Mobile supercomputing. Intelligent robots. Self-driving cars. 3D printing. Many economists, political and business leaders from around the world are convinced we are at the beginning of a new industrial revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live and work.
There are technological advances in the forms of artificial intelligence, robotics and information and communication technologies, just to name a few. These are disrupting the traditional ways of doing business and those who fail to adapt will be left behind. For example, online trade provides entrepreneurs with a ready market of the over 51 percent of the global population or 3.2 billion people, who use the internet. This would require that businesses shift their mindsets away from strictly store-front operations and embrace the new reality of trade through cyber-space.
Furthermore, developments in robotics and artificial intelligence are improving the speed, quality and costs of available goods and services. For instance, robots can operate all day without interruption and artificial intelligence can perform intricate tasks faster and more accurately than humans can. The manufacturer of tomorrow must grasp these concepts and integrate them into their business strategies in order to remain competitive.
3D printing also opens up a whole new world of possibilities for manufacturers. For example, available technology already makes it possible for a consumer to purchase a sketch of an item such as a shoe and have it custom made via 3D printing. At a time of high volatility in the cost, availability and transportability of raw materials and intermediary inputs, technology such as 3D printing can lower production costs and time, shorten the value chain, minimize waste and allow for mass customization as opposed to mass production.
According to the World Economic Forum Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact Report, the following technology tipping points could occur by 2025:
- 10 percent of people wearing clothes connected to the internet
- The first 3D-printed car in production
- 5 percent of consumer products printed in 3D
- The first transplant of a 3D-printed liver
- Over 50 percent of internet traffic to homes for appliances and devices
As this new industrial revolution unfolds, many more innovations are in store. Advances in computing power, artificial intelligence, robotics and material science can hasten the shift towards more environmentally friendly products of all types. Digital fabrication techniques, such as 3D printing, can bring manufacturing closer to customers. New energy technologies can create low-cost, abundant and sustainable sources of power and power storage to rid us of our over-reliance on fossil fuels. Essentially, technological innovations are revolutionizing business around the world and those firms and countries that are unable to keep up will be left behind.
For many developing countries, especially the small developing and least developed countries, there is a huge technological divide that must be bridged if they are to thrive in the 21st century global economy. Some observers even argue that the technological divide has already established itself as the single most pervasive theme of the 21st century. To overcome this divide, policymakers at the national, regional and international levels must target their efforts at initiatives, such as universal and affordable access to information technologies within and between countries; and a new approach to education which is especially geared towards assisting young people in mastering the technological skills of the 21st century, not simply for mass consumption, but also for economic gain. Finally, as the technologically-driven new industrial revolution intensifies, governments, academia, the private sector and international development partners must all work together to seize the opportunities associated with rapid technological change.
Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.
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