Into the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Ministry of Youth and Sports hosted a dialogue on Thursday with over 500 youths in University Malaya to engage them in mapping out the country’s journey for the next 33 years.

A dialogue first of its kind to kick start the brainstorming of the 2050 National Transformation (TN50) policy document, Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak delivered a policy speech, followed by a live Q&A with the stakeholders of the document – our youths.

Voice and ideas of 1.5 million youths in Malaysia would be sought after in primarily five areas – society, environment, economy, technology and connectivity, and governance.

Last week I attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting.

Held every January in Davos, Switzerland, this annual meeting sees the assembly of over 2 500 participants from businesses, head of states, scientists, artists, academicians and leaders from various fields who are shaping the world.

Here are helpful explanations of the four industrial revolutions by Deloitte:

(1) The First Industrial Revolution was when mechanical production facilities were powered by steam and water.

(2) The Second was during the division of labour and mass production with the help of electrical energy.

(3) The Third and perhaps where most developing countries including Malaysia is currently at, is the automation of production by electronic and IT systems.

(4) Finally, the Fourth, which is also championed by the WEF, is the fusion of cyber and physical systems.

As described by Professor Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of WEF, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the convergence of technology and the blurring of boundaries between the physical, biological and digital spheres.

This could mean a smart wearable device detecting the health of your pulse (biological) and delivering information to a designated app in your smartphone (digital). Taking it a step further, this data could be sent to your physician, and a medication is prescribed for you and sent to your doorstep (physical and customization).

In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, you might want to design your own furniture digitally, and print it at your own home using a 3D printer! A more relatable situation is when you need a transport to get to your destination, your ride-sharing app such as Uber or Grab gathers information from the physical world in real-time, informing you of the availability of transport services and an estimation of its fare.

As consumers this new wave of technological convergence have customised our lifestyles and empower us.

We are more in control of the type of products and services we use.

At the Forum, I was invited to a digital policy leaders meeting on jobs. The concern was whether technology would create or destroy jobs. Businesses would need to have a coherent strategy that re-skill employees to work effectively with new technology, and governments would need to be agile in adopting new strategies to mitigate societal risk while new broad-based opportunities are created.

Robotics and artificial intelligence for example, have reduced employment opportunities in the traditional manufacturing and construction industries in the American and European economies.

According to a WEF report, “The Future of Jobs”, during the period 2015 – 2020, over 5.1 million jobs could be lost to disruption in the labour market. Routine white-collar office tasks such as administrative roles would become less popular thus reducing job opportunities in these areas, while there would be a total gain of jobs in Computer, Mathematics, Architecture and Engineering related fields.

By 2020, more than a third of the core skill sets demanded by most professions would consist of skills that are yet to be considered crucial to the occupation today. The report also said that social skills in general, such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching. In contrast niche technical skills such as programming and machine operation would need to be complemented with good social and collaboration skills.

During the engagement session at WEF, a participant from the industry offered an interesting analogy.

The current trend in employment is not about the job itself but the role. It is about that skill badges you acquire during your role at an organization rather than the job positions you have assumed.

WEF Future of Jobs.jpeg

Discussing the Future of Jobs with state and business leader at the WEF, including the PM of Bangladesh, and the Federal Chancellor of Austria.

Another participant highlighted that companies would traditionally train their employees in their respective fields, for example, in engineering, to ensure continuous growth of the organization. However now a person’s ability to innovate is not determined by his or her field; rather, with technology, everyone is empowered to innovate.

This is evident when Japanese companies are doing away with their “lifetime employment system” and the “seniority wage system”. The former hires employees when they are fresh out of university and are expected to remain with the company with loyalty until retirement. The latter pegs your worth to the number of years you have worked for the same employer, meaning your wage is not a reflection of your performance or even promotion, but your seniority in the organization.

These systems are no longer sustainable in competitive economies like Japan. Workers are now taking ownership of their roles especially when given the right tools such as technologies, and always looking for a diverse range of experiences.

What is different in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that we have to start preparing for our next role while being employed in our current one.

To address the challenges of the future of jobs in the long term, one obvious way is to rethink our education systems. In Malaysia, as a start, an education reform that subjected to last year’s UPSR candidates to a new format was introduced – the higher order thinking skills (HOTS).

We have progressed from focusing on lower order thinking skills (LOTS) in primary schools, that is, reading, writing and arithmetic, to sharpening our children’s analytic skills, critical and creative thinking, and cognitive skills.

According to one popular estimate, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today would end up working in entirely new roles that are yet to exist. Therefore the introduction of HOTS is a good start to preparing our young generation for the future of jobs. Although much lesser students aced straight As in their UPSR last year due to the new format, I am optimistic that the pedagogy to help them strive in HOTS would improve over time.

Hence lifelong learning, reskilling and retraining are the key to survive the new job landscape.

A food for thought would be the degree of relevance of traditional resource based industries like agriculture, construction and manufacturing in our country. A good example is China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative that would invest heavily in infrastructure in South countries.

The development of manufacturing and construction small-medium enterprises would continue to provide job opportunities for young Malaysians. Of course, even these “traditional” industries have to embrace digital technologies to remain competitive.

Simultaneously, when automation and machine may reduce our working hours, we would have more leisure hours in our hands besides enjoying a longer lifespan thanks to the advancement in medicine and healthcare.

We may expect to see more opportunities in industries associated with leisure and entertainment such as eco tourism, sports, theatre, literature and culture, which require human interaction that could not be substituted by robots. This could be a new market for the developed world and could create a whole new segment of job opportunities.

Whatever the future may be, it is certainly the most exciting of times, and all the youths in the country are welcome to contribute their thinking and ideas to the discourse on TN50, to build a well thought foresight of 2050. Let us write our future together.

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