Tracing innovation’s journey to the Fourth Industrial Revolution

There has never been a time of greater promise.
There has never been a time of greater promise. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution commonly referred to as Industry 4.0 or 4 IR in technology circles is here. However, not everyone has an in-depth understanding of the revolution that is already changing how humans think, interact and work.

“In this revolution, we are seeing cyber-physical systems, whereby tech is increasingly being integrated into our daily lives,” says Roseline Wanjiru, an economist and chief marketing officer at Kesholab’s Blockchain Centre.

“We are not just seeing apps that measure our steps and get us talking in real-time at virtually no cost, we are also seeing others that make it possible to do so much in such short time that we need to be conscious of our relationship with the future.”

Tracing back to previous industrial revolutions, human beings have been constantly improving their quality of life through ground-breaking inventions in various sectors — key of which is energy — that currently support Industry 4.0.

How has been the journey? And why was Africa left out during the first three revolutions?


These are two of the questions crying for answers as the world witnesses seismic changes courtesy of technological disruptions.

The First Industrial Revolution was defined by coal, water and steam, birthing the steam engine and innovations that powered mass production of goods, and saw revolution of the transport sector. This happened between the year 1765 and 1868 and its impact on commerce was huge, triggering the first waves of rural to urban migration as people flocked cities to work in factories.

Industry 2.0 is widely synonymous with the invention of electricity that cut out a lot of manual labour and time wastage between 1869 and 1960s. The telegraph and telephone were also invented during this period and substantially changed the face of communication.

It is during this time that gas and oil replaced water in industries with the advent of internal combustion engines. This also saw the birth of automobiles. Also, the period was marked by an increased use of steel, with chemical synthesis coming up to give the world synthetic fabric, dyes and fertiliser.

The Third Industrial Revolution began with the emergence of nuclear energy. Then the rise of electronics saw the invention of the transistor and microprocessor on which the development of the telecommunications and the first computer were anchored.

The emergence of the Internet saw the sprouting of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the first radical change to be driven by technology —digitalisation—rather than a new type of energy.

Now we are going through an exciting and disruptive phase of the innovation journey, thanks to automation and internet which are now driving massive changes in every sector of the economy.

“Industry 4.0 is right here disrupting every sector. It propels business growth through emerging technologies, while its quest for interconnectivity is changing the future of work, property ownership, transport, communication, banking, insurance, sports, government and logistics,” says M Timothy Oriedo, founder of Predictive Analytics, a data science acceleration firm.

The current revolution utilises emerging technologies such as Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Data Science and Machine Learning (ML), and Internet of Things and it is now moving to the fastest ever network - 5G - which seeks to eventually connect zillions of devices worldwide and boost the creation of smart cities, villages, homes and living parks.

Blockchain technology, for instance, is tailored to erase loopholes that lead to loss of money, credibility, ethics and trust in all sectors. It promises to wipe out corruption, financial mismanagement, fraud and the distribution of counterfeit goods. Experts say it is the most holistic approach towards restoring sanity into the human brain.

AI on its part enables the growth of business especially e-commerce where applications like visual search, chatbots, and automated product tagging are used to increase search discoverability of goods and services.

“Blockchain and AI have emerged as technologies that offer actual means to fight corruption and ensure that citizens’ interests are protected, given that they offer transparency and immutability,” says the Distributed Ledgers Technology (DTL) and AI Taskforce report, citing Spain, Ghana, Georgia and Ukraine as countries that have gained tremendous success in using the technologies to fight graft.

Data Science and ML, according to Barclays Chief Data Officer Mr Hartnell Ndungi, is a critical component of the 4 IR engine, as it helps business leaders and governments make informed decisions regarding products and services.

“Data analytics inform corporate leaders on evidence-based decisions. HR professionals, for example, can use Big Data to understand what drives productivity, why employees resign and whether they really need to hire once someone resigns,” said the expert who has been in the industry for 11 years.

In this fast changing landscape, it is becoming increasingly inevitable for any country to be left out of the 4 IR wave. Doing so will be more catastrophic than during Industry 3.0 when most developing nations chose to be weighed down by their economic problems and remained in the wait-and-see cocoon as other nations took advantage of the rapid changes.

Stefan Derco, professor of economic policy at Blavatnik School of Government, told Digital that there exists a new opportunity for developing countries to positively impact their economies and be at par with other nations globally.

“To attain a global inclusivity at Industry 4.0, we must see political commitment by these countries in delivering transformational plans. The right policy choices must be made,” he says.

4 IR presents a do-or-die economic situation for the future, and businesses and governments must take control of their digital destinies by innovating alongside these emerging technologies or lose out, he warns.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman, World Economic Forum says the world needs a uniform opinion of how 4 IR defines the next decades.

“We must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments. There has never been a time of greater promise, or greater peril,” Mr Schwab said.