Professor R. N. Lanyon-Hogg CEng FBCS CITP reveals how the 4th industrial revolution has a key role to play in the journey towards a zero-carbon future, but sounds a cautious note about the many challenges ahead - and that there is little time to address these problems.

To be sustainable implies that our actions are in balance with the environment in which we live. It is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future. Sustainability, in its broadest context, comprises not only the environment but it also embraces social and economic factors.

There is a delusion that we can simply scale up the renewables programme and, coupled with energy efficiency and some planetary engineering, we’ll reach a zero-carbon future. I personally feel that the laws of physics and simple arithmetic will work against this simple outlook.

Recent reports from the Committee on Climate Change indicate that we need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero by 2050; this will require a minor revolution in how we drive, eat, fly and heat our homes. The committee further envisages that 60% of our emissions will require a degree of change hard for any of us to ignore. With the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the good news is that this shift is technically feasible; people’s attitudes and support of technology have improved, so perhaps it’s now time for our politicians and legislature to make this possible.

However, real change requires experts to collaborate. As science advances and problems grow more complex, and as we increasingly live in a world of specialists, scientific and material progress; utilising 4IR towards a zero-carbon future demands complex collaboration. Yet, a practical problem remains: how do you reconcile technical expertise with the demands of policy and politics?

It is not enough to give political influence to a physicist, an engineer or economist: the corridors of power must ring to the sound of scientific informed debate. Good policy making is now a team effort of differing perspectives and ranges of specialist expertise.

Revolutions and consequences

Big cities, big data. Cities are becoming the graveyards of tech junk that no one could find a business case for. Many tech start-ups are focusing on smarter cities, the business model is one of ‘subsidise early users, achieve a dominant market position and then ramp up prices to create big profits’; this model has now backfired. Technology is often too hyped – real innovation happens beyond the engineering. We should ask: how does technology connect with people, institutions and our routines?

Rampant acceleration of eye-catching smart technology leaves little room for companies to design disassembly into their products. In China, some 77 companies supplied 23m bikes by 2017; many of which have failed. Beyond the colossal pile of rejected bicycle wheels and frames, consider the amount of basic IoT boards and supporting arrays of sensors and actuators. All are now discarded.

So, has ‘business as usual’ recycling failed? Has it become an excuse for companies to avoid designing disassembly into their products and services? Given that 4IR offers the future prospect of acceleration in the design for disassembly, recycling is currently promoted as the answer to our growing mountain of trash – but the trade is now in crisis after China closed its door to the world’s waste.

This decision has exposed a system plagued by pollution and fraud. The world has produced more than 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste since the 1950s, making plastic one of the largest manmade materials on the planet, behind steel and cement. Of that volume, more than half was produced in the last 16 years amid a global boom in single-use disposable plastic.

A systemic change is required if society and companies are to break the linear pattern of consumption of material which has become the norm: taking resources from the natural world, using them and disposing of them. 4IR offers the opportunity to move towards a more circular economy, which should enable the reusing of resources rather than the consumption of them. 4IR could allow us to reimagine the past: no single use items - mend and make do. After all, previous generations did just that and survived!

Mental and physical health

In reflecting upon the consequences beyond material sustainability, societal sustainability should not be ignored. Income inequality affects our mental health. Over the past decade, there have been a number of publications with thought provoking data on mental health. According to the World Health Organisation, in developed economies, between 10 and 25% of the population have (or are) suffering from mental stress. Why?

An anthropologist might attribute this to different cultural concepts of individualism, happiness and self-expression. An economist might point to differing commercial incentives. But there’s possibly another hypothesis: unequal societies are not just more physically sick, but are psychologically affected, too.

Reports now suggest that developed populations suffer more from issues ranging from chronic stress, anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and addiction. WHO and Lancet Psychiatry report that the deterioration in mental health in unequal countries not only affects the poor but the rich, too. Despite unprecedented levels of physical comfort, we appear to suffer a huge burden of unhappiness and mental illness.

But how does this correlate to 4IR? There is a view in some developed countries that income inequality is a benefit insofar as it spurs competition, innovation and progress. However, there is growing discourse across society that solutions should be found to tackle the problem: the political right calls from stronger community ties; the left seeks economic distribution. The debates serve as a useful reminder, that as the pace of 4IR accelerates, it’s important that those advocating these new technologies and ways of working and engaging, recognise that the inequality debate is about more than just money.

Governance and oversight

75 years ago, governments met from around the world to create a framework for regulating the international monetary system. The IMF and World Bank were founded to enable a restarting of the global economy.

Governance and oversight were essential to ensure the proper monitoring of money and its movement. With the internet and the new digital economy, is it not time for policy makers to learn from the lessons of financial history and accelerate a mechanism for global coordination of the digital world?

With 4IR, who can individuals, society and companies rely upon to ensure that data is kept flowing around the internet in the face of geopolitical tensions and cyber terrorism? Presently, there is no global institution responsible for setting and enabling governance.

Given it is the large tech companies that have monopoly over data, future innovation is potentially at risk of being hampered. Needed now is a sense of common purpose across all governments to ensure that the movement of data, which now drives the global economy as much as finance, is not fragmented.

4IR is an environmental, societal and economic revolution

Most predictions about the coming impact on our lives of technology, machine learning and big data turn into a crystal ball fest.

The building blocks to the disruptive plays that are in motion are open, not proprietary. 4IR is an increasingly broad range of both hard and soft innovative capabilities. 4IR will disrupt many a business model; organisations must prepare to disrupt or be disrupted.

Both individuals and companies will struggle with uncertainty and the fear of not knowing. What is known is that eco-systems continue to form, providing technology platforms which link people and companies together: assemblers, manufacturers and designers; transforming how business is organised. Is anything now ‘made in Britain’ or ‘made in China’?

With 4IR, consider everything to be ‘made on the internet’. Economic activity has now moved on from an interaction between land, labour and capital.

Technology is as much an enabler as capital; collaboration and sharing dramatically alter the meaning of labour; big data coupled with cloud and machine learning are the new factors of production.

4IR is the modern economy, a trinity of platform, sharing and the micro-economy. It is doing for manufacturing (in fact for all sectors) what Amazon did for shopping. The implications are truly astonishing.

It forces us to rethink how companies will manage their supply chains, how people develop and exploit their ideas, how companies and people procure goods and services, and what governs the relationship between all these parties.

Driving change through awareness

Climate and environmental scientists recently authored a report issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In summary, the authors state that urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to keep the global rise in temperatures between 1.5 and 2°C, with warnings that there are only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C.

The language is changing: the talk is no longer climate change but climate crisis - impacts are already being felt here in the UK. It is reported that the town of Fairbourne in Gwynedd is to be abandoned by 2040, due to rising sea levels and storm surges. One tenth of the world’s population live in coastal areas and are already being affected by thermal mass expansion and changing weather patterns. This is a particular problem, as many of the world’s manufacturing facilities are located near seas or rivers.

Our relationship with the world’s resources has deteriorated. This recognition across parts of society has begun to drive change, whether that be through legislation, choice, or corporate behaviour. However, companies will have to rapidly adapt to the accelerating unfolding landscape; this will be a major catalyst in the move towards a 4IR world. This then will probably be the catalyst to the barriers of organisational architecture being overcome.

Disruption describes what happens when firms fail because they keep making the kinds of choices that made them successful. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School told a compelling story back in 1997 about how new technologies creep up from below: they are initially flawed or underdeveloped, so do not appeal at first. However, as these new technologies do find customers with unusual needs previously unserved by the incumbent players and improve, incumbents discover that an upstart challenger suddenly has several years’ head start – and their customer base.

This theory fits many situations, except when organisations aren’t caught by surprise. They know what the future looks like and they knew ahead of everyone else, but they were unable to put together the right response. Kodak, Blockbuster video, Comet and Nokia, along with many others are now textbook studies for MBA students. Legacy organisations are rapidly becoming aware that the pace of technological change is not the issue, it’s the fact that their organisational structures have ceased to be an advantage. Adapt or be disrupted.

What of the future?

Some fear that technologies like AI and robots will destroy jobs. People will be replaced by machines that are, in some cases, smarter than them.

Whilst some jobs will be replaced by machines, employment will not be. History of previous industrial revolutions demonstrates that emerging technology creates as many new jobs as it destroys, with many of those jobs not yet conceived.

Again, the history of new technologies shows us that a period of strong rising productivity and prosperity is unleashed, and with each era of new technology the benefits accelerate.

However, predicting when the explosion of 4IR technologies will radically reshape the world around us probably requires a renewed understanding of what productivity is.

We are just at the start of a data-driven transformation of society and there is little we can do to stop it. The developments in the field of AI, such as the uncoupling of intelligence from consciousness, are moving so fast that it’s impossible to imagine what the future might hold. Who will ‘we’ be anymore; surely more than an accumulation of information points?

So how might we tackle the sustainability of 4IR? Some eight decades ago, the American educationalist Abraham Flexner published an essay called ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’. In it, he suggested that the most powerful intellectual and technological breakthroughs usually emerge from research that initially appeared to be ‘useless’ - without much relevance to real life.

He further argued that these ‘useless’ endeavours should be supported, even if they did not produce an immediate payback, because otherwise the next wave of innovation would simply not occur. Flexner wrote: ‘Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon and Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered’.

As we explore how we make 4IR more sustainable, it is a powerful point to ponder, especially given the financial austerity and requirements of an immediate payback within many organisations. All of this makes it understandably hard to justify spending on ‘frivolous’ research. The management theories of blue-sky thinking and serendipity are under threat, but if we are to make the necessary breakthroughs in 4IR sustainability, we need everyone to swim against the tide and engage in what may be viewed as seemingly undirected research.

To conclude, if we are to move to a more sustainable 4IR future, time is not our friend. Good ideas may percolate slowly but we mustn’t allow ourselves to squander the wisdom of the past. The status quo is comfortable for those who perceive they have control.

We cannot allow ourselves to become less dynamic, allowing ourselves to be in a position where we don’t explore new ideas willingly. If the sustainability of 4IR is only grasped at in desperation and only when we have no choice, it will be too late.

We know what has been gained from technology; let us not lose what we and previous generations have enjoyed. More importantly, let us not forget what may be lost.

Creating real sustainable change

Tech research company Gartner predicts there will be 20.8bn devices on the IoT by 2020 - ABI Research estimation puts it closer to 40b. The digitisation of our clothes is a marked step beyond the smart connection of home appliances and the smart connection of our towns, cities and factories.

The challenge is to strike a balance between providing what users, customers and companies want, (e.g. a meaningful experience) and maintaining a firm, transparent grip on the sustainability of the things produced and consumed. So perhaps the way ahead is a renewed period of ‘enlightenment’ to accelerate the development of new economic ideas.

History never repeats itself, but it does serve as a reminder that the recent past may not be as novel as we like to think. In 1784, in the Turk’s Head Tavern, London, a group simply known as The Club were drawn from across the artistic, literary, academic and political communities.

Members ranged from moral and political thinkers such as Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, historians such as Edward Gibbon, to artists such as Joshua Reynolds and dramatists including Richard Sheridan and David Garrick. At the centre of The Club was the literary giant Samuel Johnson and the man who immortalised his words of wisdom, James Boswell.

At its heart it was an ‘atmosphere of relaxed thoughtfulness’ which ultimately shaped lives through thought and conversation. Perhaps we need a renewed period of ‘enlightenment’, with people gathering all over Britain’s industrial landscape inspired by the belief that broad thinking and discussion is an indispensable way to tackle the urgent sustainability challenges which are upon us.

Professor R. N Lanyon-Hogg CEng, FIET, FBCS, CITP is a Visiting Professor, Dept of Computer Science, University of Sheffield.

This article was inspired by discussions held with other committee members of the BCS’ Green IT Specialist Group, IMG staff at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, The Financial Times and Sunday Times articles.