The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Shaping A New Era

Thomas Philbeck
Nicholas Davis
January 22, 2019

Framing the Idea of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

In January 2016, World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman, Klaus Schwab, published a book titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Since then, the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) has been used to frame and analyze the impact of emerging technologies on nearly the entire gamut of human development in the early 21st century, from evolving social norms and national political attitudes to economic development and international relations.

The concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution affirms that technological change is a driver of transformation relevant to all industries and parts of society. Furthermore, it highlights the idea that, at certain stages in history, sets of technologies emerge and combine in ways that have impacts far beyond incremental increases in efficiency. Industrial revolutions are revolutions in the systems that surround us, step changes in the complex interplay between humans and technology, and transformations that result in new ways of perceiving, acting, and being.

The idea of 4IR is often taken to be a synonym of “Industry 4.0,” an initiative that emerged in Germany between 2011 and 2015, focusing on the application of digital technologies to manufacturing.i These two terms are not unrelated, but they describe different things. Industry 4.0 is an important component within the larger framing of 4IR with its narrower, vital focus on the relationship between digitization, organizational transformation, and productivity enhancement in manufacturing and production systems.

Fundamentally, 4IR represents a series of significant shifts in the way that economic, political, and social value is being created, exchanged, and distributed. These shifts in values are intimately related to the emergence of new technologies that span the digital, physical, and biological worlds, and they are most powerful when they combine and reinforce one another. In the contemporary technological culture that is spreading across the globe, 4IR represents what Sheila Jasanoff would term a “sociotechnological imaginary.”1 The concept focuses attention on the present by invoking society’s experiences of the past and its visions of potential futures. By drawing on language linked to both economic history and political change, 4IR highlights the importance of ongoing and prospective changes in markets, information flows, employment trends, environmental outcomes, and shifts in the balance of global power.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution Versus the Digital Revolution

The ordinal prefix “fourth” is important because this revolution is intended to drive strategic dialogue beyond the digital revolution, which has been described by others as a transition from an industrial to an information age, or more clearly identified as the Third Industrial Revolution predicated upon digital information technologies.2,3 The Fourth Industrial Revolution builds upon the rapid exchange of information made possible by the data-centric foundations of the Third Industrial Revolution’s digital technologies, which in turn relied on the electricity and telecommunication systems at the heart of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The layering of dependencies matters because it shows that 4IR is best suited to examining technologies and systems that take the digital world for granted. Today, the combination of powerful machine-learning algorithms, low-cost sensors, and advanced actuators are allowing technologies to be seamlessly embedded into our physical environment. Furthermore, when combined with advanced imaging, signal processing, and gene-editing approaches, they have the potential to influence our physiological condition and cognitive faculties. Digital technologies are part of the fabric of daily life and, as they give rise to a new layer of physical and biological technologies, it is paramount to consider the ways that newer technologies emerging atop them are extending capabilities beyond the immediate functionality of being able to transmit, store, and process exponentially greater amounts of data.

This is not to say that 4IR is an entirely “post-digital” revolution. Instead, it is perhaps better conceptualized as an “epi-digital” revolution where the technologies we see driving change are forming a fertile layer of innovation resting upon digital foundations. These technologies, robotics, advanced materials, genetic modifications, the Internet of Things, drones, neurotechnologies, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and machine vision, are becoming more integrated into our physical, social, and political spaces, altering behaviors, relationships, and meaning.ii The outcomes of ongoing research, development, and commercialization—and the adoption of emerging technologies are relevant far beyond the products that make our lives easier—reflect a fundamental set of shifts in human identity and a restructuring of the ways in which we experience the world.

A Very Brief History of Industrial Revolutions

Industrial revolutions are more than simply eras wherein new technologies are developed and introduced. Rather, they are times of technological change that have a particular set of characteristics that are connected to, and contemporaneous with, broader social transformation. They lead to changes that go beyond discreet technological capabilities and, instead, shift entire systems of power.

The First Industrial Revolution, which first emerged in the United Kingdom in the 18th century, brought with it both steam power and factory politics, as women were pushed out of manufacturing roles in favor of a male-dominated workplace culture. The combination of steam power and mechanized production created a step change in output. This dynamic increase in capacity and productivity led to urbanization, the growth of regional and global market economies, the relevance of democratic governments, and a rising middle class in the western hemisphere.4 It inspired scientific and technical pursuits and the revision of academic fields. It brought new forms of literature and, as state-funded science was not the norm, stimulated entrepreneurial endeavors to spur further breakthroughs and gain new insights into emerging disciplines.

The Second industrial Revolution, which Vaclav Smil has persuasively dated between 1867 and 1914, is a subsequent wave of systems change that coalesced around the modern belief that science and technology are the way forward to a better life and that progress is in many ways a destiny for humanity.5,6 Entrepreneurs applied science to the ends of production, and the era saw a boon of products that were themselves the direct products of science and engineering.iii,iv The revolution brought a step change in standardization, technical complexity, and precision in manufacturing, as well as large-scale technological infrastructure such as electricity grids and new forms of public transportation based on the internal combustion engine. Alongside innovations such as the steamship, the telephone, the gas turbine, artificial fertilizer, and mass production, a much more mobile and cognizant international public was developing a desire for goods, travel, and perhaps most importantly for the next industrial revolution, information.

The Third Industrial Revolution, which began in earnest following the Second World War, brought a step change in information theory and the power of data. It bloomed alongside the discovery of the double helix, the space race, and the development of nuclear power. It shaped a post-war world that needed new economic structures and that had shifting conceptions of the human place in the cosmos, the natural world, and the political order. It also connected the planet’s societies through infrastructure and applications, creating new flows of information sharing that continue to shape values, knowledge, and culture. Governments and businesses recognized the power of computers for performing complex calculations and, eventually, for general-purpose use. Rapid progress toward increasing computational power led to a more interconnected and complex world in many ways and is still driving change across sectors and regions at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, just as the continuing spread of electricity access is still bringing the benefits of the Second industrial Revolution to communities around the world.

Like the industrial revolutions before it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings incredible opportunities for individuals, industries, and nations. Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and the potential of quantum computing promise the better optimization of systems. Distributed ledger technologies—for instance, blockchain—are demonstrating utility far beyond the emergence of cryptocurrencies, such as the provision of secure, digital identification, managing fraud and externalities in value chains, and creating greater transparency in government procurement.7 Neurotechnologies are advancing quickly and may soon augment human cognitive and physical capabilities in ways that were pure science fiction only a decade ago, while faster and more durable approaches to multidimensional printing will bring personalized, unique, and essential objects and structures into daily,vii

Deploying the Fourth Industrial Revolution in International Relations

Both the term and the concept of 4IR are not especially academic in nature. Historians and cultural anthropologists will have the ultimate responsibility for establishing and supporting frameworks for how we regard history and societal development. The phrase and concept do, however, co-opt the loose history presented above into a cohesive and practically employable mental model and umbrella concept that contextualizes and posits that the current set of transformations have similar attributes to past industrial revolutions.

The power of language to name phenomena is to make them comprehensible, and by doing so, to catalyze action. The concept of 4IR is meant to help individuals and organizations make sense of the interplay between humans and technology at a time when advances in computing power, biotechnologies, artificial 

intelligence, renewable energies, additive manufacturing, and many other emerging technologies threaten to overwhelm us with complexity. From autonomous vehicles to biologically engineered humans, the new era will bring technical and ethical challenges to sectors, stakeholder groups, and social norms.

Therefore, the important work with regard to 4IR is not around defining it further, but rather understanding and shaping its impact. In so doing, four principles can be brought to bear on discussions that link emerging technologies to international relations:

The first is to focus on systems, rather than technologies. While artificial intelligence and blockchain remain the topics du jour, the important discussion is how to govern these technologies as part of broader systems, not as individual capabilities. This requires both a level of “minimum viable understanding” of complex, fast-moving topics as well as a willingness to examine the high-level social and political impacts of future systems.

The second is to focus on ensuring that emerging technologies truly empower, rather than direct, citizens. Business models built around the manipulation of behavior at scale are, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, intrinsically at odds with individual values of liberty and concepts of national sovereignty.8

The third is to act collectively by design, not by default. We are still at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which means that the norms, standards, infrastructure, regulations, and business models that will define the future are still emerging. Such critical decisions about the future of our economies, political systems, and societies must be deliberated and shared by a wide range of responsible stakeholders, including governments, industries, and interest groups.

The fourth is to think of values and ethics as an important feature, not as a nuisance, of technological systems. Technologies are not, and never have been, mere tools. There is no such thing as a bias-free system, and technologies influence through the biases they encode, both implicitly and explicitly. They embody the values of their designers and both reflect and constrain the desires of their users. The ethics of technology must be considered at all stages of its development and implementation. Doing so should be seen as practical, accessible, and essential to creating the technological future we want.

These four principles are deliberately normative. The concept of 4IR is not— and should not be—just an attempt to describe the past, present, or future. It is a tool to think deeply about the dynamics, values, stakeholders, and technologies of a world that is changing rapidly, and drive collective action within and across nation states in a way that results in a more inclusive, fair, and prosperous future.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution builds on top of the third, and new technologies emerge, taking advantage of the global digital infrastructure to scale, there will be myriad new ways to realize our visions of the future. The digital world is becoming an invisible fabric—taken for granted—and the disruptive attributes of a new world, dependent on cyber-physical systems, will require new ways of thinking about technologies, thinking about ourselves, and thinking about how we govern collaboratively, wisely, and with the flourishing of humankind in mind.

Dr. Thomas Philbeck is Head of Technology, Society, and Policy at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. He works at the intersection of technology, society, business, and philosophy, and helps the World Economic Forum shape a values-based, human-centered approach to emerging technologies. Before joining the Forum, he served as assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for the New York Institute of Technology where his academic focus was the philosophy of technology. He has published work on post- and transhumanism, ontology, technology and ethics, artificial intelligence, and technological unemployment. He brings a global perspective to these critical topics, having lived and worked in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, and India.

Nicholas Davis is Head of Society and Innovation and a member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. Nicholas leads the Forum’s work on The Fourth Industrial Revolution, focusing on how emerging technologies are transforming industries, labor markets, societies, and governments, and how they can be used to create a human-centered future. With Klaus Schwab he is the co-author of Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution (2018). Nick is also an Associate Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, an Adjunct Professor at Swinburne University, and a member of the Advisory Board at the European Innovation Management Academy.



i The discussion of a new industrial revolution in the European context was initially associated with new digital technologies and their applications for growth and production, thus Industry 4.0. The expansive concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes into account a wider set of related and connected issues and technologies as, strictly speaking, Industry 4.0 is focused on the impact of a particular sector and not on wider economic, political and social systems. In effect, both stem from the same insight, but one has a narrower focus than the other. See European Parliament Brief, “Industry 4.0 Digitalisation for productivity and growth” (2015), http://www.europarl., and German Government website:

ii For a more explicit breakdown of the technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, see Klaus Schwab and Nicholas Davis, Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (New York: Crown Publishing: 2018).

iii For example, Frederick Taylor, with whom Taylorism is associated, outlined his perspectives on management in a text entitled The Principles of Scientific Management, and saw management as a science in itself with a purpose toward improving efficiencies and productivity.

iv Examples include electricity production, the lightbulb, telephony, radio, television, the gasoline powered engine, chemical weapons, flight, antibiotics, the Haber-Bosch synthesis process, etc.

v This period saw a range of massive influences on the human lifeworld, from the splitting of the fundamental building blocks of nature, to proof of our shared genetic heritage with all life on Earth, to human beings walking on the moon, the Cold War, and the potential for global destruction.

vi Neurotech’s coming impact is a daily headline. See, for example, “Using Thought to Control Machines,” The Economist, 4 January 2018.

vii One example of 3-D printing for a public space is the Amsterdam bridge:, while a life-changing list of 3-D printed prosthetics can be found at:

1 Sheila Jasanoff, Dreamscapes of Modernity (London: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

2 Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (Bantam Books: 1980).

3 Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution (New York: Crown Publishing, 2016).

4 C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).

5 Vaclav Smil, Creating the 20th Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-2014 and Their Lasting Impact (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

6 Thomas Hughes, “Technology as Second Creation,” Human Built World (London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 17-43.

7 Carlos Santiso, “Can blockchain help in the fight against corruption?,” World Economic Forum on Latin America, 12 March 2018,

8 Interview: Jaron Lanier’s 10 reasons why you should delete your social media accounts right now, The Times, 20 May 2018.