Data, the Driving Force of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)

The new technological advancements in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) are altering the way people live, work, and interact with one another. It is important for the people in developing countries like Sri Lanka to familiarise themselves with these technologies that are taking the world by a storm. According to an article by Devon McGinnis, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big data, Quantum Cloud Computing (CQC), Virtual Reality (VR), Robotics, 3D printing, Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain, are the technologies leading the 4IR. Policymakers should understand the enormous advantages presented by these technologies, as well as the possible adverse effects on certain population groups, especially due to inadequate skills and limited resources. This is essential to leverage the opportunities and navigate the challenges of the 4IR – particularly when it comes to achieving growth and equity.


In this regard, it is important to continuously monitor the population’s living conditions as well as changing patterns of the labour force and the skills in demand. Sri Lanka’s education system, including technical and university education, needs to be geared to meet the rising demand for high-skilled manpower. If Sri Lanka fails to face these facts early and take appropriate action, the country will be left behind the rest of the world. Since the technologies of the 4IR are highly dependent on data, including big data, it is important to formulate strong policies to facilitate the sharing and protection of data. Another major requirement is to ensure that necessary infrastructure, especially access to the internet, is in place, so that the benefits of the 4IR can be enjoyed by all.


Advantages and Challenges


According to the Founder of the World Economic Forum, Professor Klaus Schwab, the new digital revolution will have a direct, global impact. The internet has transformed the lives of billions of people, who are constantly connected to and by mobile devices that boast of unprecedented processing power and storage capacity. This allows for faster communication and financial transactions and unlimited access to knowledge. Some of the other advantages include increases in incomes and improvements in the quality of life of people across the globe, new products and services that increase efficiency and personal well-being, lowered costs of transport, business, and communications, greater efficiency in supply chains, the opening up of new markets, and rapid economic growth.


On the downside, the challenges posed by the 4IR are rising inequality due to the disruption of the job markets, more social tensions due to job market segregation between highly skilled and qualified workers and low skilled individuals, and the decreasing size of the middle class, as persons with high skills move up the income ladder, while those with low skills slip into poverty.


The Role of Data in 4IR


Advanced technologies driving the 4IR depends on large volumes of data; as such, a country’s success in the new digital era hinges on its ability to manage such data. Therefore, sharing data generated by different stakeholders, while maintaining the confidentiality of personal data to ensure data security and protect privacy, is essential. It is crucial for the workforce to develop skills to handle such large volumes of data. Big data is already being used in industrialised countries, in areas such as healthcare, education, business, banking, insurance, and government services. To take maximum advantage of these emerging dynamics, all types of data need to be fully consumed. For this to be a reality, data collected and generated through various processes need to be shared widely.


Most government and private sector organisations in Sri Lanka are reluctant to share their data with other agencies, as they fear the possibility of personal data being abused or misused. However, if the available data is not shared, it is rendered useless in fueling the 4IR. As such, Sri Lanka needs to get over its reluctance to share data. Unfortunately, when big data generated through routine operations by public and private organisations or data collected through census operations, national surveys, etc. are shared by many stakeholders, there is the inevitable risk of security breaches. Any mishandling or abuse of sensitive data will affect the trust of the stakeholders in the data system. To overcome this problem, it is necessary to have a strong coordination mechanism, as well as the cooperation of the public-private sector, and strong data policies and regulations to prevent any misuse of data, especially those of personal nature.


The Need to Formulate Strong Data Policy


Countries around the world are still experimenting with new approaches to data policy, as today’s rapidly-evolving technologies fall outside the existing regulatory framework and are making existing laws obsolete. Citizens would feel vulnerable if they suspect their governments are not sufficiently protecting them from the misuse and leaks of personal information. Therefore, new approaches are needed to formulate strong and effective data policies, which ensure the protection of individual data, while highlighting the importance of sharing essential data.


The Importance of Continuous Monitoring and Early Action


Continuous monitoring is essential to assess the rapidly changing demand for skilled manpower and to make necessary changes and improvements in the education system to meet future demands. It is also important to keep track of any deteriorations in the living standards of the people, due to loss of jobs or the lack of suitable employment opportunities. The regular surveys conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics, such as the Labour Force Survey and the Household Income and Expenditure Survey, could be improved further to analyse these trends more in-depth. In addition to these two surveys, it would be necessary to conduct a Labour Demand Survey at least once every few years. It should be the responsibility of the planners and the policymakers to make use of the findings of these surveys regularly and to develop workable and effective strategies to ensure that everyone in this country, irrespective of where they live, their ethnicity or social status, will be able to reap benefits of 4IR, without leaving anyone behind.



*This blog is based on a policy brief written for the ‘Sri-Lanka: State of the Economy 2019’ report on Transforming Sri Lanka’s Economy in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.