The term Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) often refers to a series of technological breakthroughs: the improvement of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation, dramatic advances in biotechnology, and so on. While these technologies are central to 4IR, there’s an even more fundamental shift taking place – consumers and companies are increasingly moving the economy toward socially responsible production and consumption.
It’s vital for forward-looking companies to make issues such as environmental sustainability, racial equality and justice, the fight against poverty, and other contributors to the public good top priorities. The move toward social responsibility isn’t just what the next generation of consumers is demanding – it’s also one of the most powerful engines of innovation, as it orients companies toward the development of radical solutions for the most pressing issues on the planet. But above all, it’s the right thing to do.
Even companies that aren’t explicitly focused on providing products and services that address public health, education, the environment, and other social issues now have more options than ever to have a positive impact. Any company can change its business practices to reduce its environmental footprint; address racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequality; and work toward a safer, healthier, and more equal world.
A permanent shift in consumer and employee expectations
In many ways, 4IR is being driven by younger generations. Millennials have been the largest generation in the workforce for several years, while members of Gen Z are quickly moving into adulthood, graduating from college, and starting their careers. These changes are having a profound impact on how companies approach social responsibility.
For example, Millennials are disproportionately likely to prioritize diversity in the workplace – they say they’re motivated by diverse leadership teams and they’re more loyal to companies that embrace diversity and inclusion. Millennials and Gen Z report that their top concern is climate change, and significant proportions of these groups have taken action to improve their impact on the environment. Three-quarters of Millennials say they would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company, compared to 55 percent of other American workers.
As younger generations facilitate long-overdue change in workplaces around diversity and gender equity, they’re also transforming markets in which they have rapidly increasing buying power. According to a 2020 Edelman survey, 81 percent of consumers say they “must be able to trust the brand to do what is right,” while almost two-thirds say they’ll “choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.” Other Edelman surveys have found that Millennials are disproportionately likely to describe themselves as belief-driven buyers.
It’s clear that employees and consumers are only going to become more concerned with social responsibility, and 4IR companies are in an ideal position to capitalize on this trend.
How the is catalyzing social progress
Many people automatically associate the Fourth Industrial Revolution with Silicon Valley tech startups or major companies attempting to capture market share in emerging fields like AI, but this is misleading. Beyond the fact that regions beyond the West Coast and Mid-Atlantic are seeing a long-overdue increase in VC activity, 4IR encompasses much more than a few new developments in the software industry. It represents a sweeping shift in how we interact with technology, our environment, and one another.
Consider the implications of telemedicine for inequalities in access to healthcare; augmented reality and biotechnology for people with disabilities and injuries; or access to digital financial tools for entrepreneurs in developing countries. The sheer range of applications for AI alone is remarkable: self-driving cars that have the potential to drastically reduce traffic fatalities, the rapid diagnosis of illness, language translation tools and resources to help people with atypical speech, the research implications of big data analysis, and so on.
A recent article in Nature Communications explained that the AI for Social Good (AI4SG) movement seeks to facilitate “collaborations between AI researchers and application-domain experts, relate them to existing AI4SG projects and identify key opportunities for future AI applications targeted towards social good.” A focus on social responsibility isn’t incidental for 4IR companies – it’s an essential part of what makes them contributors to the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the first place.
Making social responsibility a core business function
AI4SG is intended to “deliver positive social impact in accordance with the priorities outlined in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” These goals – which include ending poverty and hunger, improving access to education, achieving gender equality, creating sustainable economic growth, and reducing inequality – serve as a useful framework for 4IR companies to think about their impact.
The vast range of issues covered by the SDGs should be a reminder to all companies that there are many ways to contribute. For-Progress-For-Profit (4P4P) companies can work toward many SDGs with how they conduct business: by promoting diversity and inclusion at the workplace, keeping their environmental impact as sustainable as possible, providing paid family leave and taking an active interest in the emotional well being of their employees, and developing products and services that make the world a better place.
This should come particularly naturally to 4IR companies, which are leveraging the most advanced technologies in human history to solve the most pressing problems our species faces.