At Davos this week, climate change is at the forefront of economic discussions. Science and technology, from the discovery of vaccination, to automation software, to progress in green energy, have made massive, obvious improvements to the vitality of our species, of other species, and our climate and global habitat. However, fossil fuels, the substance that fueled so many other beneficial developments, have begun to destroy rather than create the future- and could, unchecked, usher in the end of life on earth as we know it. George Orwell once lionized coal workers as the “grimy caryatids” of Industrialism – a strange and insensitive image that nonetheless points out that coal quite literally powered Industrialism, which kicked off the exponential trajectory in carbon emissions that we are currently on.
Orwell’s comment also calls into question who constitutes a starring global economic player. While the high price-tag of attendance at the WEF Davos event means that Davos is attended by the elite, such as hedge funders and political leaders, both the global economy and climate change have bigger tangible impacts on individuals and families whose socioeconomic status does not allow them to float above turbulent waters, or purchase the opportunity to transcend the instability and uncertainty caused by climate-related displacement or job loss.
Activists like Greta Thunberg posit the issue as an issue created by wealthy global political and business leaders and which we should all take individual steps toward ameliorating, for example, less travel, less meat, less consumption, a shift in our societal values toward treasuring nature and eschewing conspicuous consumption.
Is there a way forward for the global economy, that heals the climate’s wounds without instigating an economic lockdown or forcing severe asceticism and austerity? Fortunately, some of these transformations have been underway in the developed world as a part of a broader shift away from industrial production and toward a greener and more knowledge-based economy, referred to as postindustrialism.
The ideal version of postindustrialism and Fourth Industrial Revolution- the global shift in our most developed countries toward a postindustrial economy that runs on knowledge, service, and experiences, with an emphasis on digitally transformed businesses, widespread use of green technologies, and streamlined processes with IoT and automation software- sells itself as a model that would help to curb the raging wildfire of climate damage that was instigated by industrialism, without instigating a lockdown on economic activity. Theoretically, technology will maximize the quality of life that human beings extract from Nature and its resources, while minimizing the damaging byproducts of living.
Digital transformation of businesses is at the forefront of Davos, as attendees discuss the lofty goals, star players and disillusioning roadblocks that emerge with digitization.
Is digitization and Industry 4.0 good for both people, business, and the world? Why do businesses often struggle to realize their digital transformation goals?
Conscious use of data optimizes processes
A key takeaway of the WEF Davos 2020 report on Digital Transformation is that organizations would benefit from collecting data with a focus on its potential use-value, rather than acquiring it without discernment like a whale swallowing plankton. “Great analytic leaders start with value, not data. They first identify important sources of new value to customers and the business, and then build the data and analytics capability required to capture it. Without this focus, companies risk wasting valuable time and money.”Organizations would benefit from collecting data with a focus on its potential use-value, rather than acquiring it without discernment like a whale swallowing plankton. Click To Tweet
There are a spate of potentially beneficial uses for data for society and the environment. Perhaps students who are talented but struggle with standardized testing could be identified by collecting data on other aspects of educational performance, allowing for a more equitable restructuring of grading and school admissions. Perhaps increased use of data for performance-tracking in the workplace could lead to more equitable career advancement. AI and ML-enabled power usage monitoring could be implemented by cities to identify areas of inefficiency in their power grids. Agricultural output expanded radically with the introduction of ammonia fertilizers; perhaps there is yet more ground to be broken, for using data to create more value with less waste. Conscious, focused, and consensual use of data can help society make focused improvements in our collective way of being. In businesses, automation software can help integrate data into decision-making, by delivering data to teams as part of automated workflows.
For example, the Earth Bank of Codes, states that “There is a two-way fluid and potentially infinite interaction and innovation frontier between Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies and Nature’s biological and biomimetic assets.” The aim of the Earth Bank of Codes project is to make biological assets, such as the biomimetic blueprints and genetic code of the flora and fauna of the Amazon, available on a public blockchain. In the optimist’s future, the global economy would begin to extract fewer critical resources from the Amazon and rely instead on innovation from a shared base of knowledge. The platform posits nature as a sort of open source code which we all collectively own.
Although saving the Amazon with open source genetic codes is admirable, it likely won’t impact the lives of most people in traditional businesses. However, data collection is already being used across businesses to optimize processes, improve communications, run a tighter financial ship, and create more value with less waste. Within the scope of corporate life, Industry 4.0 is very real, and the technologies involved, such as automation software, big data, and cloud computing, if consciously leveraged, have the power to bring benefits to workers, business owners, society, and the climate alike.
Geographic decentralization & Expansion of economic opportunity
When organizations introduce Slack and MS teams as work hubs for employees, they are likely to reduce transportation to and from the workplace. In gridlocked cities like Los Angeles, this could amount to a significant decrease in fossil fuel usage, less time and money spent on the commute, and less air pollution. Digital work collaboration also makes it possible for people who may not be able to work otherwise to enter the workforce. For example, mothers with young or disabled children can work remotely from their homes, in jobs ranging from highly skilled roles to simpler jobs such as data entry or copywriting. Additionally, individuals who are geographically distant from urban areas are enabled to work remotely.
Improved operational efficiency with cloud-based automation software
One server can take 7446 kWh of power per year. That’s the equivalent of 5.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide. It can also take about $732 per year just for the energy bill. When businesses run applications and systems on-premise (not in the cloud), they require server provisioning. To handle peak provisioning, companies are likely paying for more server overhead than they even need most of the time.
The rise of cloud improves operational efficiency. Containerized architecture (a system that runs on containers, which are essentially the newer version of virtual machines) scales elastically and handle peak provisioning without a server. Improved computational efficiency equates to less carbon dioxide waste generated by energy usage to support unused server capacity.
Imagine extending this flexibility and efficiency to the global power grid, using data collection and AI to monitor inefficiencies and create a waste-free energy grid? Smart home technology may be placing us on this path already.
Technologies manifesting the optimism of Industry 4.0: 3D Printing
Deloitte reports on the potential for additive manufacturing (AM) to reduce the waste produced by industrial production. “AM’s impact on supply chains includes material waste reduction, increased production flexibility, and the possibility of further decentraliz – ing production. However, companies have to overcome quality assurance barriers to employ AM for purposes beyond rapid prototyping or tooling.”
Ideally, if quality assurance on additive manufacturing can advance to the point where goods can be reliably and independently produced with the technology, it could decentralize manufacturing (subsequently reducing transportation waste), reduce overstock and the related expenses, and offer a less carbon-intensive model for the production of material goods. It could also save lives: what if you could 3D print critical medical devices from the comfort of your arm chair? In an imagined future where chemical and physical engineering are sufficiently advanced, an individual person could print literally anything from a base supply of pure elements and the relevant design specs. Perhaps in a future society, social units will be stocked with a printer and elemental recycler, where objects can be composed on-demand and subsequently deconstituted. For example, you could compose a single-use vacuum cleaner, and several hours later, use the materials as a spaghetti pot and colander.
Increased access to reskilling resources
The World Economic Forum 2020 reports that global reskilling is an urgent issue. “There’s a clear cost to inaction. Across G20 countries, failing to meet the skills demand of the new technological era could put at risk $11.5 trillion in potential GDP growth over the next decade, according to Accenture estimates. The human cost is infinitely worse.”
Goal 9 in the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is to “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.” The Internet Society posits that the internet is an important part of our global infrastructure for reskilling and innovation, stating that the internet has “immense potential to improve the quality of education.”
To apply these values in business, organizations may look to introduce training in automated workflows. For example, organizations can introduce more comprehensive digitized training and training-tracking as part of automated, persona-specific, employee-onboarding processes. Automated workflows can be used to guide new hires through training videos and processes, and track training accomplishments in their central HR application.
Organizations are also using automation to facilitate access to the central knowledge base, so that employees can stay educated on topics that will help them succeed in their role. For example, organizations can use natural language understanding software to parse messages from employees to a help chatbot, and automatically return relevant answers from the central knowledge base.
It’s not difficult to imagine a future where companies build in opportunities for upward mobility at their organization, by having automated reskilling applications and systems that allow employees to reskill and upskill while on the job, and allow employers to track employee upskilling progress in their HR app. There are already significant opportunities available for workers to independently upskill with online resources; the self-taught coder is not an unusual phenomenon, and free resources like Code Academy make it easier today than ever to get started.
Automation software: digitally transforming business processes for the future
“Agility, the only constant, is required to meet the accelerating demand for innovation.”
Times are changing quickly, and business leaders and decision makers may feel overwhelmed by both the urgency and the lack of clarity on how best to approach the inextricable spate of issues which are enfolded into Industry 4.0 and digital transformation. Despite the large amounts of money ($1.2 trillion to be spent this year according to estimates), being dedicated to the endeavor, “only 1% of these efforts will actually achieve or exceed their expectations.”
With the advent of the cloud era, business leaders and decision makers began to turn to SaaS apps as the solution to business process bottlenecks and problems. However, the result in many cases has been that organizations are awash in fragmented point solutions with little overarching connectivity. In order to maximize the value of existing investments and create a holistic approach to digital transformation, organizations may benefit from shifting the focus from adding applications and point solutions, to orchestrating automated processes across their existing applications with automation software, known as integration Platform as a Service (iPaaS), or as an enterprise automation platform.