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Kevin McKinley


Davos and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Great things happen when the world agrees

Published: Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - 12:59

Walking the snowy streets of the small Swiss town of Davos, it was impressive to know that 40 heads of state and 2,500 leaders from business and society were there to talk about some of the most important global challenges facing us today.

In the main congress hall, I saw and met leading political figures like UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Queen Rania al-Yassin of Jordan, and the new Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Leading business executives from Facebook, AirBnb, Nestlé, Monsanto, IKEA,and many others were there mingling, too. International organizations were present in force, including Christine Lagarde from the International Monetary Fund and Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank. There were also film stars present, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kevin Spacey, sharing their ideas. 

The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Back during the 1700s, the world was transformed by the invention of the steam engine, followed by mass production, and much later, electronics. Today, as innovative cyber-physical systems like robots, 3D printing, and driverless cars break the boundaries of what we consider possible, we are on the verge of a new industrial revolution.

The implications of these developments were one of the main topics being debated during the forum. How will new technologies shape the world? Will the impact be felt more strongly in developing countries? What will it mean for the way humans interact? The point of these discussions, of course, wasn’t to halt progress but to take stock and consider the new direction in which our world is moving, and what issues and challenges we may need to address. Physicist Stephen Hawking recently said that it’s a “near certainty” that technology will threaten humanity during the next few thousand years. If this is the case, the technologies that this revolution develops will need to consider the sustainable, long-term implications of their use.

Artificial intelligence and robots are interesting examples and have certainly captured our imagination in books and films, and some of this fiction is already becoming real. History professor Patrick McCray and I discussed the contribution that standards will make in this new industrial era. History shows that making progress in this fourth industrial revolution will require new global standards. They not only have a key role in opening up opportunities, but also in setting expectations, boundaries, and limits.

An excellent example of the relationship of standards and innovation is ISO 13482 on the safety of personal care robots. This standard was a landmark for the industry at a time when no other guidance existed for manufacturers, simply because experience with the technology was lacking. Without some kind of standard, however, many industry players were not willing to invest millions into a product that may not be accepted because of safety or unknown new regulatory concerns. Today, we have a dedicated technical committee developing standards on robotics and providing greater certainty on the subject.

History shows that making progress in 4th industrial revolution will require new standards @LeapingRobot
1:29 AM - 20 Jan 2016

New technologies also carry new risks. One of the most alarming for organizations is cyber threats. During a cyber-security debate, House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey spoke about his fear of a repetition of last year’s Sony Pictures hack. For him, the hack was a wake-up call for everyone in his industry—in fact, any industry. He raised an important conclusion: Cyber security and the protection of valuable intellectual property are key challenges for artists in today’s digital era. ISO is active in this area, developing tools to help organizations set up a solid cyber-security infrastructure and response system.

Agree with @KevinSpacey about risk of cyber threats and need to protect valuable IP. #wef
4:00 AM - 20 Jan 2016

Another interesting conversation that took place at Davos related to smart cities and infrastructures. Urban migration and the drive toward new technologies in cities will mean that implemented systems need standards to work together. Coherent standards will ensure the performance and protection of city assets, and the safety and well-being of citizens.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, raised a parallel issue for the city of the future: It is predicted that global urban infrastructure will need to double during the next 35 years. So how do we make sure that we build sustainably? This year, ISO, IEC, and ITU will hold a smart city forum that will engage city managers and other stakeholders to see how standards can support them on this road.

There were many thought-provoking and inspiring discussions during the forum. There’s a potential role for ISO standards in so many places. Many leaders are unaware of the power and leveraging effect of standards in this fourth industrial revolution, but this is slowly changing. ISO standards are being seen by the enlightened as keys for market access and the propagation of new technologies. Without them, innovations simply can’t proceed at the desired exponential pace.

Standards are also repositories of the world’s best practices. They are a way of passing down solutions for complex global challenges to the people and organizations who need to address the issues. Great things happen when the world agrees, and the need for common global solutions from ISO will grow in pace with the need for new technologies and new solutions to support a truly sustainable world.


About The Author

Kevin McKinley’s picture

Kevin McKinley

Kevin McKinley is the acting secretary-general for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).