Ready for Industrial Revolution 2.0?

There is no error in the heading. Yes, it is Industrial Revolution 2.0. Realising that the preoccupation now is about version 4.0, we need to step back and understand what is it with 2.0?

For starters, the Second Industrial Revolution happened some 150 years ago in the late 1800s.
It was sparked by the "discovery" of electricity that led to the phenomena of mass production and factory assembly lines to market cheaper products for the community at large.

It promoted division of labour to ensure efficiency and higher productivity in mass manufacturing of goods for wider consumption. In this way society tends to prosper – at least part of it, not every one – materially speaking that is.

This is definitely the case today, when the disparity among people, nationally and globally, grows wider and wider.

It is not a co-incidence when the fruits of technological discoveries are not evenly distributed and shared. Or unduly delayed. A case in point is when people in rural areas are left in the dark, literally, with no access to basic electrical technology which has been available for more than a century.

So while we welcome the recent announcement that the Rural and Regional Development Ministry is said to be spending RM70 million to provide electricity to some rural areas, we need to reiterate that this is far from adequate to meet the needs and demands of the Second Industrial Revolution to catapult us into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4th IR).

In this sense we are more than 100 years late even though it took about half a century on the average to pick up and implement the technology.

Assuming the RM70 million is the last mile effort to ensure that the rural residents benefit from the 4th IR is commendable, but the effort is not going to be easy. In contrast, it can add to widening disparities if not properly handled. While a select few will be able to reap the benefits of the 4th IR, the vast majority are still trapped within the paradigms of the previous IRs.

In urging Malaysians to go for the 4th IR, the powers that be seem to have forgotten about the responsibility to further invest in the previous IRs. Many overlook the fact that without uninterrupted power supply the talk about the 4th IR is frivolous. Simply put, the latter is irrelevant if the implementation of the 2nd IR is not fully accomplished without causing greater disparities.
The same can be said for the 3rd IR. In other words, the RM70 million allocation looks like a mere token because it takes a lot more than that to complete our part of the 2nd IR tackling the issue head-on. Unless it is just about erecting the "tiang" as witnessed previously!

The bottom-line is that until the above is done in earnest, the 4th IR will remain out of reach for the "left-out" population estimated to be in the millions. Lighting roads is hardly sufficient as they are already left out of the 3rd IR for the same reason. Computerisation too needs electrical power – in fact a steady supply to each home.

Now with the Internet of Things coming on board, which essentially is computer-based, the disparities are set to widen. This simple logic seems to have been missed by the policymakers and 4th IR-enthusiasts in the excitement to promote the next technological "leap". We seem oblivious that there will be no leap without electric power. It is a global issue especially among developing countries. India for example loses RM42 billion a year due to power theft by slum dwellers.

Developed countries on the other hand are clamouring to undertake the 4th IR because their technological capacities are almost saturated and so are their social demands. That the idea germinated in industrial Germany is not surprising given that Germany is a technological powerhouse that connects every household.

Its policymakers mooted the 4th IR to offset their shrinking labour force due to the massive demographic shifts.

In developing countries the situation is vastly different in this respect where unemployment is still an issue of concern if not survival. The 4th IR can worsen it further by causing societal disruptions and upheaval if people in developing countries are mentally unprepared, not just technologically.

Thus before jumping headlong to "embrace" the 4th IR we need to ensure efficient electric supply nationwide especially in the east coast of the Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.

Malaysia must fully "execute" the 2nd IR first. Next we need to do the same for the 3rd IR. Just dishing out computers to schools and community will come to nought sans power sources and adequate supply. There are ample examples of this that has led to a mockery of the effort, and causing frustration as it is a sheer waste of invaluable resources.

It is not rocket science to get this off the ground as we have more than enough local talent to solve this in the shortest time possible.

As long as the appropriate will is matched with right financial allocation – something that must be forthcoming in the coming budget. Lest the 4th IR is mere political rhetoric rather than a scientific reality and social right.

It is therefore time to pause, stand back and think deeply to understand what the 4IR is all about for us to benefit from solving some of the problems that have long plagued our communities. More importantly not to create more issues if not exacerbate the outstanding ones.
All revolutions have a risk and benefit profile. While the latter is usually the purview of a smaller group, the former tends to overwhelm everyone. For the 3rd IR, its the global ecological degradation; the price for the 4th could be humanity itself which is something that we cannot take for granted.

The writer will speak on The 4th Industrial Revolution: The Leadership Dilemma at the Razak School of Government on Oct 27 in Putrajaya. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com