Small Island Developing States and the Fourth Industrial Revolution


Two hundred and fifty years ago, the invention of a reliable steam-powered engine began the process of mechanising production, spurred the growth of cities and led to unprecedented societal transformation. That First Industrial Revolution was followed by the creation of new energy forms in oil and electricity that defined the Second Industrial Revolution, eventually leading on to the digital technologies of computers, the internet and mobile phones that characterised the Third Industrial Revolution.

We are now entering another revolution, one that could be more significant and more transformative than any that have gone before.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is defined by the next generation of these digital technologies, such as Al, blockchain, immersive technologies and big data. It is witnessing applications in autonomous vehicles, smart cities, digital content production and distribution and enabling unprecedented cross-sector innovation and collaboration. Perhaps, the greatest impact of this revolution, however, maybe its sustainability.

Previous industrial revolutions have had considerable and largely damaging effects on the environment that we have only recently realised the scale of. As the population is predicted to hit close to 9 billion people by 2050, with a commensurate increase in the consumption of food, materials and energy, this next industrial revolution has to reverse the huge and damaging exploitation of natural resources and environments.

The ability to create value, wealth and meaningfill jobs through digital production and distribution is a significant element of this revolution. The technology is there and is evolving rapidly. The challenge now is to put in place the governance, education, research, policy and financial frameworks to make this digital-creative economy more sustainable, equitable and evenly spread than any previous incarnation.

Accelerating change

Although these revolutions have been defined by technological innovation, with perhaps the 4IR being the most technology focused in terms of how it is discussed.

the real legacy of these changes have been their impacts on society and culture and the disruption caused by the changes in economies and livelihoods. They challenged governments to understand and respond to unprecedented changes and put considerable strain on social and cultural systems (UNCTAD, 2019).

What we are seeing now, more than in any previous generations are the technological and economic revolutions of the past becoming a continual and ever more rapid disniptive evolutionary flow.

The pace of technology change now is so fast that societies, education and skills and regulatory frameworks are struggling to keep up. The roll-out of 5G communication networks around the world will have considerable impact on every aspect of economic and social life - but could be gone before the end of the decade to be replaced by 6G, with exponential increase in data speeds, disruptions and applications.

Research is also already underway on quantum communications that will in mm supersede 6G speeds by as yet unknown multiples. This increase in communication speeds is expected to see global mobile data traffic growing by 55% annually between 2020 and 2030 and generate 5016 exabyte of data per month by 2030 (Nawaz et al., 2019).

These accelerating changes to lives, businesses and societies are posing new risks and raising significant ethical concerns (Mpofu & Nicolaides, 2019). There are also a number of issues around the impact of new and developing technologies on privacy, democracy and equality.

For developing countries these industrial revolutions are in many instances merging and occurring simultaneously, creating industrial manufacturing struc-ntres and urban developments similar to the Second Industrial Revolution, whilst at the same time rolling out the fast internet connections, mobile banking and cashless transactions of the Third Revolution. Now, alongside this, the 4IR is often being implemented faster than in some developing countries (Bandura et al., 2019).

So this leapfrogging of the phases of past industrial development is seeing many developing regions implement better and faster technology infrastructure and applications than some developed countries. This offers the opportunity for these developing countries to move from just being consumers of technology and content to producers and exporters. The implications for delivering growth and particularly around the delivery of the SDGs are profound.

This economic and technological growth continues however to be uneven, with many left behind. Wage stagnation, jobless growth, environmental challenges and migration are not only posing challenges but also creating significant opportunities, particularly for women and girls who could see greater opportunity and empowerment through equitable access to technology and innovation (Kamal & Diksha, 2019). For developing countries then, the focus needs to be not just enabling technological uptake and implementation but making it human-centred, sustainable and equitable.

For SIDS, and developing regions more widely, the impact of these 4IR technologies could be profound. However, it is important to realise that for these regions, with a strong need to develop sustainably, it is not just changing up what is already there, in reworking large-scale manufacturing or in making traditional industries more efficient, for example, but in allowing these regions to open up entirely new avenues for entrepreneurship, creative innovation and collaboration in new sectors. The reason for this is that technology has changed the global industrial and trade landscape.

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