For the first time in history, a major industrial change is taking place in parallel with a global push towards a shared vision of the future. The 4th industrial revolution can be harnessed to address global development goals
How can Europe make the most of the technology changes that are afoot?
I would share some of the views of Professor Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum: these are, potentially, the best and worst of times. We have lots of technology but we are not having the conversations with the public about how innovations might affect our lives. There is not enough attention to the potential risks nor to the many positives that technologies can bring.
Past industrial revolutions spurred growth but had environmental and other downsides. How can this revolution be better managed?
One of the reasons we are lucky to be embarking on this work now is that we know what we want the 4th industrial revolution to be for. Last year, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed. The SDGs ask every country in the world to play their part to reduce poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This is an unprecedented global consensus for what we want our future to look like. The first thing to do when someone says they have a new industrial or technological revolution for you is to ask them to explain how it will help the SDGs.
Does this require a new way for countries and companies to think about their own priorities?
Yes, responsible research is a requirement now and we’re seeing it from top companies like Dow, which has mapped their innovative activities against the SDGs. Not everyone is at the same level but growing numbers of corporate actors are producing very clear maps for the future which link into the SDGs. Some countries are doing it too – Denmark is quite explicit about it, for example.
‘Decent work and economic growth’ is one of the SDGs but will it be difficult to keep employment high in an age of automation?
The lump of labour fallacy has not suddenly become true in the 21st century; there is no fixed amount of work available so it is not a case of automation reducing the amount of work available to humans.
The big challenge is to reengineer the way we create and sustain a broad set of skills for the younger generation. The immediate challenge is to help those who are adjusting to these changes now. That’s a short-term problem which has been exacerbated by overdoing austerity and the weakening of social safety nets. So the solution is not easy but it is straightforward: we need less austerity and better education.
Can innovators be confident that there will be funding to pay for the fruits of innovation?
Europe is very, very rich. On a global scale, if we can’t pay for [innovation] nobody can. The old model whereby it’s tax-funded and centrally provided, or funded through obligatory insurance may change. I think there’ll be a continued increase in private payment for really cutting-edge innovations but without taking away state-provision of health services.
How well-placed is Europe to compete globally in this new era?
If we look at the World Economic Forum top ten innovators, five of those countries are European and the rest of Europe is spread out from there and not all at the bottom. So Europe has plenty going for it. Add to that the fact that Health systems in Europe are relatively extensive and trusted, and we can see that this continent has what it takes to deliver better health for all its citizens through next-generation tech solutions. Europe needs to pursue that goal for Europe, and not just play catch up globally.