Dynamic change, driven for the most part by technological innovation, continues to be a defining feature and inescapable fact of 21st century life on planet Earth.
If current predictions by various experts prove correct, the world is poised in another four years to undergo what, by far, will be the most sweeping wave of change in history.
In the words of one analyst, it “will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another”.
The predictions, based on an analysis of current technological and economic trends, speak of a Fourth Industrial Revolution debuting around 2020. Last month, in Davos, Switzerland, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), some 2,500 participants from over 140 countries, including heads of government and state, top business executives and some of the world’s leading thinkers and policymakers, brainstormed over four days on the kind of society and economy that is likely to emerge.
“There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope and systems impact,” posits Professor Klaus Schwab, WEF founder and executive chairman.
“When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management and governance,” he adds.
The First Industrial Revolution, which debuted around 1784, involved the use of water and steam power to mechanize production. Emerging around 1870, the Second saw the introduction of electric power to create mass production. The Third, which took shape around 1969, centred on the use of electronics and information technology to automate production.
As Professor Schwab explains, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, specifically the digital revolution which has fundamentally transformed economies and societies since the middle of the last century.
Needless to say, change of such magnitude inevitably will have profound implications for Barbados and the wider Caribbean. Our societies and economies are not isolated but are fully integrated into the so-called “global village”. As a consequence, they are heavily influenced by technological and other developments emerging elsewhere in the world.
The question, however, is whether our leaders in government and industry are paying sufficiently close attention to this debate, taking note of what is unfolding, and planning a proactive response.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution has not yet registered because, as far as we are aware, the issue has not surfaced in any serious way either in deliberations at the level of Government or the private sector. Will the region be caught napping again as was the case when trade liberalization emerged in the 1990s and swept away long-standing preferential treatment for key Caribbean exports, especially bananas, with devastating consequences for some economies, even though there was advance warning?
The problem was that the warning was not taken seriously enough. Asked at a high-level agricultural meeting in the early 1990s about his government’s likely response to pending trade liberalization, one top policymaking official flippantly suggested there was little cause to worry because the Caribbean’s “Western friends” would continue to protect its interests.
What he did not seem to realize at the time was that the recent end of superpower rivalry, in the context of the Cold War, meant that the Caribbean had lost its geopolitical significance which formerly served as a powerful bargaining chip.
It is in the region’s best interest, therefore, to stay abreast of the debate related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Fundamental reform of the education system, among other things, must be at the centre of a proactive response, especially here in Barbados. According to experts at the forefront of the debate, critical skills which people will need to participate successfully in the economy to be shaped by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, include critical thinking, complex problem-solving and creativity.
Though it has served us well during the first half-century of Independence, Barbados’ education system is deficient in these areas. A major criticism is that too much emphasis is placed on preparing students to pass exams instead of equipping them with relevant skills for work and life.
We raise the issue of the Fourth Industrial Revolution because of its relevance to the future of Barbados. As we reflect on where Barbados has come from in this our 50th year of Independence and celebrate our achievements, we must not lose sight of the future before us.
If it comes to pass, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will definitely shape that future. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.