Embracing the Fifth Industrial Revolution

The First Industrial Revolution led to the mechanisation of the textile sector. Two centuries later, assembly lines were introduced, followed by large-scale industrial production and widespread consumerism, marking the Second industrial Revolution. The Third Industrial Revolution, also known as the digital revolution, enabled the capture of digital information, enabling cost-effective transmission, transformation and manipulation. Our present era, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or 4IR), has given us advancements like robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR).

What’s crucial to understand is that while over 200 years passed between initial mechanisation and the invention of assembly lines, the digital revolution began a mere 50 years ago, and the widespread integration and convergence of digital, physical, and biological systems, which characterises 4IR, only became pronounced in the 2010s and fully entered the business landscape almost a decade later. We are now already talking about the Fifth Industrial Revolution. Digitisation and the Internet of Things (IoT) is accelerating at an unprecedented pace. At first glance, 5IR appears to be merely an enhanced version of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One general explanation of 5IR is that it is the combination of humans and machines in the workplace. The reality of 5IR is far greater than this, however. In fact, it holds profound implications for us all, particularly for business leaders navigating this new terrain.

Future strategist and best-selling author, John Sanei, advises that in today’s business landscape, there are so many moving parts, it has become imperative for business leaders to understand the cycles that we are in and what the next phase of the cycle could be. However, because of this pace, the real key is to be able to prepare for all eventualities. Within this mindset is an acceptance that 5IR is opening a new world where businesses need to be able to predict what could happen so that they can proactively react to market sentiments – before they happen.

“For example, there are new business models that are being developed, and one of them is called economies of learning,” he says. “This is where we get feedback from the market before we even create anything. Through using AI and data, we are able to prepare for any eventuality because the market is telling us what to prepare before we even do it.

“However, the challenge with this ability is that given the speed and the development of AI and technology, how can we possibly keep up with it? The key is to use these new technologies as a partner within the business. Right now, many businesses that aren’t utilising AI and data are starting to see their market share being taken away by businesses that are built around AI and data. It’s not about placing a layer of AI over old business practices. It’s about a fundamental shift in the way we do business, with AI at the core.”

So, what does that look like in reality, and how will 5IR fundamentally change the way we do business?

The rise of 5IR

Industrial Revolutions involve two key components: the emergence of new technology, such as the steam engine, the assembly line, or robotics, and the resultant changes in production. Each revolution propels the manufacturing process to a new level, with increased complexity and a plethora of new technologies. However, what marks 5IR is not only the amalgamation of humans and machines in the workplace but how it is triggering three key themes:
• A complete rethink of human skills and the role of humans in the workplace
• The ability to operate proactively to market sentiments, instead of reactively
• Using technology responsibly and ethically for the good of the world.

As we transition into the 5IR, numerous changes are becoming commonplace, such as remote working, automation of administrative tasks, implantable technologies for health, widespread 3D printing, and the routine use of chatbots in customer service.

But there remain many unanswered questions: How will white-collar jobs evolve? How will society adapt to automation? Which countries will be most affected? What will happen to the costs of goods and services? How can organisations build new trust relationships?

The two sides of the coin

While there is some fear amongst workforces that we’ll be rendered obsolete by the very machines we create, others appreciate how AI and robotics significantly alter how we work, play, and live. At a business level, these technologies replace repetitive and highly complex tasks, assisting leaders and employees with decision-making and unlocking time to spend on more valuable tasks.

What’s important to remember is that despite potential dislocations, each previous revolution has improved the quality of life for all, and we have no reason to suspect that 5IR will be any different.

However, in order for employees and businesses alike to not only maximise the benefits of 5IR, but be able to adapt to a new world order, a mindset change is required – one that focuses on how we learn, our ability to learn new things, and our willingness to change.

As Sanei says, a wise man has to unlearn something new every day. Before we can learn the skills required for 5IR, we will need to unlearn many of the Third Industrial Revolution ways of thinking that still dominate how we work.

5IR: A human-centric approach

Unlike previous revolutions, 5IR places humans at the centre of technological development. It prioritises the ethical and responsible use of technology to address social, environmental, and economic challenges. 5IR aims to harness technology to create a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future for all, balancing humanity and technology’s relationship. Brands around the world are already recognising how important it is to be good corporate citizens. This provides the tools and insights to follow through with these critical element of doing business today.

5IR emphasizes several crucial elements. Understanding these and evaluating how they can help business address the concerns of customers, will give you a competitive edge in this new way of working.

Human-centric approach: 5IR aims to prioritise individuals’ well-being and needs, rather than focusing solely on economic growth and productivity. Aligned with this is the need to ensure that people can work and that while some jobs will now be automated or completed by AI, this opens the way for upskilling and creating new jobs, many of which will create a more equitable society.

Sustainability and ethical considerations: Leveraging technology to reduce environmental impact and promote sustainable practices is central to 5IR. The ethical use of technology is prioritised, with a focus on privacy, security, and the avoidance of potential harm to society.

Inclusivity and equity: 5IR aims to bridge the digital divide and ensure that technology’s benefits are accessible to everyone, irrespective of their socio-economic background or geographic location.

Collaboration: 5IR promotes global cooperation between governments, businesses, academia, and civil society to collaboratively address shared challenges and develop solutions that benefit all.

The role of business leaders in 5IR

For business leaders, 5IR presents both challenges and opportunities. It calls for a shift in mindset and approach to business, focusing not just on economic outcomes, but also on broader societal and environmental impacts.

Leaders must ensure their organisations are adaptable and resilient in this rapidly evolving landscape. This involves investing in technology and infrastructure, upskilling employees to thrive in an increasingly digital world, and fostering a culture of innovation and continuous learning.

Importantly, leaders need to prioritise the ethical use of technology in their organisations. This includes ensuring robust data privacy and security measures are in place, and that AI and other advanced technologies are used responsibly and transparently.

It’s critical for leaders to proactively engage with a broad range of stakeholders, including employees, customers, partners, regulators, and the wider community. This is essential for building trust and fostering strong relationships in the era of the 5IR.

Pulling it all together

The Fifth Industrial Revolution represents a significant shift towards agility, flexibility and looking at broader societal concerns. It empowers companies to respond rapidly to market expectations, shifts and sentiments, and it also raises the responsibility of ensuring that employees are ready for the future. As business leaders, you can choose to embrace this change and harness the power of technology to create a positive impact on society and the planet, which consumers increasingly expect from brand leaders. In South Africa, with high unemployment levels and a crucial need for upskilling, it is the ideal time to invest in training to prepare South Africa’s future workforce.