Fourth Industrial Revolution: street-level disruptions


When I was in Beijing last week, I discovered that I was running out of storage space on my phone and asked a colleague where I should go and buy an SD card to boost the device’s capacity.

“Why don’t you order one online?” he suggested. “It will arrive by 4:00pm.”

Feeling like a bit of an idiot for asking what was obviously a dumb question, I agreed and sure enough the delivery arrived at my desk in the afternoon – saving me a trip out into the freezing cold and a no-doubt frustrating search for the card that I required.

Talk about friction-free shopping: simple, cheap, and convenient. Not to mention extremely scary if you are a brick-and-mortar retailer like 7-11. How can you continue to attract consumers if they can order whatever you have in your expensive store from the comfort of their home or office? How can you match the selection of items you offer for sale unless you too move into the online delivery business?

It may sound rather mundane, but this little anecdote does illustrate the kind of street-level disruptions that are already beginning to take place as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that was so grandly proclaimed at Davos last week. In fact, “Industrial Revolution” is a bit of a misnomer, for it is in service businesses such as taxis, hotels, and retail that the first impact of the forces of disruption the revolution is unleashing is being felt. It’s going be to quite a while before driverless cars or human-free factories staffed by robots become common-place sights – much less take over the world.

It won’t be quite so long, however, before we start seeing a loss of retail sales jobs because more and more consumers decide to order their stuff from home and an increase in delivery jobs in companies that ship the stuff. What we don’t know, of course, is whether these numbers will balance out in terms of available positions or salaries being paid out. Whatever the actual answer turns out to be, managing the transition is going to be a huge challenge not just for the parties involved but also society at large.

How are companies going to remain competitive in a rapidly-changing market place? How are individuals going to upgrade their existing skill sets or develop totally new ones? And how is society going to prepare their people for jobs that we can’t even imagine are going to exist yet? These are just a few of the questions that will need to be addressed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution moves beyond the hype phase and we have to deal with the gritty realities it brings.

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