Has COVID-19 Fast Forwarded the 4th Industrial Revolution?

25th May 2020

UKZN Extended Learning

– by  Atul Padalkar*

There is no doubt that the recent Covid-19 pandemic has impacted life and work like never before. While there has been substantial discussion about the impact of the ‘new normal’, its impact on the acceleration of the 4th Industrial Revolution has been talked about much less. 

Last year, UKZN Extended Learning conducted a successful series of lectures across South Africa to discuss the implications of the 4th Industrial Revolution. In this blog post, we review the content of those lectures in the context of COVID-19.

As we know by now, the 4th Industrial Revolution is a term signifying radical change in the factors of production. At the risk of over-simplification – the first industrial revolution was driven by steam, the second by electricity and the third by computers. The fourth industrial revolution likewise, is being driven by the congruence of various recent technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, Robotics and Automation, that are impacting the way we live and work. These are driven by Mobile, Machine Learning, increased computing power and similar evolving technologies.

The automation driven by these technologies has reduced the need for traditional labour engaged in routine functions. This is likely to result in job losses and displacement of labour. The nature of work is clearly shifting towards the ‘Gig Economy’ where work is performed by a pool of freelancers who come together bringing various skills, deliver a project and go back to the world of free-agents. The Uber business model is often used as a typical example of Gig-economy work. As you know, Uber despite being the largest taxi company in the world, does not own a single taxi nor does it employ the drivers. 

So the 4th Industrial revolution was all good and progressing steadily. And Boom – enter COVID-19 and the arising lockdowns. This left us with little option but to work from home and electronically. In most cases this was announced with little warning and most people were rather unprepared for this. Working from home was an interesting concept – often seen as a luxury and something desirable. However, just a few weeks of it led to people complaining of burnout from too many Zoom calls! The social release of a water-cooler conversation was sorely missed that helped let go some steam.

The Lockdowns also resulted in a spike of data usage, screen time and need for digital solutions, as Zoom, Teams, Webex became the order of the day. Data allowances to continue work and study from home have now become the norm. More than the CEOs or the CTOs, Covid-19 has ended up becoming the real driver of fast forwarding the 4th Industrial Revolution!!

As the lockdowns are slowly beginning to ease, the footprints they leave behind is that of accepting working from home as the new normal. Suddenly companies have seen in this development the opportunity to reduce office workspace – a key driver of costs. Which in turn has implications on travel, fuel consumption and flexibility of work. Our wasteful habits and conspicuous consumption have been reigned in. We will soon find that business can still be done without travel, work can still continue without going to work. 

As organisations re-organise their ways of doing business, and find new ways of engaging their work force, we will soon see companies resizing to become leaner, trimmer and flatter.

As more digital solutions will be developed to fill-up gaps and unsatisfied needs, we will soon see a range of tools and techniques which will remove the pain points of remote and digital work or monitoring remote workers. Those shifts which we expected to take place in years are now seen to be taking place in just a few weeks.

It looks like the 4th Industrial Revolution is here – not when we expected it and certainly not as we expected it to be ushered in. Welcome to the new normal!

For more on this topic, please take a look at the recent Webinars facilitated by Atul:

The World is Changing – Shouldn’t You?

How to Grow your Business with a Virtual Team

How to Start your Business from an Employee to an Entrepreneur

How to Grow your Business using the Growth Wheel

*Atul is the founder of Bizfarm, an unfunded Business Incubator and accelerator based in Durban since 2010. He is passionate about the 4th Industrial Revolution and teaches Digital Marketing at various Universities.