An electronics factory worker in Cikarang, Indonesia. Photo by: Asrian Mirza / ILO / CC BY-NC-ND

Both the opportunities and potential risks of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution must be addressed if Southeast Asia is to avoid economic stagnation and continue to develop over the coming decades, participants at the World Economic Forum on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said Thursday.

As heads of state, business leaders and members of civil society gathered in Phnom Penh for the two-day meeting, the region’s role in the ongoing digital and technological revolution was a chief topic of discussion.

This year marks ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, but talk focused heavily on the future and the role technology will play.

Speaking at the forum’s opening, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc urged his fellow leaders to ensure the region’s massive youth population is properly equipped for the jobs of tomorrow. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its new technologies, will pose new opportunities and challenges to ASEAN.”

Focused correctly, mushrooming opportunity in the digital sector could see the region grow its gross domestic product by $1 trillion over the next decade. Every day, 124,000 people in the region become new Internet users — the fastest growth rate in the world.

“Young people without jobs is a formula for stagnation and social unrest.”

— Justin Wood, member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum

But without the right policies, warned Justin Wood, head of the Asia Pacific region and member of the executive committee of the WEF.

“If [the] region gets its policy mix right, young population should deliver a potent dividend,” he said, noting that economic growth and savings can be recycled into infrastructure and further drivers of growth.

ADB and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

From achieving the Sustainable Development Goals to infrastructure design and implementation to youth engagement, the ADB forum continuously highlighted the role technology and innovation should play in the bank's portfolio and engagement across the Asia-Pacific region.

Without such policies, however, “the fourth industrialization could see jobs disappear,” he said. “Young people without jobs is a formula for stagnation and social unrest.”

Wolfgang Jamann, secretary general and chief executive officer of CARE International, offered a similar note of caution, stressing that the very driver of development could backfire, leaving even more people behind or dealing with serious inequality.

“All burgeoning technological advancements run risk of growing gender inequality,” he said. While the Fourth Industrial Revolution has “unprecedented opportunities to address inequalities,” there is also a risk of more people being left behind, he added.

To address that situation, we must get “even people in poverty level to be able to be part of the digital revolution,” said forum co-chair Jamaludin Ibrahim, managing director, president and group CEO of Axiata Group Berhad. 

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About the author

  • Abigail Seiff

    Abby Seiff is a reporter focused on human rights, land issues, and politics. She has been covering Southeast and South Asia since 2009, working previously for Devex and freelancing for Time, Newsweek, Al Jazeera, and others. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in anthropology.