Technology is the most influential factor in determining how we live, work and communicate. This has especially been the case for the last 300 years, since technological breakthroughs such as the railroad and the electric telegraph spawned a dramatic and continuous transformation in how the world interacts with each other.

Today, with the advent of computers and the internet, and even more significantly the life-changing convergence of the two in the form of smartphones, it is safe to say that we are witnessing a revolution the scale, scope and complexity of which is unparalleled.

Historically, the first Industrial Revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century. New innovations and technologies such as steam power saw the shift from manual production to mechanisation, thus catalysing rapid industrialisation and economic growth.

A century later, the Second Industrial Revolution took place when electrification and the development of modern assembly processes enabled mass production. In the late 1970s we began to experience what some consider to be the third revolution, which came in the form of exponential advancements in information and telecommunications technology which then oversaw the shift from analogue electronic and mechanical devices to automation and digital technology.

Today, it has been opined that we stand on the verge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – an age that will see the synthesis of all the various technological developments, be they in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing or biotechnology. In this new world, there will be no lines dividing the physical, the digital and the biological.

A New World

We are already seeing the beginnings of such a world. Billions of people are now connected by state-of-the-art mobile devices that also allow instant and near-limitless access to knowledge via the internet. Smart systems that control homes, factories, farms and even entire cities today help resolve all manners of issues – from supply chain management to climate change.

The emergence of the shared economy has enabled the monetisation of anything and everything, from personal services to private homes and vehicles. Autonomous self-driving vehicles are already on our roads, and one can only imagine the possibilities once that scales up. Meanwhile, 3D printing and the decreasing cost of customised manufacturing will forever transform the meaning of the word “factory”. These examples are merely the tip of the iceberg – far greater disruptions will occur as technology continues to develop exponentially.

While previous industrial revolutions resulted in changes to the means and processes of production, the fourth revolution promises to go beyond that, impacting every sector from production to management to even governance. In fact, so fundamental will the revolution be that it may well challenge existing notions of life, reality and what it means to be human.

It is not far-fetched to imagine a not-so-distant future where machines will have not only intelligence but also consciousness. Already, the invasion of technology into our lives is so pervasive that it is increasingly difficult to demarcate between personal and public realms. These existential questions are not new, of course, but while they used to be rhetorical exercises, they will soon be practical demands.

Talentism is the New Capitalism

Philosophical deliberations aside, it is perhaps more pertinent to consider that such a comprehensive revolution will also render existing assumptions irrelevant. For example, the relationship between capital, labour and the state will no longer function as it used to.

As an enabler, technology has “democratised” every aspect of trade and commerce, so much so that online marketplaces and services today often operate outside existing conventions with regards to regulation, certification, investment and business development. Today, anyone can run a hotel or be a taxi driver through services such as Airbnb and Uber. Anyone can also raise funds through crowdfunding or increase scalability through crowdsourcing.

It is a whole new world, and society and governments are struggling to make sense of it.

In the past, the most important resource for businesses was capital. An entrepreneur was not able to start a factory without large sums of capital to purchase equipment and hire workers. In this new Fourth Industrial Revolution, however, success will require different factors of production.

It is with this in mind that Dr Klaus Schwab, an eminent German engineer and economist, proffered the notion of “talentism” at the opening of the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2013. According to Schwab, “capital is being superseded by creativity and the ability to innovate – and therefore by human talents – as the most important factors of production. Just as capital replaced manual trades during the process of industrialisation, capital is now giving way to human talent. Talentism is the new capitalism.”

Painting depicting the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, the first inter-city railway in the world which spawned the Railway Mania due to its success.

Competing in the Age of Ideas

In this new world, the only constant is change. And failure to change will be quickly punished. Take the former mobile giant, Nokia, who in 2007 commanded 49.4% of the market share in the global smartphone industry. That very year, Apple introduced the first iPhone. Just a few years later, Nokia was all but forgotten. In 2013 the Finnish corporation was left with only a paltry 3% of market share.1 Therefore, innovation and creativity, along with adaptability and responsiveness, are now the key drivers of economic success. And these traits do not come from having the best machinery or the fastest workers. Instead, they come from having the best talents.

In other words, competitiveness in this new economy requires new value propositions. The only way to maintain relevance and to stay ahead of the game in this Fourth Industrial Revolution is not so much to offer cost effectiveness or efficiency gains in production, but to offer what the world craves most – ideas. This is why the highest-paid people today are the people with ideas.

It is therefore imperative for all stakeholders, particularly policymakers, to realise the exigencies of this future world. Deep and holistic reconsiderations need to be applied to policies with regards to trade, labour and education. It will no longer be about producing the best and most disciplined workers but rather about honing the ability to imagine, design and create, at least for the time being until machines become smart enough to do that for us.

In this age of ideas, willpower and willingness to change are two paramount traits that will be required of governments, corporations and society. This is because the two most desirable qualities of the valuable resource called talentism, viz. critical thinking and creativity, often express themselves in ways that appear undesirable, especially when they challenge the status quo. In these circumstances, it will be those who are quickest to accept and adapt who will prosper.

Most exciting of all, for the individual, the age of ideas will also be the age of possibilities. With the unprecedented scale and availability of tools, knowledge and data, technology has democratised the playing field for everyone. This means that there is little reason why any ambitious, determined and talented young person from any part of the world cannot produce the next unicorn start-up.

All it takes is the right idea.

NB: This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of the Penang Monthly.


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