In 1764, James Watts sat by a Newcomen Steam Engine and wondered—why waste all that steam with no direction? That question sparked the idea and the eventual invention of the separate condenser which fueled the first industrial revolution, creating the blueprint to the modern steam engines we use today.
The first Industrial revolution began with the mechanization of England’s textile mills and a transition from farms into factories. On the one hand the industrial revolution brought a boom of productivity with great economic and social change and development, but on the other hand, as lamented by Dickens in Hard Times, brought suffering and misery for the working poor. At the time, it was too soon for Dickens to comment on the effects of the industrial boom on the environment, as the impact unraveled in the later decades.
With the arrival of electricity, the first industrial revolution transformed into a second period marked by the development of transportation networks. The newfound availability of steamships, airplanes, and automobiles greatly improved resource accessibility throughout England. In 1952 industrialization began to be considered a health hazard when a smog covered London, killing over 4000 people in a week due to excessive coal burning. Still, by the end of the twentieth century, most countries had become dependent on using fossil fuels.
With the invention and implementation of computers, large-scale manufacturing was realized, and the next period arrived with the speed of automated systems. This normalized the daily use of electronics and information technology. Today, we have something emerging and carrying—not just the advancements made by its ancestors—but also the accumulated burdens. Industry 4.0 is all about connectivity—it promises the use of smart factories defined by interconnected machines and intelligent robots.
Industry 4.0 will also incorporate big data, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. Companies and operations will be run by a network of computers, allowing predictive maintenance and processing of large data sets to meet immediate manufacturing needs. Successful businesses will also likely have to rethink their business models to leverage more technology. Industry 4.0 has remarkable potential to strive for sustainability, however, emerging in a society with cumulated burdens like climate change, this will likely remain challenging.
According to the World Economic Forum, some of the recent concerning global trends are growing socio-economic inequality, increasing environmental decline and climate change with regional risks to social instability, unemployment, resource depletion and natural catastrophes. For Industry 4.0 to be worth the “hype”, it must leverage its capability along with novel technologies to alleviate some of these trends.
The United Nations has already come up with the Sustainable Development Goals which are intended to help countries transform their economies while calling “action to end poverty and inequality, protect the planet” and “ensure that everyone enjoys the same access to health, justice and prosperity”. To ensure sustainability, Industry 4.0 will likely have to play part by changing the meaning of economic value creation —value will not be created in the expense of the environment and its people but rather conscientiously considering the needs and longevity of the planet and its inhabitants. Still, there are concerns about data security, loss of jobs due to robots and AI that will come with this age of technological advancement. But one of the greatest challenges that remains in the spotlight is the sustainability and how we are going to reverts the effects of climate change.
In 2015, world leaders formed the Paris Climate Agreement, having a common understanding that a 2.0C global rise in temperatures would be devastating, they settled to stay under 1.5C. However, the global rise in temperatures has already reached 1.3C and when 200 nations revisited the issue in Egypt, they remained committed to their 1.5C promise despite the harsh critics. As we enter a new era, we will need more energy and material resources to sustain the level of connectivity that Industry 4.0 is all about. With the recent fall of the crypto currencies, one does wonder if we will ever need more energy to mine that too? Still, we do not have the same luxury as previous generations to add to the burden of climate change as the consequences have become near irreversible. Extreme weather conditions such as droughts and wildfires with devastating outcomes have increased in frequency. As glaciers melt, time is running out for many places that will be left defenseless against the rising sea waters.
Fortunately, big data and advanced computing promises the appropriate collection and relocation of resources based on immediate needs with opportunity to personalize manufacturing, however, what does this mean for declining resources and greenhouse emissions? Digitization of supply chains is expected to reduce waste levels but there is still a need for solid replacement of fossil fuels. Fortunately, global trends show that the price of certain renewable energy resources such as solar power have significantly declined from where it started out. With fossil fuels prices on a steady incline, Industry 4.0 technologies may even supplement the accessibility to these resources in the coming years.
Undoubtedly, the issue of greenhouse gas emissions is more than the availability of different renewable energy resources, there is an underlying provision instigated by large corporations and oil companies because the use of renewable resources doesn’t fit their business model.
Furthermore, the Russia-Ukraine conflicted has forced some European countries to return to coal burning, the dirtier fossil fuel. The United States’ short departure from efforts to reverse climate change during the Trump era also hasn’t helped the global state of environmental affairs. China may remain to its commitment to reduce emissions as the world’s largest emitter, but this is hanging on a thin thread depending on how the US is willing to keep its promises to reduce emissions. We remain confident in our scientists and engineers, and with the increasing connectivity, technologies will advance even more to address climate change and it may be just enough to alleviate the symptoms of a disease that is burning our planet to its core.
The best action taxpayers can take is to support collective efforts that strive for sustainability and fund research efforts to reverse climate change. Voters must hold governments accountable regarding decisions they make for the collective. Unarguably, this is no longer a moral issue but an existential crisis, that has been unfortunately oversaturated with politicians that have treated the issue as a debate rather than a matter-of-fact that we are on the verge of environmental calamity. It is becoming overwhelmingly clear that if we don’t reach an agreement to take collective action, the damage will become irreversible. Fortunately, Industry 4.0 can help with connectivity as it allows for the congregation of people and ideas across the globe to act in favor of reverting climate change.
Another concern in the era of Industry 4.0 is the loss of jobs and the increasing skill gap. Undoubtedly, as AI and robots are implemented to replace those in low skill jobs, the rates of unemployment and the demand for highly technical skills is expected to skyrocket. Fortunately, the same digital technologies that are limiting the availability of low skill jobs can also help teach highly technical skills such as programming and problem solving using different modalities. With the recent pandemic having already set the baseline for online education and remote work, Industry 4.0 must continue carrying on the torch.
So, is this era going to fall short to address the current global trends and meet the needs of the environment? Or will it be sufficient to improve our current state of global burdens in a sustainable way? Many have argued that the current literature has analyzed Industry 4.0 from a technological perspective overlooking challenges regarding sustainability. But like James Watts, hopefully we will recognize that neglecting these global problems is parallel to wasting the steam of this era with no direction. This is no longer an issue of economics or politics but of self-preservation.
3. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
4. The Second Industrial Revolution, 1870-1914 by Joel Mokyr
5. The Continuing Struggle to Clean London’s Aid by David Hutchinson
6. ENERGY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: Resources, Conversions, Costs, Uses, and Consequences by Vaclav Smil
7. The Third Industrial Revolution Technology, Productivity, and Income Inequality by Jeremy Greenwood
8. Bai, Chunguang, et al. “Industry 4.0 technologies assessment: A sustainability perspective.” International journal of production economics 229 (2020): 107776.
9. Stock, Tim, et al. “Industry 4.0 as enabler for a sustainable development: A qualitative assessment of its ecological and social potential.” Process Safety and Environmental Protection 118 (2018): 254-267.
13. Khan, Iqra Sadaf, Muhammad Ovais Ahmad, and Jukka Majava. “Industry 4.0 and sustainable development: A systematic mapping of triple bottom line, Circular Economy and Sustainable Business Models perspectives.” Journal of Cleaner Production 297 (2021): 126655.
14. Stock, Tim, et al. “Industry 4.0 as enabler for a sustainable development: A qualitative assessment of its ecological and social potential.” Process Safety and Environmental Protection 118 (2018): 254-267.
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