(File pix) With the onset of 4IR, robots are used on a large scale in the automotive industry. Reuters Photo

LAST week, the review by Associate Prof Azeem Farouk on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) gave some perspectives of how complex the issue can be if 4IR is framed as a continuum, instead of an event which is the tendency inmost cases.

The latter is more about the “business”, devoid of broader socio-economic impacts as noted by the review. Hence, it is akin to the “mistakes” inadvertently made during the previous so-called industrial revolution that recognised less of its “socio-ecological upheavals” that continue until this day, and are worsening.

Yet, this is still the tip of the iceberg because other more complicated issues involving humanity itself, like the phenomena of “singularity” and “posthuman” have not even been broached. In other words, the story behind the story is still unfolding with lots of uncertainties still to be understood, let alone mitigate.

If the short-term goal is just about gross domestic product blinkered by the mere logic of economics, then we must be content that the big (messy) picture will be missing as we “progress” forward where all is not so rosy.

What then?

One such phenomenon relates to the concept of sustainable development (SD) and the 17 goals that were agreed upon by all UN member states when they assembled in New York in September 2015.

Globally crafted as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is a continuation of the unfinished programme of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015), and is governed by five overarching targets of people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership (5Ps) compared with just the first 3Ps in the case of MDGs; where peace is shaped by elements of dignity and justice.

In summary, the big picture is now clearly visualised as a post-2015 agenda over the period of the next 15 years until 2030.

Otherwise, it is also known as Agenda 2030 or Education 2030 when it involves mainly educational issues which are crucial in getting SD off the ground starting with a mindset change. Even before there can be a serious policy change. Against this backdrop, one wonders how 4IR can fit into the SDG mode. And, concurrently meet the 5Ps target when we seldom hear about them in the many elaborations about 4IR.

Is it at all “sustainable” in the context of the SDGs that were agreed to as per the 2015 United Nations General Assembly in New York?

Otherwise, what good is it for humanity in the longer term? For example, based on the “official” definition of SD, namely, one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs, 4IR seems to be off tangent, especially when the goal(s) for the longer term is illusive and vague — at best directed more towards “prosperity”—even then, in an “unsustainable” way if the other 4Ps are not engaged. It certainly falls short of the expectations to save the Planet Earth at large.

It can be made worse, when the “prosperity” outcomes from 4IR tend to be skewed to the haves, rather than the have-nots; the one per cent versus 99 per cent creating a new form of “slavery” in the labour force.

What is ironic, in developing countries like Malaysia, the discussion o n 4IR i s more widespread, championed by the industrial sector with support of the relevant government agencies.

Universities, for example, are asked to gear up with curriculum 4.0 almost overnight — or else risk being left behind.

While the structure and construct of the industry changes in tandem to accommodate the demands of 4IR, the universities remain within their archaic 19th century rigid (read bureaucratic) construct, struggling to force fit in the 4IR concept. Quite obviously it is an arranged marriage of convenience that is not bound to last under strained circumstances as it stands today.

What is even more ironic is the fact that the 4IR agenda has not even attained any form of global consensus unlike that of SDGs as mentioned above.

It was only in the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos that 4IR began to make inroads into countries like Malaysia, although the idea was initiated a few years back, especially in Germany.

It did so because Germany has arrived at a level of techno-industrial maturity with automation combined with cyber-technological advances. In addition, it experiences saturated employment plus the fertility rate is infinitesimal.

Hence, 4IR makes a lot of sense compared with countries that have exactly the opposite characteristics: low tech, high unemployment and productive birth rates.

In the case of the latter, they are bound to face (some unintended) backlash if they were to jump into 4IR headlong, the German-style.

Succinctly, it is not sustainable, what else in fulfilling all the 17 SDGs in any meaningful way, in particular, to end poverty, protect the ailing planet and ensure humanity enjoys lasting peace and equitable prosperity.

At the same time, it continues to evolve to protect (if not promote) the world’s inhabitants by balancing what is needed now and in the future. We need to have a deeper discourse on such critical issues before crowing 4IR as the panacea of the future.

Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abd Razak is a fellow of the Centre of Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS) and the chairman of Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia's Board of Directors

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