Why the World Economic Forum launched a 'do tank' on the technological revolution

By Catherine Cheney 27 March 2017

Stacks of books in front of a photo of the new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

With the ringing of bells, the World Economic Forum, or WEF, opened its new “Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution” in San Francisco, California, on Friday.

The center aims to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of the technological revolution, which, writes WEF Founder Klaus Schwab, “is disrupting almost every industry in every country.”

“The breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance,” he writes. “Like the revolutions that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world.” But this technological revolution, which WEF sees as building on the digital revolution, could also “yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets.”

The center builds on the reputation of the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which is a leading forum on public-private partnership, but it aims to be as impact-oriented as the rapid pace of transformation demands.

“Our task here is to accelerate the deployment of these Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to benefit the citizen and the society,” said Murat Sönmez, member of the managing board at WEF and head of the new center, in his opening remarks. "This is going to be a ‘do tank.’ We will do a lot of thinking but it's time to do. And our work starts today.”

Here are some takeaways from the opening event on what the center’s priorities will be — and how it will work.

Test early and often

The center itself is a prototype, said Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a design and consulting firm that has helped to make human-centered design more mainstream.

“One of the fundamental principles of human-centered design is that we learn more from doing than we do from thinking,” he said at the event. “When we do things we realize all of the subtleties and nuances and complexities of the problems we’re trying to take on.”

He sat around a central table with the CEOs of Salesforce, Turkcell and Kaiser Permanente, who acknowledged that the work of the private sector can create unintended social consequences. They also noted how public-private partnerships can play a role in addressing some of the issues with inequality that might arise.

While Brown said it can be a challenge to go from talking to doing, he outlined the importance of testing early and often; trying things out to see if they work.

“We should challenge ourselves not to ask the obvious, not to ask the banal, but to really dig down and ask the deep and insightful questions about what these changes that are going on at such a pace mean for all aspects of society all over the world,” Brown said.

In the spirit of do versus think, the breakout sessions developed plans for 18-month projects on issues ranging from oceans to precision medicine to technological systems for supporting humanitarian efforts.

Ensure society benefits

If the world continues on its current trajectory, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not likely to add value for the majority of the global population living in emerging market economies, said Erica Kochi, co-founder of the innovation unit at UNICEF.

She cannot see how the world will deal with the impact of technology on people “without investment in education, basic social services [and] universal basic income,” she said.

She explained that young people face two interlinked problems: first that the path to prosperity through industrialization is gone, and second that the education systems that might give them the skills to participate in the economy are broken.

Young people go where the opportunity is, she said, drawing a connection between lack of opportunity and migration, revolution and extremism.

Education is the most important investment the world can make to prepare for the future, she said. “We really need to strengthen our institutions.”

Help policy keep up

One of the breakout events on Friday focused on the role of cities as “incubators” in the development of policies and partnerships dealing with the technological revolution.

Cities are uniquely positioned to lead the way in this transition, Sönmez told Devex. The guest list at the event included San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee; Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf; and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who shared his thoughts on how policymakers must respond to the increasing rate of technological change.

Inslee emphasized the importance of education; the disruptive nature of artificial intelligence; the issue of regulation; and the very real concern of cybersecurity.

“We have an economic system designed for the first three revolutions, not the fourth, when it comes to the relationship between employers and employees,” he said. “Right now it is based on a model of ‘40 years and a golden watch.’ We have to develop a whole new system of benefits that heretofore has been provided by that ‘40 years and a golden watch’ model that is no longer going to exist.”

In addition to pushing for more creative thinking in terms of transferable benefits packages, family leave and remote work, he echoed the message that technology can drive economic inequality and increases the need for policy response.

Shape the narrative

The World Economic Forum was invited to make recommendations on the Fourth Industrial Revolution to leaders of the G20, the international forum of 20 major economies that will convene in Germany in July.

An afternoon session on Friday outlined the role of narratives in this transition, as well as the need to engage the public in the conversation about trade-offs, in order to maximize benefits and minimize risks.

The task for Dennis Snower, president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, is to develop recommendations between the T20 gathering of think tanks in May and the G20 summit in July on how these narratives can inspire optimism, rather than fear, and on what policy approaches can make those narratives more credible.

"The question governments are grappling with is: how do you shape identities that are both strong and grounded on the local, national, regional level but also transcend national boundaries in order to make this interconnected economy work?” he said. “Because we know there is no long-term economic cooperation that does not involve deep social cooperation."

Drawing on discussions at the opening of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, other questions include: what will happen to people when machines take over jobs; and how can we reform education and training to prepare people for the jobs of the future?

A growing number of initiatives, including OpenAI, and events such as the upcoming AI for Global Good Summit are bringing people together across sectors to look at the impact of technology on society.

The Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution aims to be the catalyst and the amplifier for the growing number of efforts to ensure that technology benefits society, Sönmez told Devex.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


Join the Discussion