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Harnessing the Power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

By Guest Writer on July 16, 2021

fourth industrial revolution

The impact of new tech shouldn’t be disappointing, but it often is.  Dr. Hans Rosling complained during the Ebola response that there were “hundreds of health-care workers from across the world flying in to take action, and software developers constantly coming up with new, pointless Ebola apps (apps were their hammers and they were desperate for Ebola to be their nail).”

The last decade’s efforts to draw on technology innovation made it clear that new tech doesn’t automatically transform the humanitarian and development sector programs.  While important contributions to aid efforts have resulted from the creative use of technology, it’s obvious that yet another mobile app won’t save the world.  Even as innovation programs push forward with ever more technology pilots, potential users of these inventions complain of the lack of real impact and the accumulation of ‘digital litter’.

In this light, it’s easy to be skeptical of the bold language being used by those outside the aid sector to describe a revolutionary next generation of digital tools.   Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum has declared that a Fourth Industrial Revolution ‘will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.’

These are powerful claims, so it is worth stepping back and asking whether the promise of new tech applies to the complex contexts and low resource environments of humanitarian and development work.

4th industrial revolution

Why Technology Disappoints

Throughout history technology has demonstrated the power to revolutionize industries. Much of the modern world has been shaped and enabled by the creative use of new technologies.   Yet many uses of tech deliver limited impact, or as Dr. Rosling has pointed out, make no difference at all.

There are several reasons for this.  The most obvious is that technology is being used to address a problem that doesn’t really matter.  A ‘pointless app’ can never make an impact, regardless of how well it is executed.  This is an easily targeted flaw, and over the last two decades skilled technology designers have learned how to engage with users so that they don’t create solutions for nonexistent problems.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only reason tech fails to deliver transformational impact.   Often tech is used to address problems that are perfectly valid, but still small.  When the underlying challenge is too narrowly defined, even powerful technology can only do so much.  For example, many new technologies are used to updated existing processes, swapping one approach for accomplishing a task for another.   While the new tech may improve performance, it doesn’t fundamentally change the way things worked.  The benefits are real, but incremental.

Several years ago Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS) stood out as a noteworthy digital application that delivered real value by improving the gathering and sharing of field data within a response. It improved, but did not transform, the response effort.  Today, similar incremental uses of new technologies are being developed, such as plugging artificial intelligence into many existing processes to improve decision making.

When new technologies are used to push into new ground, it might seem that the situation is ripe for bolder action.  For example, blockchain projects are often proposed as a way to address a need that lacked a good solution before.  Immunization passports, land rights, and portable educational credentials can all be approached in distinctly different ways because of this new technology.

None the less, the scope of these pioneering efforts is often limited.  Because the technology and its application are unfamiliar, it seems reasonable to place boundaries on the scope of projects.  In the name of managing risk, technology change is limited to a specific new piece of tech, and the size of the problem being addressed is clearly bounded.

4th Industrail Revolution

Embracing More Transformative Opportunities

Narrowing an innovator’s vision seems prudent, but it limits the potential for new technology to be transformational.  It is hard to achieve the positively disruptive change imagined in a Fourth Industrial Revolution when intentionally scaling down the ambitions of exceptionally powerful tools.

This is particularly true in humanitarian and development work, in fragile and low resource contexts.  Settling for incremental improvement traps the possible impact new tech can have on those affected by crisis.  The potential power of revolutionary technology lies in its ability to fundamentally reimagine the way things work, rather than be applied to support incremental improvements.

How does a technology innovator rise to this higher impact opportunity?  It begins with an embrace of bigger challenges.  Instead of addressing a specific issue with a specific piece of technology, intentionally take a step back and look at problems and opportunities that involve a web of actors and technologies that interact with one another.

These real world systems are at the heart of the communities, markets, and governments where humanitarian and development work are done. When technology addresses challenges that cross interconnected systems (educational systems, health systems, food systems, governance systems), it is far better positioned to deliver transformational impact.

fourth Industrial Revolution

More Powerful Together

Today’s new crop of technologies is particularly well positioned to take on these more ambitious challenges, because of their ability to work together.   Each Fourth Industrial Revolution technology is powerful in its own right, yet their full potential occurs when they are bought together in creatively powerful ways.

Consider the potential leap in creative power that occurs when the cohort of new digital  technologies are bought together.  Emergent capabilities that were not present when each tool is used separately become possible when they are linked together.

Imagine this technology as a chain beginning with sensors that report on the world around them.  They may be embedded in wearable devices such as a watch or heart monitor, built into products ranging from vehicles and phones, or woven into roads, buildings, and other infrastructure.  These sensors are connected to the internet which allows the ‘things’ of the world to report on what is happening to them in real time and with incredible detail.  By 2025 it is estimated that there will be  30 billion connected Internet of Things (IOT) sensors.  With prices falling and applications growing, this will double the number of installed sensors in just four years.

This unprecedented number of eyes and ears on the world generates extraordinary amounts of data.  This information becomes accessible because of growing levels of connectivity and ‘cloud’ computing which make it possible for technology systems to form dense webs of digital collaboration.  This offers the ability to deliver services with far less regard to the physical location of the user or the computer hardware that exists on the ground.

The combination of information and connection makes it possible to bring together diverse sources of information. This ‘big data’ view has the potential to provide unique insights into the challenges and capabilities of communities, individuals and contexts.  In turn, artificial intelligence can use this information to guide choices that drive practical action.  The chain of revolutionary technologies ends with robotic devices, autonomous self-driving vehicles, and digital manufacturing devices that can be used to act in the physical or virtual world.

Taken together, this new technology chain makes it possible to assess the world in real time, bring together multiple sources of information to support decision making and take physical action in the world.   It, along with other potential combinations of new technologies, offers innovators incredibly powerful opportunities to reshape the possibilities of real world systems.

While this may seem ‘far away’ for some in the humanitarian space, there are already a range of programs utilizing this thinking from MSFs 3D printing and digital scanneing prosthetics in Syria to UNHCRs IOT sensors for water in Sudan. Programs like these are beginning to build the broader capabilities for impact with individual technologies in some of the most challenging humanitarian contexts.

Practical Transformation – Harder Problems / Bigger Solutions

An obvious rebuttal to the ambitious strategies of using multiple new technologies is that the cost of such revolutionary tech is out of reach to those in low resource settings, or that new technologies are to immature to work in complex environments.  Both issues are at best temporary barriers.  Technology power and cost improve at exponential rates.  The widespread adoption of mobile phones across the world is a practical example of how once high end tech can be widely leveraged as costs fall and valuable uses proliferate.

Making such bold ideas work may be the harder challenge to address. Proposing a multi-technology strategy that enables real world system transformation may sound foolishly optimistic to those that have suffered through long troubled technology initiatives.  Even in commercial environments, where conditions are far more managed and under control, the failure rate of transformational technology initiatives has been estimated at over 70%.

Weaving technologies together on a challenging problem and complex context is understandably daunting.  Yet, there are several good reasons for considering initiatives that embrace this ambitious combined technology use.

  • Pieces Don’t Just Become a Whole: A series of small well bounded technology projects may provide insight into the use of the new tools and deliver some incremental benefits. However, when technology is applied in a scattershot attempt to deal with small individual problems, the individual paths of each project are unlikely to come together in a broader solution.  Instead, each project will pursue its own goals with its own approach.  Even if most of the parts are eventually available for a bolder integrated strategy, it’s likely that their individual designs will be hard to weave together.
  • Pitching Small Value: It will often be difficult to sell the many parts of a transformational set of initiatives one by one; We can use IOT for x and 3D printing for y. Projects that rely on individual technologies and address small problems will each offer limited benefits.  In contrast, by clearly identifying the broader opportunity that comes from bringing technologies together provides a foundation that can help justify all the different parts.
  • False Sense of Security: Small projects provide the sense that the risks are smaller and better managed.  Unfortunately this is often an illusion.  Many of the greatest risks associated with large programs comes from the need to connect different parts.  Building separate technology projects with the intent of later bringing them together for a transformational solution only delays the need to deal with the issues of making all the parts work together.

fourth Industrial Revolution

Practical System Innovation Strategies

Complexity can, and should, be recognized, embraced, and intentionally managed. Tackling big challenges with an integrated suite of Fourth Generation technologies, requires innovators to adopt practices suited to this type of work.

  • Begin with a Big Enough Challenge: Take time to understand the interconnected parts of an important challenge. Step back and develop a big picture view of the how the real world works.  Visual models of systems that show actors, interactions and resources can be important tools for this work.  You need a broad strategy for this kind of work, to ensure to program or leadership don’t fall back to smaller project based vision.
  • Imagine a Whole Solution: Instead of jumping into specific projects that address immediate problems or opportunities, envision a complete solution. Imagine a complete solution that takes advantage of the power that comes from combining multiple technologies with real world actors and activities.  This integrated view will make it possible to see how all the parts of a complete solution must ultimately come together.
  • Do Thin Slices, Not Big Bangs: Don’t try to deliver the big picture vision with a single big bang project.  There are real difficulties and risks associated with cutting edge programs with lots of moving parts, so trying to deliver a transformational program as one big project often leads to failure.  To manage the risks, deliver these complex innovations in ‘thin slices’, where each slice aligns with the overall vision.  With each thin slice there is an opportunity to build working capabilities, answer questions, and generate wins by delivering value.
  • Don’t Delay Difficulty: Don’t delay the hard parts of the solution. With each thin slice it’s important to confront hard challenges, barriers and unknowns as early as possible. Then as a complex solution evolves questions and risks are progressively addressed, rather than accumulating in the later parts of the effort.

While these are proven strategies used by system innovators to tackle complex challenges, they are not silver bullets.  Combining technologies together and delivering a transformative approach to a longstanding problems will always be hard.

Yet the alternative, settling for using powerful technologies in timid ways, is arguably a greater danger.  Drawing on the revolutionary potential in Fourth Generation Technology requires bold vision and action.  The innovators in the humanitarian and development sector are ready for this challenge.

By Dan McClure and Jennifer Wilde at Innovation Ecosystem

Filed Under: Thought Leadership
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