As the world prepares for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, global experts ponder how to deal with its impact on jobs
The future of work in a world dominated by robots was central to the discussion of some of the world’s leading thinkers in China’s Northeast coastal port of Dalian.
The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions, also known as the Summer Davos, which has been running since 2007, is now an established event on the international conference calendar.
The gentle warm breeze coming off the Bohai Sea may contrast with the snowy, wintry landscape of the Swiss village that hosts the parent event in January, but the debates at the forum – held between June 27 and 29 – were no less searching.
Xu Jinghong, co-chair of the meeting, which alternates between Dalian and Tianjin, says the event has gained in significance because China itself is increasingly crucial to many aspects of global developments.
“During the 10 years the meeting has been held, the China economy has advanced significantly. There is not only a more important need for China to connect with the world, but an increasing need for the Chinese perspective to be heard,” he says.
The key theme of this year’s meeting was how the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution – which will bring in not just robotics but the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing and nanotechnology – can be inclusive and not leave people behind.
Earlier revolutions, such as the first triggered by steam power by Britain in the 18th century, the second by mass production techniques pioneered by companies like Ford in the US in the early 20th century and the third, the digital revolution, which has seen the advent of Facebook, Micrososoft and Chinese giants Tencent and Alibaba, have all been disruptive.
What distinguishes the fourth is that it is likely to take place over a shorter period of time and have enormous implications for the world of work.
According to a survey by EEF, the UK manufacturers’ organization, 80 percent of the respondents said robotics could dominate industry by 2025, with the potential to destroy not just manufacturing jobs but those in the service sector, particularly in financial services.
Xu, speaking in the city’s Conrad Hotel on the eve of the event, believes it could mean a fundamentally different way of working.
The 54-year-old is one of China’s most eminent technology figures. He is deputy director of the advisory board of the Zhongguancun National Demonstration Zone, known as China’s Silicon Valley, and also chairman of Tsinghua Holdings, the technology investment arm of China’s Tsinghua University which has assets of 350 billion yuan ($51.47 billion; 45.28 billion euros, ￡39.70 billion).
He believes the revolution will eventually benefit society, with more people working in the arts and culture sector, although this will require a more highly educated workforce.
“The Fourth Industrial Revolution will eventually make people richer, and when people become more affluent they have a greater need for culture and the arts,” he says.
“In a traditional society you may think you have to go and work in a factory or a company. With robots, manufacturing will take care of itself.”
Keqiang addresses the opening ceremony of The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions, also known as the Summer Davos, on June 27. Wu Zhiyi / China Daily
Premier Li Keqiang, in his address to the forum on June 27, made it clear that he now sees innovation as the key driver of growth in China and that would be the best route to providing inclusive benefits for all.
He also called for foreign companies to play a major role in driving innovation in the country, announcing new measures that will make it easier for them to register in China.
“All companies that are registered in China will be eligible to enjoy the same supportive policies that China makes, in accordance with WTO rules, to push forward the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy and promote innovation,” he said.
The new industrial revolution does pose significant challenges to China, with nearly a third of the workforce still engaged in manufacturing.
Although advanced manufacturing and the development of high speed rail, aerospace and maritime engineering technologies remain central to the China’s 2025 strategy, certainly fewer low-skilled people will be employed.
experience virtual reality technology at the Summer Davos in Dalian. Zhu Xingxin / China Daily
Edward Tse, founder and CEO of management consultants Gao Feng advisory, however, says the new technology will create a jobs crisis in China and elsewhere within a decade.
“It is going to create a lot of risks of unemployment for a large number of people. China, however, does not have any other option but to innovate, even though it is going to create quite a lot of pressures within society,” he says.
Tse, also author of China’s Disruptors, which examines how China’s big technology companies are having an impact on global business, says the digital revolution did create many jobs that did not previously exist and that is what one has to hope for from the fourth revolution also.
“Right across China you now have Taobao villages where there are clusters of people selling products on the online store, grouping together to lower the logistics costs.”
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