We need innovations that empower billions

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

The World Economic Forum’s assertion that we are living through an era of unprecedentedly profound technological change is meant to pose one very big question to the world: how can we secure all the benefits of this mammoth shift while avoiding the troubling downsides?

Put another way, what measures must we take to ensure that this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ delivers huge leaps in productivity, connectivity and living standards without leaving a trail of human destruction in its wake in the form of unemployment, low pay and rising inequality.

Klaus Schwab, the chairman of the World Economic Forum, admits there are no easy answers but he gives a pointer when he states that we must use this new technology to empower people rather than simply enrich those who control it. Instead of being simply a tool to ‘robotise’ the world, we must find ways to ensure the technology enhances the creativity of billions, not the few.

Schwab has hit on something fundamental here. In the technological revolution of the 20thcentury that gave us mass production we ended up looking to the state to ameliorate the human costs. The welfare services that grew so rapidly mid-century were in many ways a direct response to four decades of economic disruption caused by the rise of corporations centred on the factory assembly line.

Today the growing pressures of an ageing population combined with a much reduced public appetite for higher taxes and state intervention mean we have to find another route to protect people at a time of change. That route is empowerment.

This is what the best social innovators and entrepreneurs have been doing for decades. People like Albina Ruiz who is mobilising communities across Latin America to help waste-pickers — some of the poorest people in the world — set up their own recycling businesses.

Or Edith Elliott who is teaching people in India how to care for family members with chronic health conditions to relieve the pressure on hospitals and allow patients to live at home.

Or James Whelton whose initiative in Ireland to get young people training themselves and others in coding skills now operates in almost 60 countries.

For each of these examples there are thousands more inspired by the same goal of empowering others to change their lives and those of their communities for the better.

People power initiatives like these, which once might have remained local, now have a much greater potential to secure global impact precisely because of the new technological possibilities identified by WEF. The connectedness, transparency and permanent disruption of the modern world means that social problem-solving initiatives can be understood, adapted and implemented far more quickly and effectively than in the past. In this way social innovation addresses the downside of the technological change by employing the very tools that revolution is making available.

The challenge now is to make that process of understanding, adaptation and implementation as impactful and as universal as possible. When we achieve that then we can begin to say that may have found the solution to the challenge thrown down to humanity by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This piece forms part of a guest-edit of the Progress site by Stephen Kinnock MP, covering the discussions at Davos on the economy, business and the World Economic Forum’s central theme this year of ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’.