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Learn about Drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • Identify the drivers that contribute to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • Explain how the scope of the Fourth Industrial Revolution differs from those of the first three.

How Did the Fourth Industrial Revolution Start?

At the turn of the century, things were changing again. And if you can imagine it, the pace of innovation was once again speeding up.

In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab describes it like this: “It began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. It is characterized by a much more ubiquitous and mobile Internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describe this period as “the second machine age.” And while the digital technologies are not new, they’re being used in new ways.

Just like the first three industrial revolutions, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is radically changing the world around us. But how?

What Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

It’s a smarter, more connected world. And it’s being built around us right now.

Let’s think back to the first industrial revolution. What was the innovation that powered that revolution? That’s right, steam power. Well, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we’ve got new innovations pushing us forward, in the form of the cloud, social, mobile, IoT, and AI. Pair those with higher computing power and big data, and here comes the next industrial revolution.

In the forthcoming book Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab and co-authors Nicholas Davis and Thomas Philbeck note that, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a way of describing a set of ongoing and impending transformations in the systems that surround us, and which most of us take for granted every day.”

Think about those words. What do you take for granted right now? How about the app that tells you the best route to work, or the device on your wrist that tells you how many steps you took today? What about the sensor in your car that stops you before you veer into the next lane? Or the sign at the bus stop that updates you in real time about when you can expect the next bus?

[Shot of a woman using her mobile phone while sitting at her office desk]

The innovations are real and they’re already here, and more are arriving daily. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has already begun.

How Is the Fourth Different from the Third Industrial Revolution?

Great question! Yes, it can seem like the line between this revolution and the digital revolution is a bit murky. So how do we draw the line?

According to Schwab, there are three key factors which differentiate between the two:

  • Velocity
  • Breadth and depth
  • Systems impact

Let’s talk about each one.


The world is more connected than ever before, and this revolution is transforming the world far more quickly than the first three did.

Breadth and Depth

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff observes, “The convergence of digital technologies with breakthroughs in materials science and biology means that we are seeing the emergence of entirely new ways in which to live. In both subtle and explicit ways, technology is also changing what it means to be human.”

Systems Impact

Fourth Industrial Revolution advances are so sophisticated and interconnected that they’re transforming major systems (politics and the economy, for example) as well as entire countries and societies.

Why Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution Happening?

Every industrial revolution is driven by innovation, usually in the form of new technologies. Once these technologies become cheap enough to scale and spread, they change society. One steam engine in a scientist’s laboratory is a good proof of concept. But hundreds of steam engines powering a railroad system transforms an entire nation.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, key factors driving the incredible changes we’re experiencing include the decreasing cost of computing power and connected devices; the ease of using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and other forms of artificial intelligence; and the radical drop in the price of genetic sequencing.

Smart and connected machines and systems are helping us build self-driving cars, create virtual assistants, and diagnose disease more precisely—transforming the physical, digital, and biological worlds.

What’s the Impact of All This Change?

Here are a few stats that can surprise you:

  • By 2017, more than 3 billion people were on the Internet and more than 2 billion people were on Facebook.
  • Some predict that by 2020, more people will have mobile phones than will have electricity or running water in their homes or villages.
  • Children born in 2017 may never drive a car and might direct robots in everyday tasks.

Today’s children will see technologies combine to unite the physical, digital, and biological worlds. They will see advances in science, medicine, and other technology converge to eliminate previously incurable diseases and disabilities.

Sixty years after the beginning of the third industrial revolution (the digital one), we’re still getting used to computers changing the world, but the Fourth Industrial Revolution is once again transforming the way humans live, work, and relate to one another.

With widespread connectivity, the transformation is happening more quickly than in any of the previous industrial revolutions. The trajectory can sometimes seem scary. It is also exhilarating. There’s so much good that we can do with the advances that are on the horizon.

So, Where Do We Go Next?

Continue your learning journey with the next module in this trail and discover how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming industries and impacting businesses, society, and individuals. In the words of William Gibson, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”


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