Sara Turner 29 March 2017

4IR is coming. Are you ready? Oh, not sure what that stands for? Let me explain.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (dubbed 4IR) is characterised by advancements in digital infrastructure, automation and the analytics potential created by big data. The Internet of Things – machines talking to each other – is just one example of this change that we are currently living through.

Samsung’s new smart fridge is an example of what we might expect. Internal cameras in the Samsung Family Hub Fridge Freezer let you see inside even when you’re not at home, via an app on your phone. You can also watch TV or listen to radio through it, and connect it up to smart sound multi-room speakers. Future incarnations could well give you recipe ideas depending on what is inside.

While this particular smart fridge currently retails at a cool £4,500, in the future connected fridges may be commonplace and affordable, as well as smart sofas, smart beds and smart toilets. The technology is developing at a rapid pace and analyst Gartner predicts there will be more than 26 billion connected devices by 2020.

So, if we are in the middle of revolution 4, what were revolutions 1, 2 and 3?

The First Industrial Revolution is generally thought of as humans’ shift away from being reliant on animals, human effort and biomass as the main sources of energy. With the use of fossil fuels, mechanical power became a reality. The Second Industrial Revolution was brought about by a widened distribution of electricity and new communication channels such as radio and the telephone. The Third Industrial Revolution came in the 1950s, with rapid advances in computing power.

So, now you know the background. Good. But why should you care?

4IR is something every business, organisation and, well, person should be aware of. It is, after all about the deepening of relationships between people and technology.

Technology will continue to play a more integral role in our day-to-day lives, helping us with chores around the house, taking on manual tasks our flesh and bone bodies just aren’t suited to, and managing our use of finite things such as fuel, electricity and milk.

This is a process that is not going to be without upset. As human beings we’re wired to find change a little intimidating. But it won’t happen overnight.

Change takes time, after all. Literally, in some cases. Greenwich Mean Time, now the standard time across the UK, only became the legal measure in 1880 with the passing of the Definition of Time Act. Until then local time-keeping ruled.

Local time tracks the sun’s position in the sky – noon or midday is the time when the sun is highest in the sky and this differs by location. In Oxford, for example, the sun hits its peak point five minutes later than in London, while Exeter is a full 14 minutes behind.

For this reason, still to this day the clock on the Exchange building in Bristol, home to St Nicholas Market, has two minute hands – one to show local time, the other 10 minutes ahead to show London time.

Just as we can never imagine a time without time, or mobile phones, the internet and kettles, there will likely come a point when we couldn’t possibly live without a talking fridge reminding us of our daily calorie intake and ordering in fresh milk and butter when supplies run low.

Communicating the value of new technology at the time of its inception has always been tricky, however, and divisive.

Returning to the local vs standard time example, a vote in Chicago saw half of city dwellers reject a move to join the time for their region. This meant that Chicago only agreed to adopt its standard time in 1905.

More than a century later and similar divisions are evident in people’s opinion of the digital economy. Many fear robots are stealing jobs; others are falling in love with them for the potential improvements they bring.

It is in this context that we should be analysing some of the major business developments of our time. Disputes between Uber and its drivers around the gig economy, for example, demonstrates the seismic shifts inherent in embracing all things digital. If we were all self-employed, accessing work via an app, what happens with pensions? Parental leave? And who pays the taxes that pay for the NHS?

Philip Hammond’s inaugural Spring Statement should also be viewed with some 4IR perspective, given his announcement of plans to reduce the tax differential between the self-employed and employed by changing national insurance contribution requirements, among other things.

The government’s recently announced digital strategy should also be read with this in mind. No, it’s not just about text speak and happy apps, it’s about what our economy looks like in the future. To be a world-leading digital economy, as the strategy outlines, the UK needs people with digital skills. There is even a new All Parliamentary Group on 4IR led by Alan Mak, a vocal supporter of the potential for the UK to be the leader of the revolution.

So, it’s important. But what should businesses be doing to prepare for 4IR?

Firstly, encourage everyone within the business to develop digital skills. This is easy to do, requiring relatively little investment beyond time. Google, for example, offers a free training programme called the Digital Garage, accessible by anyone with a computer.

Secondly, communicate loudly and clearly that 4IR shouldn’t be feared. Rather, it should be viewed as an opportunity. As with any change, over communicating is key. Stakeholders will want to see organisations engaging with 4IR, testing what it means for them and their industries.

Thirdly, recognise challenges as they arise. Be honest in your communications. Speak clearly about what the digital economy can offer, but also bumps in the road that will need to be overcome.

A change is coming. Get on board. Perception is everything in business, so to show that you are tech savvy, digital first and, well, not a dinosaur, it’s time to start engaging with the revolution.