The opportunity to leverage open platforms to enhance life is endless. However, strong leadership will be instrumental to harness the power of data-driven technology. As more corporations and nations retreat into defensive crouches, bold approaches to governance are in short supply. Lest we succumb to digitally-fueled paranoia, this much change.
We are both titillated and anxious at the dawn of “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” an era characterized by ubiquitous technology and “smart cities” that blur the lines between physical, digital, and biological devices. Applications, an intimidating stream of acronyms, encompass artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), internet of things (IoT) and autonomous vehicles (AV).
But the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be human-centric. The World Economic Forum (WEF), organizers of the China “Summer Davos” session dedicated to the topic, advocates that “technology is about empowering people, not the rise of machines.”
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times also limns a bright future: “We’re moving into a world where machines and software can analyze (see patterns that were always hidden before); optimize (tell a plane which altitude to fly each mile to get the best fuel efficiency); prophesize (tell you when your elevator will break and fix it before it does); customize (tailor any product or service for you alone) and digitize and automate just about any job. This is transforming every industry.”
Yes, the promise of data-driven advances that enrich society is tantalizing, albeit inchoate:
- The security of online transactions – everything from medical information storage and exchange to supply chain optimization and cyber-identity management — will be revolutionized with “blockchains,” distributed databases managed through peer-to-peer distributed networks.
- The experiences consumers have with brands will be more rewarding as communications and products become “hyper-personalized” – that is, tailored to individual needs based on insight into behavior and preference.
- The “shared economy” will blossom as data enables “value exchange” between people with shared interests. From “mobility solutions” that transform the urban landscape to private smart homes that optimize communal energy usage, an era of affordable sustainability beckons.
- Finally, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will empower people to have more control over their lives. Holistic data connections personalize health care solutions. Amazon and Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company, create virtual global market places so entrepreneurs become CEOs of “mini-MNCs,” or multinational corporations.
A Long Road to Rome
Open platforms must be accompanied by democratization of data storage and access. Machine learning requires access to global data flows.
There are several barriers, most rooted in all-too-human fears of technology control us, not the other way around.
First, privacy concerns are pervasive, preventing the creation of sharing platforms.
Second, to many, automation means unemployment. LinkedIn polled 1,012 US financial professionals across the fintech, investment banking, retail banking and wealth management on how technology is affecting the financial services industry. According to the report, “one quarter of all financial services professionals are concerned that automation will impact their job security,” with retail bankers the most concerned (34 per cent).
Third, within corporations, data siloes militate against customer-centricity. To achieve optimized “life cycle management,” data must sit in one place. But companies are increasingly divided into disparate product teams, with clear division of labor and responsibilities. Balkanization is reinforced with different customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise management resource (ERP) systems which structurally preclude cross-department access to data.
This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, employees have greater accountability within the organization. On the other, goals are not shared with other departments. Data is jealously guarded as a weapon of internal competition rather than cross-functional collaboration. This explains why few companies have streamlined operations to enable genuine customer-centricity – that is, leveraging technology to deepen relationships with individuals over time.
Finally, nationalist sentiment is one the rise. The spirit of President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda runs counters to efforts to create pervasive digital currency. So does China’s draconian cyber security law, promulgated in June 2017. Indeed, by requiring companies to store data on the mainland, the Communist Party has signaled its intention to construct a massive data fortress.
The X Factor: Bold Leadership
To harness the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, organizational, bold corporate and political leadership is required.
The WEF, for example, has created a center dedicated to developing protocols and frameworks for new technologies and sciences and bolstering public-private partnership.
Saleforce.com’s CEO, Mark Benioff, has built a silo-free organization by forging a corporate culture built on trust. He advocates “radical transparency” in which all employees have access to everything from business plans to executive meeting schedules.
According to Peter Dixon, Chief Creative Officer of Prophet, the brand and marketing consulting firm, trust needs to be deliberatedly constructed. He states, “Sometimes the most important role we play in helping companies develop new and compelling [customer-centric strategies] is to design the conduits that connects parts of organizations where natural lines of contact are not well defined or even non-existent.”
In the end, however, a new era of data openness must be fueled by global leadership. Politicians must advocate creation of transnational institutions to regulate standards of data ownership. Industrial infrastructure must be shared across borders.
The General Data Protection Regulation is a start. Scheduled to become enforceable in 2018, the GDPR is regulation which the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission intend strengthen and unify data protection for individuals within the European Union.
But a broader vision for collaboration between different stakeholders — civic organizations, governments and consumer advocates – is not yet in sight. There is no “freedom in a framework” to foster large-scale creative innovation. Therefore, the hope of creating pervasive “value exchange” through a “trust network” remains elusive.
Strong voices must reassure and rally. “Data applications” should come to mean opportunity.