Understanding the 4th industrial revolution: Can we influence its direction?

Talks about the future economy or the future workforce often include words such as the platform economy, the gig economy, the circular economy. While these words might describe the way labor is (or will be) organized, they refer to a sub category of change we are currently experiencing. What is driving the change is the fourth industrial revolution we are currently experiencing. Knowing that we are experiencing a revolution, a decision is needed: Shall we just sit down, and watch it unfold, or can we intervene and steer it ?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Every revolution brings a break from the old and Innovations are at the root and catalyst of revolution. Klaus Schwab details the innovation that brought about the past three industrial revolution: Water and steam power mechanized production, creating the first industrial revolution. Electronic power, making mass production possible, was the driver in the second industrial revolution. Automatic production though electronics and information technology onset the third industrial revolution. Characteristics of the fourth industrial revolution is the blurring of lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. Innovations, and particularly the acceleration of innovations and the velocity of disruption are key characteristics of the fourth industrial revolution.

Actor-Network Theory

Key for each industrial revolution was an invention that radically changed the way individuals were interacting with each other and with objects. A theory that is used to explain how innovation are created is actor-network theory. This theory argues that innovations occur thanks to a system of factors which interact with each other. These factors are people, infrastructure, policy, norms, assumptions. Each factor influences the development of innovation to the same degree. This implies that innovations are driven by innovators, but also by the innovator’s social capital, the number and quality of relationships the innovator has, by the infrastructure the innovator is embedded in, and the norms and values that guide the innovator and those who are recipient and future users of the innovation.

While critics of actor-network theory argue that not everything has the power to impact society with the same level of intensity, the thought that scientific and technological developments do not occur in a vacuum is important to keep in mind. Real life examples of how non-tangible factors can influence innovation and development, and in turn society is the discussion around ethics and big data, human AI. The project democratized AI is a good tool to unearth what assumptions you have about AI.

Research on the 4th Industrial revolution

If we continue the assumption that everything has agency and hence the potential to steer innovations, what are the touch points we need to nudge so that the fourth industrial revolution evolves in a direction we feel comfortable with ? One way to discover the touch points is to investigate the topics scholars conduct research on.

How to create a knowledge map of research topics

It is possible to create a knowledge map using the abstract of scholarly articles which dealt with the topic of fourth industrial revolution. This gives a snapshot of topics scholars are interested in. These abstracts are analyzed using VOSViewer. The knowledge map below attributes a color to every research topic, and tries to place each topic as far away as possible from the other topics. This constellation of topics gives rise to fourth well-defined research topics, and a couple of less defined research topics:

  1. The red cluster deals with economic topics, as words such as relation, demand, condition, position, and transition are words frequently used by researcher.
  2. The orange cluster addresses the cyber physical production system, the tightly interconnection between computational entities and physical objects. These are the systems that connect real-time information, processes it on the spot, to provide customized and individualized recommendation and information to users.
  3. Dominated by the word ‘internet’, the yellow group of words address the internet of things.
  4. Paying closer attention to society, the green research topic address the region in which the industrial revolution takes place and how this impacts the local populationn.

A couple of less defined research topics are also included in the map. For example, dark blue words form a topic related to manufacturing, and thus how the fourth industrial revolution impacts the production of goods and services. In relation to this, the purple topic adopt a firm perspective as it includes words such as ‘business model’, ‘logistic’, or ‘infrastructure’. Finally the turquoise words could form a research topic focused on education and the discussion around how the fourth industrial revolution changes the relevance of skills.

But not every research topic defined above is also currently researched. Research touching upon the economics of the fourth industrial revolution (red cluster) has been mainly conducted in 2008, a long time ago. That’s the year the retail DNA test was brought to market, together with Tesla Roadster and Hulu.com. Recent research on the fourth industrial revolution is concerned with the machines, big data, internet of things. Other less prominent but recent topics are firm and business models.

To conclude the discussion about research topics, scholars are interested in four areas touching the fourth industrial revolution: industry 4.0, cyber-physics production systems, future, and big data. The fourth industrial revolution is more often associated with the increasing possibility to collect and analyze data thanks to wearable and other internet of things products, and artificial intelligence and data processing capabilities.

Agency in the age of 4th industrial revolution

Going back to the question of influencing the direction of the fourth industrial revolution, the greatest potential seems to be in the cyber-physical production system. This research topic deals with the internet, and the massive amount of data collection and real-time data processing. This is also a recent topic, currently being high on the agenda of research institutes.

The topic of cyber-physical production system sits at the intersection between a purely business/economic topic, considering how companies produce products and interact with customers, and a humanistic topic, addressing how individuals are experiencing the fourth industrial revolution on a daily basis. From a societal perspective, this humanistic perspective, is the entry point to discuss the ethics surrounding cyber-physical production system. Reflecting again on the knowledge map, it seems that the ethics, the norms and values, surrounding the current revolution is underrepresented. While education is also an investigated topic, research efforts might focus more on the needs for up-skilling and making sure that the labor force is able to operate in the fourth industrial revolution. This has an economic flavor, and does not consider the ethics and societal impact the fourth industrial revolution can have. Maybe this is a chance for citizen scientists to come in, and fill the research gap.

Individuals should intervene and voice their opinion about how they want their data to be collected, processed, and used by companies. Innovators need to know what values individuals hold high with regard to how technology impacts the life of others.




Behind every problem is a web of connectors and links. I look for patterns and offer solution. — I’m also raising 4 humans: I know problems can be solved.

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Behind every problem is a web of connectors and links. I look for patterns and offer solution. — I’m also raising 4 humans: I know problems can be solved.

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