Theresa Foxley leads Utah’s nonprofit economic development organization. Her association, the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, works with private industry and state and local government to attract and grow high-value companies. I recently attended a meeting where Foxley heralded Utah’s potential to serve as a “cradle” for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I really like her idea.
A French economist in 1837 coined the term “Industrial Revolution” to describe the transition from an agricultural to industrial economy. Economists today describe this as four tectonic shifts:
The First Industrial Revolution occurred when water and steam powered the manufacturing process. The saw mills, flour mills and other industrial mills spread throughout New England’s “canal towns” are a great example of this period.
The Second Industrial Revolution occurred when electricity began to power mass production. The manufacturing concentration in the Great Lakes Region is a great example of this period.
The Third Industrial Revolution, which we are still in today, concerns the impact of information technology and electronics on the production process and sharing of information. Microprocessors, computers and other electronics automate the production process creating significant efficiencies and processing power.
We are now at the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the fusion of technologies between the physical, digital and biological spheres. Artificial intelligence, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, energy storage, biotechnology, and other new technologies enable a new virtual world unlike anything we have ever known.
Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, has written a book on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He writes, "We stand at the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before."
Many Utah leaders, like Foxley, see Utah’s potential to lead in this transition. They see the immense possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with enormous processing power and exponentially larger storage capacity (both memory and energy). Combine this connectivity and power with new technological breakthroughs and you start to imagine a completely different world.
That’s where Utah economic development leadership becomes relevant. The Beehive State is poised to lead. Foxley notes Utah wisely developed essential industry clusters over a decade ago. These clusters – which include focus areas like aerospace/defense, energy, life sciences, and software and IT – season the ground for major innovations and economic leadership in this new industrial revolution. We’ve more than doubled the number of engineers in our state since 2000. The Utah Department of Transportation, in partnership with the Utah Transit Authority, launched a pilot project with a completely autonomous vehicle. And, a recent report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute documented Utah’s nation-leading growth in tech industry employment over the past 10 years.
All of this potential comes with a word of caution. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will yield tremendous benefits in terms of consumer choices and rising wealth. It will, however, come with the cost of increasing inequality, displacement of workers, violation of privacy, and a potential hollowing out of the middle class. The largest beneficiaries will be those with intellectual capital. Class structures will divide even more between the haves and have nots. Leaders will need to be hyper-aware of these impacts and be prepared to invest in a more generous, but smarter safety net.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution presents mammoth opportunities and challenges. It will change not only what we do, but who we are. We need to make sure we invest in the technologies of the future and seize this moment. We also need to increase our empathy and capacity to serve those who may be left behind. Utah can serve as a cradle for these important changes.