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The 4th Industrial Revolution

By Steve Fowler MIIRSM 

Smart dust

Wireless devices as small as a grain of salt - surely that's science fiction? In the same way that Star Trek ‘communicators’ from the 1970s TV show, have become today's mobile phones, these devices have become today's science fact.

So-called ‘smart dust’, comprised of millions of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), are here and are real. MEMS can detect everything from light to vibrations and temperature, using sensors, cameras and communication systems to collect and transmit data, all powered by an integral micro power supply.

With an incredible amount of power, in such a small size, these devices can stay suspended in an environment, just like a particle of dust.

Smart dust's capability to collect a lot of information in incredible detail could transform areas from safety to productivity. It’s like multiplying internet of things (IoT) technology many billions of times over – and as a society, we are only just getting to grips with the power of the IoT itself.

Some of the ways it might be used include:

  • Spotting machinery corrosion early to pre-empt system failure and facilitate more timely maintenance.
  • Monitoring crops to calculate watering and pest-control needs.
  • Monitoring of people or products for security purposes.

These and similar uses raise real concerns about wide-scale adoption of smart dust. These include;

  • Privacy: since smart dust devices are miniature sensors they can record anything that they are programmed for. As they are so small, they are difficult to detect. What would happen if they fell into the wrong hands?
  • Retrieval: once lots of smart dust devices are regular use, it would be difficult or probably impossible to retrieve them. Given there tiny size, it would be challenging to detect them if you didn't know they were there.
  • As with any new technology, the cost to implement a smart dust system, including the necessary communications infrastructure, is currently huge. Until costs come down, it will be technology out of reach for most.

Smart dust is just one example of a disruptive technology that potentially will change not just the way we work, but the very nature of work itself.

How is technology changing your business?

New technologies, such as smart dust, have long been a force for business change. Technologies have made processes faster, more consistent and more efficient. Today, however, they are completely altering the business landscape, by integrating businesses, simplifying routes to markets and revolutionising the use of data, through use of artificial intelligence.

We stand on the edge of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live and work. Its scale, scope, and complexity will be unlike anything we have experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive.

The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, and is characterized by a fusion of technologies, blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological worlds.

As a result, value created in businesses over the last decade is far more likely to be found in intangible assets such as vision, reputation, brand and intellectual property, than in bricks and mortar. A study suggested that over 82% of Fortune 500 companies' value now resides in intangible assets.

These trends are hugely exciting, opening up new possibilities and sources of profit. However, keeping up to date, and managing the new types of assets and the catastrophic impacts that they are vulnerable to, are daunting challenges.

Risk Implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Businesses must ensure that their risk management is keeping pace with the fourth industrial revolution. Boardrooms which focus just on traditional operational risks, or on the upside of the new business landscape, are failing to identify who is responsible for the development and protection of new sources of value and the assets they create, such as data. Lack of care with personal data has eroded trust in business, leading to Europe’s GDPR regulations.

Developing clear roles, responsibilities and connected ways of working have become even more core to organisations of all kinds.

Ensuring use of a common language, enabling technologists, risk professionals and other business professionals to understand and challenge each other, also really matters.

And, it’s also even more vital to use your networks and your ‘risk radar’, to look at trends, changes, opportunities and threats. Ask what they mean for your business and constantly challenge your purpose and strategy through the eyes of your stakeholders. Are you and your organisation still relevant?

The speed of current breakthroughs has no precedent. Compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every job in every industry in every country. This has an impact on leaders’ ability to keep up too.

Many leaders still continue to focus more on using advanced technologies to protect their own positions than on making necessary bold changes to drive disruption. Whilst some are seeing payoffs from their use of technology, others are finding it difficult to move forward. Challenges include being too focused on short-term results, not fully understanding the technologies, and too many choices.

The skills challenge has thus become clear. Unless this is addressed, decimation of today’s job market will continue, making a predicted one in six jobs* obsolete, leading to disruption, displacement and dismay amongst those ‘left behind’.

*’ The Globotics Revolution’, Richard Baldwin, 2019

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