Advocacy, Writing

The 4th Industrial Revolution or the 1st Empowerment Revolution?

Hilary Sutcliffe



You might have heard, we're at the beginning of a 4th Industrial Revolution. These Industrial Revolutions usually describe with hindsight what technology was invented when and how it changed society. The World Economic Forum is focusing attention on this idea of a 4th Industrial Revolution, lead by Klaus Schwab's book on the subject - which I thought a really interesting book and available free here.


As it was a recurring them at this year's Davos summit, I thought it timely to contribute some thinking which was stimulated by reading Schwab's book and my attendance at last year's World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council meeting (I was on Nanotech Council then and am on Future of Human Rights Council now).  


I am no social anthropologist, so these are just the observations and meanderings which are inspired by my work... and my definition of empowerment is broad and flexible!


The other Industrial Revolutions in technology terms

The 1st IR was when we invented steam engines and railroads and people moved from the country the towns and new machines started to make the stuff we used to make at home.  The 2nd was when we discovered electricity and could produce mass produce our stuff in large quantities cheaply and ship it around the world to new markets.  The 3rd one, the IT revolution, started in our lifetimes when we invented electronics, computing and mobile phones and their accompanying software.  The 4th is going to be about our ‘mastery’ of nature (!) and interconnections between the digital, physical and biological realms - robots and artificial intelligence, driverless cars, new organisms we have created and downloaded from computers and grown in labs and body parts for transplants we print from a machine.  


The rhetoric of the 4th Industrial Revolution reflects a feeling that there is an ‘it’ - technology innovation - which is extrinsic to our control, that if we try hard enough we can grapple with it and wrestle it to the ground and into submission. And it does feel like that sometimes.  These technologies do feel out of our control; it does feel like it’s all being done to us and we’re strapped to a speeding train, trying desperately to figure out whether that’s a light at the end of the tunnel or another big train coming to splat us.


But technologies are just tools, invented by people, for people, (or for money or scientific kudos!).   The solutions they bring with them and the problems they create are all down to people.  Technologies should exist for our advancement, convenience, progress, pleasure and empowerment.  Responsible Innovation, my area of work is about making these tools work better for us all.


So let’s have a look at these industrial revolutions in human terms.


The Industrial Revolutions in empowerment terms?


In the 1st Industrial Revolution large numbers of us moved from the country to the towns.  Work moved from farms and homes to factories and mines and from self-employment to employment by companies.  Life in the countryside was no picnic, we were usually poor, food was scarce, disease common.  Moving to towns with new types of jobs improved things for some; but for others it was worse.  Jobs yes, but tedious or downright dangerous jobs, squalid living conditions for many and the sense of community we had in our country villages had gone.


Entrepreneurship brings empowerment to some

The empowerment mainly stayed with the already well off; but new style entrepreneurs grasped the opportunities brought by these technologies and work and life for many changed dramatically very often for the better.  


The Second IR was characterised by dramatic improvements in communication, transport, production efficiency and the beginnings of mass education. New industries sprung up such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals, transportation and communications. International trade began in earnest.


Women and children become more empowered

As new industries opened up many opportunities for the smart, the enterprising, the savvy and those willing to travel.  But with mechanisation and new production and management methods jobs started to polarise between the low skilled, low paid in areas such as mining, manufacturing, construction and transport and the higher skilled, less hazardous work in managerial and service jobs.  Child labour gradually declined in many countries, and world wars liberated many women from the home and they began to be employed in greater numbers, though many taking up these more menial jobs. 


Empowerment by health and educational improvements

Dramatic improvements in our health, allow us to live longer; electricity, medicines, mass education, communications and two world wars changed our world out of all recognition and created a more empowered and aspirational society.


The 3rd Industrial Revolution, starting in the 1960’s, sees a post-war baby boom; opening up of international trade; cheaper, mass-produced goods; TV; foreign travel; financial services, computing and soon the ubiquitous mobile phone.  Manufacturing jobs transfer from west to east and ‘white collar’ work in offices, shops and services take their place, peopled by a much larger middle class.   Empowerment became associated with grass-roots-led expressions of protest and the growing human rights movement grew, dedicated to the empowerment of us all. 


Empowerment and the 4th IR

The dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution shows the world has shrunk and we are all more connected than ever before.  Now there are more mobile phones in use than there are people, we are talking to each other, watching each other, listening to each other, spying on each other or ignoring each other on some electronic device or other almost 24/7.


The lucky minority feel empowered by technology to have more control over their lives, their work, their leisure.  (Though as the ‘Humanomics’ champion Tomas Sedlacek wryly observes, our past concept of leisure - sitting at a warm nice desk, typing things, having coffees with our friends, travelling about - is what many of us call a job; whilst our leisure is what our ancestors would have called work - gardening, lifting heavy weights, running around jogging, making crafts, growing and making food!), but many of us feel disempowered and disenfranchised by technological breakthroughs we don't understand.


But a growing Technology Justice movement shows that while many of us have benefited by empowering technologies, a large proportion of the planet haven't got access to the technologies of even the 1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions, like roads, electricity or medicines.


Our innovations we have messed up the planet, inequalities are worse than ever, (the worlds richest 7 men (not 8!) are as wealthy as 50% of the world's population combined).   The financial crisis has left many impoverished, automation threatens job displacement on a dramatic scale.  We’re told that we'll soon be immortal, (though only a few will be able to afford to) and soon we will have mastery over nature and will be able to print everything from a spare liver to a TV from a black box in our kitchen (I doubt that for lots of reasons, but we’ll go with the flow here)!   The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer shows us that trust in institutions is at an all time low.


Mass media of all types shows up the differences between the promise of technologies and their reality, and highlights the many disparities between individuals, nations, values, aspirations and realities.  Unsurprisingly, many of us who can, have begun to get less compliant, less respectful of authority, more impatient, angry and restless for change and feeling more empowered to do something about it - though this potential empowerment isn't going down well with those in charge.  


Making technology a force for empowerment


Many of the Industrial Revolutions delivered enslavement for many and empowerment for the few.  This 4th Industrial Revolution shows many signs of going the same way.  But looking at these technologies through an empowerment lens, the 4th IR has a greater potential for real empowerment than all the others, if we create it that way.  So many of these new technologies are, or can be made to be, a source of great empowerment for the many not just the few.


Perhaps we aren’t looking at the 4th Industrial Revolution after all, but The First Empowerment Revolution?   Here are just a few examples of how technologies are or could be used for empowerment:


Access & communications

  • Mobile phones are empowering many in Africa and other developing world economies by bypassing traditional approaches and giving people life-changing access to finance, markets, education, weather forecasts and agricultural services.
  • Improved communications empowers citizens to leave traditional employment and work flexibly, or set up their own small businesses tapping into global markets in services, agriculture, retail, manufacturing and finance.  
  • Communications and new media is increasing transparency and openness; empowering us all to get our voices heard and to hold corrupt individuals, organisations or systems of governance to account.

New business models

  • Technology is inspiring new business models like YouTube, AirBNB and Uber, which set out by empowering the individual to be an entrepreneur - though the broader impacts of this are reverberating in very different ways than envisaged.
  • Crowdsourcing, Bitcoin, alternative currencies, the sharing economy is empowering individuals to bypass the traditional financial system and giving rise to whole new ways of trading and investing. 
  • Blockchain can be used to secure landrights, music and arts rights, traceability of products and disempower the corrupt and the monopolistic minded.


  • 3d printing can empower more of us to be self-sufficient or to be manufacturers, though like the other models the disruption potential of this is immense. 
  • Robotics (which don't have to look just like us!) could reduce our dependency on others and institutional solutions and enabling us to live more empowered lives for a longer time at home or where we would rather be. 
  • New agricultural technologies, linked with IT and accessibility of land rights can be empowering by making better use of the planet’s resources and giving farmers more control over their livelihoods and access to markets.
  • New materials combined with new modes of investment decouples countries and individuals from monopoly energy sources and empowers more flexible, and less damaging, energy generation bringing new options & new opportunities. 


  • The understanding of the genome, behavioural sciences and technological devices can be harnessed to understand mental and physical health effects so much better; tailor medical treatments to individuals, rather than dose us up en masse with unpredictable results, making medicine more empowering for the individual & for society as a whole.
  • Our ability to enhance ourselves through various technological means is a double-edged sword, but used for good it can hugely empower the disadvantaged and disabled to allow them to fully participate in the world their own way. 


The yin and the yang of the 4th IR

Perhaps we are just at the beginning of the Empowerment Revolution, but even with lofty goals, it won’t be without its problems.  “In every act of creation and innovation there exists the potential, also, for our undoing”, we are reminded by Professor Robert Winston in his excellent book Bad Ideas, an arresting history of our inventions.  


But how does this happy-clappy, rose-tinted view of the 4th Industrial Revolution help when these new technologies and systems disrupt economies, destabilise whole market sectors and even countries? 


How does it differ from the old style of economics which says ‘you’re on your own, look after yourself?’  How will it help the millions of workers displaced by automated systems or synthesised materials which used to be mined, manufactured or made? How will a vision, or a mantra of empowerment help make these sometimes scary innovations work for us all without causing more problems than they solve?  


I think it could, and it has to. Because the only thing which will help build the resilience of individuals and economies in the face of all this change is empowerment.   We have to do better than we did before.


We have new knowledge, new networks and the ability to share our learning, stand up for ourselves and bring those to account who still think we’re somewhere in the 2nd Industrial Revolution - when they were in charge and we were enslaved!


Empowerment as an approach to innovation

The catalyst for this Empowerment Revolution must be a new approach to policy, research and industry strategy.  People have many different names and ideas for these new approaches to economics, technology and governance, but empowerment needs to be at the heart of them all.


Could the concept of The Empowerment Revolution be a framing to help focus action around the great challenges, like migration, poverty alleviation, ageing, food security and sustainable energy?


Could it underpin new approaches and frameworks for governance and regulation?  Our vision of involving stakeholders in the whole innovation and governance process empowers different values sets, different opinions and new ways of looking at the world.


It can certainly help us consider what sort of technology innovation we don’t want - disempowering innovation, which harms people and the planet. 


A collaborative approach to innovation and life?

Technology might feel out of control, but does it have to be?  These technologies, gadgets, bits of software, chemicals, medicines and the rest, are all in someone’s control.  They are funded by public and private money by people; developed by people in labs; made by people in factories, offices or in their back bedrooms; governed by people and usually bought by people in on or offline.  There are many times and places where we can ask ‘hang on, do we want it to be like this’?  


So instead of the speeding train analogy, we could find some more empowering analogies of our own.  Leading innovation thinker Don Tapscott (see his excellent TED talk here) urges us to take inspiration from a ‘murmuration’ of starlings.

Starlings cluster together in their thousands to seek food, scare off predators, anticipate danger and just for the fun of it.  It’s a huge collaboration, sharing knowledge, ideas and interdependence, understanding that their interest is inextricably linked to each other.  They fly within inches of each other for hours on end and there has never been an accident.


Technology at the heart of an Empowerment Revolution could help us to work more like starlings - inclusively, collaboratively and wisely - considering more carefully the wider impacts of what we create.  


It could be argued that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is a demonstration that people power really works, that people can change things if they take a stand.  I think it probably is.  We have much more power than we think, with the technologies of the 4th IR we have the capability to wield it for the common good, as well as our own betterment and prosperity.