Brave new digital world

Phrases such as ‘Industry 4.0′, ‘Big Data’ and ‘The Internet Of Things’ are becoming common currency as the predictions of a new digital world and a new world of work in the global economy develop at a rapid rate.

How will the UK cope?

Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary, Tuesday, January 12th, 201

Phrases such as ‘Industry 4.0′, ‘Big Data’ and ‘The Internet Of Things’ are becoming common currency as the predictions of a new digital world and a new world of work in the global economy develop at a rapid rate.

The advent of the coming digital revolution is a hot topic with manufacturers, the media, academics and unions now looking on how the UK will handle the coming challenges that the new digital age will bring.

In November last year Andy Haldane the chief economist at the Bank of England told the TUC that up to 15m jobs could be ‘hollowed out’ as digitisation and robotics are introduced to the UK’s workforce.

He told a TUC conference, “Technology appears to be resulting in faster, wider and deeper degrees of hollowing-out than in the past. Why? Because 20th century machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but for cognitive ones too. The set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened.”

There was much media speculation as to whether his predictions were correct. But it grabbed their attention.

The fact is that nobody can accurately predict what the coming digital revolution will bring, the speed of these developments, in which sectors of the economy – nor how jobs and the world we work in will be significantly affected.

One prediction Andy Haldene did make is that the Bank of England studies show that those jobs with a “high creative and technical content,” and those that heavily draw upon “emotional intelligence,” are “the two classes of employment that are most impervious to the rise of robots.”

These predictions of course are not new. In 2013 Oxford Martin School’s report on the impact of future technology attempted to assess the extent of the threat to employment through technological change.

High risk

It concluded that 45 per cent of jobs in the UK were at ‘high risk’ of being taken over by computers within the next twenty years – in two stages. First, computers will start replacing people in fields like transport, logistics, manufacturing production and administrative support. Jobs in services, sales, and construction may also be affected in this first stage.

The report goes onto say states that there will be slow down due to bottlenecks in technical areas such engineering. But the prediction is that this will be followed by a second wave of computerisation, dependent on artificial intelligence putting jobs in management, science and engineering and the arts at risk.

But in manufacturing the use of industrial robots in sectors such as automotive manufacturing is well established, digitally connected production is common place and manufacturing companies are already using 3D printing and remote controlled maintenance.

The development of inter-connected vehicles is underway with many companies investing millions in R&D in developing autonomous vehicles.

So what made Andy Haldene’s prediction such big news?

First off – the speed of the growth of the digital and connected world is now being taken seriously. Then there is a realisation that the digital and interconnected world is already having significant effects on the economy and jobs.

A recent presentation by IBM ( illustrated the current impact of the digital world – pointing out that the digital disruption has already happened – and this very interesting fact.


This is that the world’s largest taxi company owns no taxis (Uber); the largest accommodation provider owns no real estate (Airbandb); the largest phone companies own no telco infrastructure (Skye, WeChat); the world’s largest valuable retailer owns no inventory (Alibaba); the world’s most popular media owner creates no content (Facebook); the fastest growing banks have no actual money (Society One); the world’s largest movie house owns no cinema’s (Netflix); the world’s largest software vendors don’t write the apps (Apple and Google). Add to that other emerging platforms and you can see what they are getting at.

We could easily argue we have seen it all before. Remember the bubble when internet companies were worth millions as investors poured money into them – only to see many of them crash and burn and or get taken over – anyone remember My Space, Boo.Com,, Tiscali?

‘Industry 4.0′ 

In manufacturing the most popular phrase for the digital revolution is ‘Industry 4.0′ – with a simple explanation that Industry 1.0 got it all going with machines powered by water or steam – creating the industrial revolution; Industry 2.0 developed mass production powered by electricity; Industry 3.0 was driven by the use of electronics and information technology and Industry 4.0 represents the new digital, cyber-physical connected age.

In Germany the giant IG Metall union (with its massive manufacturing base) is now working on how the new digital age will affect their members and employment structures in a country with employment based on co-determination and tight regulation in the workplace.

The union is examining how workers will adapt and how the union can organise ‘click workers’ or ‘cloud workers’ who will be outside of the their normal structures.

They are looking at (among other things) how to deal with the new flexible working patterns, the replacement of human work; 3D Printing; the extended us of cloud computing and crowd sourcing; computer based support for decision making; paperless logistics; the optimization of production using ‘big data’.

Equally they highlighting the dangers of the digital revolution creating more precarious work; a race to the bottom in social standards; the elimination work through the use of robotics and the monitoring of behaviour patterns and performance and individual flexibility – what IG Metall has called the ‘dark side’.

In order to get ahead of the game the German Federation Of Industries, IG Metall and the government developed – in 2014 – an alliance dubbed ‘The future Of industry’. Each side has their own concerns.

The employers say industry is facing a fourth industrial revolution, driven by the Internet, allowing for the physical and virtual worlds to merge. They want Germany to be ahead of the game.

IG Metall says the technology must not control people. “Every second job is at risk” and is putting employment, skills, training, flexible working and organising new workers at the top of the agenda.

The group has begun its work and working groups are now developing a ‘consistent agenda of medium and long term prospects for industries future’.


Join the Conversation