Here in Britain, we often refer to the Industrial Revolution as a one-off event. Many people assume this term describes the mechanisation of mills and factories, yet this was just the first of three industrial revolutions to sweep the country since Victorian times. The second involved the widespread adoption of electricity in our homes and workplaces, while the third took place from the mid-20th century onwards as electronics and IT began digitising everything from manufacturing to media output.
The Fourth Estate
Some of the world’s leading economists and analysts believe we are now standing on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution. By fusing the biological, physical and digital worlds, society and infrastructure will change beyond recognition within a couple of decades. While the first industrial revolution saw the inception and development of mill towns and a workforce of skilled manual labourers, the fourth will transform everything from mankind’s impact on the planet to how financial transactions take place. And while the third revolved around computers digitising previously analogue data, the fourth involves combining multiple digital platforms to best effect.
So how can we capitalise on the impending fourth industrial revolution? The first step is simply to acknowledge it. Viewed in isolation, inventions like Alexa, Nest and Android Auto seem unremarkable. Yet collectively, they herald the greatest shift in communications since the internet was devised – and that was a much slower evolution than today’s headlong sprint towards intelligent chatbots. As linear change gives way to exponential development, the speed of digital advancement is matched only by the effect it could have on every aspect of our lives.
Technology has already given us augmented reality games, self-driving vehicles and domestic appliances controllable from anywhere in the world. The impact of forthcoming technologies is hard to quantify, but while previous revolutions focused on large-scale implementation, this latest one is all about personal interaction. Each of the examples above is designed to improve individual lives rather than benefit big business. Chatbots are a prime example of this, responding to individual enquiries and handling mundane tasks on our behalf.
It’s also crucial to acknowledge the importance of the cloud, and the potential of an always-on internet. The forthcoming 5G network needs to provide speed and dependability currently lacking from today’s patchy 4G network. Similarly, Li-Fi is predicted to eradicate the limitations of wifi, with each property’s electricity grid distributing connectivity to lightbulbs that transmit data by cycling on and off rapidly. As well as being a hundred times faster than modern routers and home hubs, Li-Fi won’t be affected by walls. Nor will it conflict with electrical networks in planes and hospitals, making it suitable for use everywhere.
As the planet struggles to cope with an expanding human population, the fourth industrial revolution will see public and private sector investment in environmental solutions. Companies are likely to receive generous funding if they’re developing hydroponic systems for cultivating food indoors, or developing plant-based meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger. From biodegradable materials capable of replacing plastic to washing machines that use magnetism instead of water, western societies are desperate for technological solutions to historically wasteful processes.
A Computer in Every Home
Perhaps the most significant area for startups and entrepreneurs involves software as a service. SaaS will become even more prevalent in the 2020s as people embrace on-demand media content and cloud-hosted communications. Landlines should cede further ground to mobile phones, and encrypted voice-dictated instant messaging could replace text messages entirely. Companies focusing on media provision and personal communications are likely to be among the fourth industrial revolution’s leading beneficiaries.