a weaker offer.

Disruptive innovations are disruptive because they require a rethink or demand a change of the core business model. Clients don’t want a price cut or an added feature. Some countries (like Singapore) promote disruptive technologies into their economies because it leads to increased innovation and much higher awareness by incumbents of global technological changes. Other countries try to defend against disruptive technologies, but in a way, they may only be postponing the inevitable.  What is clear to me is that companies cannot afford to only look for technological solutions within their industry or sector, but that they have to scan much broader. For an incumbent company to respond to a big disruption may require more business model innovation. For instance, our South African manufacturers have lost many competitive battles with manufacturers from Asia. Yet, very few manufacturers innovated in the business models by opening their own factories in Asia to learn from those markets.

Which brings me to a final remark. To get more companies hyper-sensitive to technological change, policymakers have to find ways to promote competition. It is only when small improvements make a big difference that incumbents would be willing to search beyond their current sectors for alternatives that offer even a small advantage.

Notes:

This is the 4th post that draws from the research and advisory work I am currently busy with to strengthen South Africa’s technological capability to detect and better respond to discontinuous technological change. The citation information for this post is at the bottom of this post, and a link to the research report that I have copied this from is here.

[1] While this literature is increasingly popular since the publications of Clayton Christensen, it is not new. Schumpeter (1934) and Freeman and Soete (1997), among others, already wrote about this much earlier.

[2] Several trends, such as the increasingly important knowledge-intensive business service sector, or new ways of sharing and protecting knowledge, play an important role in providing firms with access to new or relevant information.

[3] Christensen, Raynor and McDonald (2015) argue that from a disruptive theory perspective Uber is not seen as disruptive, as many taxis have been using apps for a long time, and Uber did not really enter the market by starting in underserved markets. However, due to the violent protests by traditional taxi owners, Uber is often described as being disruptive.

[4] An ironic example of a company that failed to recognise one of its own innovations as disruptive is Kodak. Management was so set on its film-based business and technology model that it chose to ignore its own market research that showed the disruptive potential of digital technology that one of their engineers developed in 1975. Not only did digital technology disrupt Kodak, it created many completely new industries, markets and applications.

 

Sources:

CHRISTENSEN, C.M. 2000.  The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. 1st Ed. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

CHRISTENSEN, C.M., RAYNOR, M.E. and MCDONALD, R. 2015.  What Is Disruptive Innovation? Harvard Business Review, December 2015.

FREEMAN, C. and SOETE, L. 1997.  The Economics of Industrial Innovation. 3rd. London: Pinter.

PERRY, M. 2017. Fortune 500 firms 1955-v-2017.:   http://www.aei.org/

Citation for this text:

(TIPS, 2018:21-22)

TIPS. 2018. Framing the concepts that underpin discontinuous technological change, technological capability and absorptive capacity. Eds, Levin, Saul and Cunningham, Shawn.  1/4, Pretoria: Trade and Industry Policy Strategy (TIPS) and behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry, South Africa.   www.tips.org.za DOWNLOAD

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Technology and innovation management Thinking out loud

Why are digital technologies absorbed so rapidly in many developing countries?

Globalisation-weary politicians and advocates of local capability developments and geeks or technology promoters have one theme in common: technologies developed in the First World not only disrupt domestic companies, but upset whole sociotechnical regimes in developing countries.  While the benefits of digital technologies are not disputed, what is disputed is how to solve this problem.  This is where the two groups of lobbyists part ways.

One argument is that if local companies had some protection, better incentives, more support and everything else on their wish lists, then local entrepreneurs would be able to come up with similar digital technologies. How long this is likely to take and whether it will succeed is usually not discussed to any real extent.

The other argument is that disruption is good, and that the services of, say, Uber or Amazon disrupt local monopolies and save consumers millions while allowing “new” entrants into the markets. What happens when these global companies lose interest and withdraw suddenly, or when all local capacity to compete has been eroded is also not discussed.

I will steer clear of these and other flashpoints. For me the key differentiator that counts in favour of global digital technologies is that they create MARKET platforms. By market, I don’t just mean a space where sellers and buyers can meet. These platform technologies invest heavily in overcoming many market and institutional failures. For instance:

  • Many digital marketplaces carefully create trust systems where buyers and sellers can check each other out.
  • Most digital marketplaces give you lots of technical information, reviews from other users, and links to comparable products in higher and lower price brackets.
  • Most digital marketplaces coordinate logistics, customs, invoicing, tracking and customer support.
  • They accept numerous currencies and numerous payment methods.
  • Users can switch seamlessly between different platforms (add something to the shopping basket on your phone, complete the order on your computer).

This means that these global platforms overcome many of the market, coordination and government failures that keep developing country entrepreneurs so busy. Even though I have shifted my understanding of how economies evolve beyond market failures, I still see them everywhere. Maybe they are not as quantifiable as many economic theorists would make them sound, but their archetypes and characteristics still show up. I have made a note to explore these market failure archetypes in a next post. (other posts on 3D printing, IoT; tech push fallacy article over here)

The most disruptive digital technologies can be described as platform technologies, which means that they create marketplaces with their own institutions, rules, laws, recourse systems, fair play policies and competition between providers. These platforms crowd in both sellers and buyers. That is what makes them so easy to use, for both buyers and sellers. They personalise the options for market players. They integrate service providers and even regulatory requirements. So even if a better local digital technology may be available, consumers will go where there are more products, and sellers will go where there are more buyers. These platforms often displace or disrupt previous widespread platforms. The mobile phone has in many cases displaced several platforms, including newspapers. 

The only way developing countries can respond is to make sure that they create the right market-supporting institutions. The challenge is that while global platforms often start in one or two markets and then scale up, developing country governments have whole economies that are in need of interconnected and interdependent platforms. The challenge is to figure out which platforms would be the best learning places for rapid learning, adaptation and dissemination.

If you would like to keep informed of my progress on this topic, you can sign up in the box on the left of this post (or here) to receive a personal newsletter from me. I promise not to clog your inbox with junk mail. The sign-up form will help me to figure out what topics you are more interested in.

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About the future Industrial Policy Technology and innovation management Thinking out loud

The difference between the terms Fourth Industrial Revolution and Industrie 4.0 matters

There are two terms that many of my clients use interchangeably, which really bothers me. The first is the term “the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, and the other is “Industrie 4.0”. What bothers me is that these two labels represent two concepts that only partially overlap. Sometimes they are conjoined with an “and” in a sweeping statement to emphasise just how pervasive and disruptive a specific technology is, and how utterly unprepared everybody is.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a concept that was popularised by Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum (although the name goes back almost 50 years). Many international consultancies have also developed instruments and advisory services around this theme (I admire their animations and graphics). The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a banner over many new technologies. Most of the technologies that are highlighted by the WEF are not new, e.g. 3D printing, sensors and artificial intelligence, whereas the narrative of the Fourth Industrial Revolution highlights the effects of the convergence of several scientific and technological domains (take a look at this link to read more about some of the technologies). Due to the reach of digital technologies, smartphones and global software platforms, new applications of technology are spreading very fast. It almost seems as though the rapidity of technological development is increasing, and that the depth and breadth of convergence and its impact on industries, firms, governments and whole societies is potentially disruptive. Hence the “revolution” part.

I must add that not everybody is convinced of this revolution. Some argue that we are still in the third revolution, albeit in a second or third extension. Others argue that we are already undergoing the fifth or sixth revolution. Then one might also argue that revolutions are usually not predictable, or that revolutions go hand-in-hand with massive social, political and institutional upheavals, which we have not yet really seen. Others, like Carlota Perez argue that these revolutions are unavoidable, and that governments have a key role to play in preparing for societies to cope with these wave of change. In fact, we have not seen massive employment displacement in Europe attributed to massive technological disruption, despite all the machines, robots and drones. I for one am also not convinced that the technologies and their convergence are revolutionary. What I find really eyebrow-raising is the immense interest of capital and political elites in technology, and all the hype around these technologies. I must also confess that I am impressed by how well the applications, use cases and adaptation paths of many of these technologies are described on the web. For instance, take a look at the Blockchain use cases on the WEF site here.

The second label is Industrie 4.0. It is usually spelled this way because the concept originated in Germany as the rallying cry of their new “High-Tech Strategy” which has emerged over the last ten years. The German high-tech strategy has a dual focus. The first and often overlooked emphasis is on continuing the incremental and export-oriented technological development that German manufacturers are known for. It builds on Germany’s current excellence and ability to innovate, especially at the level of product and process technologies.

The second and more frequently discussed drive of the German Industrie 4.0 strategy is all about digitalisation, knowledge intensification, trust building, dialogue and networking (some topical areas are described here). Digitalisation is not only about connecting things to the internet, but also about manufacturers being smart about integrating their suppliers, clients and internal processes. Improving the competitiveness of German manufacturing and making the society, workplaces and communities healthier and happier in the future are recurring themes. So are the environment, the circular economy and the importance of investing in longer-term technological platform and capability development. What only a few people in Germany would acknowledge is that this high-tech strategy was a response to the realisation that Germany was not as digitally savvy as one would have expected (to see the Tuft Universities renowned digital performance assessment of countries head over here). The Industrie 4.0 strategy in Germany (and now also in many other countries) is already quite mature, decentralised and, dare I say, pervasive. Also, Germany is very critical of its own performance. For instance, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), publishes an annual assessment (only in Germany) of the digital performance of Germany on their website at www.bmwi.de).

 

In Germany, and increasingly in other EU countries, it seems that every university, technology centre, industry association and consultancy is involved in cluster activities, Industrie 4.0 readiness assessments, technology demonstration, research and so on (look here to see a list of “testbeds” in Germany). The snowball is gaining momentum. Different ministries and spheres of government are coordinating around clearly described projects that are managed transparently and concurrently (look at the Platform Industrie 4.0 website to see the number and composition of initiatives). Many initiatives, such as industry mobilisation, making constructive policy inputs, developing standards for data integration, compatibility, etc. are being driven by private sector organisations, private sector representatives, science and engineering bodies or associations (Here is a link to the National Academy of Science and Engineering website).  Manufacturers in Germany are at this moment spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing which technology service provider to use to solve a problem or test a new solution (link to use cases, link to tech support centres). Both public and private service providers are striving to be relevant, at the cutting edge and valuable to the private sector.

Now this second label, Industrie 4.0, is something that the developing world should take note of. This industrial strategy is about much more than adding digital capability to existing products and processes. It is about a modern digital business model which is smart, has strong feedback loops within the organisation and beyond, and reaches out to suppliers, supporting institutions, clients and devices ( go here to assess your readiness and to see how wide this assessment is). It is not only a public strategy, but has now become a private sector strategy too. It is about deep integration, collaboration on long-term technology and capability development, co-funding, skills development and standards, and is globally focused.

I believe that this second label has the potential to disrupt the developing world far more than the Fourth Industrial Revolution notion can. If we do not respond, our developing country manufacturers may be left behind.

This is not about tweaking existing products, adding sensors or tracking data. It is about improving the ability of organisations to make sense of change, future possibilities and their performance within this fluid context. It means that those local companies that could be globally competitive would be under pressure if they were not able to tap into or track this gaining momentum in Europe and elsewhere.

Decision makers in business and government in developing countries often underestimate the funding and effort that go into building trust, collaboration and joint problem solving or policy making in Europe and beyond. Both Industrie 4.0 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution are not about products or process technologies, they are about new business models and new ways of collaborating, with the long-term intent of laying new foundations for the future.

If you are a supplier to European manufacturers, be alert, be proactive! Get involved.
If you are competing with European products and businesses, be awake!

This is not a project for your design team, your IT department or functional managers. This is a strategic re-think of your whole organisation and how it develops new capabilities, how it measures and interprets data and how it works with other organisations. This is not a quick fix, this requires a longer-term holistic re-think of your technological capability, of the new applications that may be possible and of new forms of collaboration, co-competition and integration all enabled by digital technologies.

So why do I argue we need to understand these terms? I see the Industrie 4.0 movement as a strategic and intentional approach to shaping the future. While the Fourth Industrial Revolution narrative of the WEF and others helps us to understand what has already changed. It helps us to respond better, while the other urges us to actively get involved in shaping the future. I know this difference is subtle, and I know that the WEF is also trying to shape the future, but the popular narrative about the revolution is unfortunately often about technologies and how we respond to them.