Solving Fourth Industrial Revolution challenges with systems thinking

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The cover image depicts a synchrotron conduit cut-out from CERN.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”) challenges are a mash of issues arising from complex, rapidly changing, post-structural, and interconnected systems. What really matters is: How should we articulate the problems to help us formulate viable solutions? “Systems thinking” may offer an effective approach.

Conditions of tomorrow, today

At the 2016 Annual Curators Meeting (“ACM”), Prof. Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum (“Forum”), highlighted some of the macro trends likely to influence the state of the world in the next decade or two:

  1. The shift of world powers to a multi-polarity state;
  2. The slowing, “new normal” of global economies and their impact on social development;
  3. The growing dissonance between the evolutionary nature of existing legal and regulatory systems and the revolutionary nature of cutting edge technologies those systems are meant to govern; and
  4. The impact on employment and livelihood from technologies that induce “creative destruction.”

These trends could lead to many outcomes, and Schwab viewed them as intertwined with the next era of industrialization, the 4IR. The proletariat class was created by industrialization and grew after World War II. Will there be a new class of “precariats” dominating society, as technologies of the 4IR, such as additive printing and IoT, begin to reduce and/or replace real economy jobs? These technologies might erode job security and lead to losses of culture and identity, which could spark flashpoints of social and economic conflict. Will the next decade be, as Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, predicted, an inevitable battle between humans and AI? This is not necessarily the case, if humanity gains better control of the narrative and combines the heart with technology.

However, is it harder to be fair when the world slows down? If the average GDP growth is 5% p.a., it could take 14 years or longer to double global GDP. Vital social and economic policies would be exposed to significantly higher market risks. Moreover, technological progression may be inevitable but walking the path of sustainable development is not. The world must not simply stumble into the next era without clarity and intention.

A way to think about the future

A robust critical framework for analyzing future challenges in all their messy, complex glory must be articulated. This is especially the case if we were to tackle multiple objectives -not only economic growth but inclusive growth. Enters systems thinking.

According to “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer of Leadership and Sustainability at the MIT Sloan School of Management:

Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” It is a set of general principles — distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management….During the last thirty years, these tools have been applied to understand a wide range of corporate, urban, regional, economic, political, ecological, and even psychological systems. And systems thinking is a sensibility — for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.

Daniel Aronson also penned a good primer on systems thinking.

In 2016, the Forum has begun commissioning broad ranging research based on systems thinking in its Systems Initiatives (I have mentioned this in the context of the ACM here). This is a way to address 4IR challenges in the context of promoting inclusive growth. This project should tap into the Forum’s vast network of subject matter expertise and stakeholder groups and build on the existing work of the global agenda council, and establish a tertiary layer of systems studies. The Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in 2017 should be focusing on shaping global systems for inclusion. Schwab has invited each hub in the Global Shapers Community to submit local observations of the normative framework for each system being studied by the Forum (there may be a book written on this). Additionally, the Forum is planning to create a center in San Francisco on the governance of inclusive technologies.

Image below: Gio, Geneva Hub Curator and nuclear engineer at CERN, explaining about the complex systems composing the CERN synchrotron arrays.