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Director of the Ullman School of Design, America’s oldest university-based design school.
The world is being changed in many new ways. The Covid-19 pandemic that has placed the entire planet on hold is just one part of this disruption. Another less dramatic but equally important change is also taking place in the midst of it all: the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Most people are familiar with this development under the term Industry 4.0.
A Brief History Of Industrial Revolutions
By the mid-1850s, powered by water and steam, the First Industrial Revolution marked the introduction of mechanized production. With the invention of electricity, by the beginning of the 1900s, the Second Industrial Revolution enabled mass production to take place. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the Third Industrial Revolution leveraged the use of electronics and information technology to automate mass production. At the turn of the century, new cyber-physical systems started shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the intent of taking the automation process to an entirely new level.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, these new developments will cause major disruptions not only to many of the existing industries and business models, but also to the labor markets. Unlike creating a threat for low-skilled laborers, as was typically the case in the past, this new industrial revolution is now capable of replacing many high-skilled employees as well.
Brave New World
By now, this new data- and technology-driven revolution, powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, is emerging in every industry sector. My own field (design) is being affected as well.
New advances in generative technologies driven by artificial intelligence are already changing the traditional design process. This new technology can generate hundreds of thousands of design iterations in a matter of seconds in order to identify the optimal design solutions. In doing so, this technology can take into account variables such as cost, materials and manufacturing processes, and use these as design parameters.
This, however, doesn’t mean that the designers will become obsolete. It does mean that certain tedious and highly technical design tasks can be replaced by a much superior process. In the years to come, this technology will likely change the field of design profoundly. For designers who have well-developed critical thinking skills, are highly analytical and are comfortable framing complex problems, this kind of technology will be an asset. For designers who primarily focus on technical execution and need a detailed design brief to operate, this technology will be a detriment.
If Industry 4.0 is capable of disrupting a sector that is characterized by seemingly irreplaceable creative thinking, then what will it take for an average company and its employees to survive and thrive in a world defined by artificial intelligence?
The Need For New Skills
According to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, “between 400 million and 800 million individuals could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030 around the world.”
So, what does this mean for those who will be affected by this?
Numerous reports on the effects of Industry 4.0 point out that the ability to move from one job to another while adjusting to new environments quickly will become a new competitive advantage. The demand for soft skills will grow across all job sectors and will include critical inquiry, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem-solving. As our relationship with technology evolves, an education in humanities, arts and social sciences will become just as essential. These are the fields that can help us shape a new generation of human-centric leaders.
Skills in critical thinking, empathy, creativity, languages, philosophy, ethics and communication can help us understand the world better. These are the kinds of soft skills that will make us better humans and better leaders in a world dominated by technology. STEM education will continue to be important, but these skills will not be the only ones in demand. Global competencies like cultural awareness, languages, teamwork and adaptability will also be seen as important.
Without soft skills and knowledge in humanities, arts and social sciences, we cannot shape the direction of how technology is developed, we cannot identify what problems it should solve, nor we can understand the real-world concerns that should be addressed. After all, no matter how advanced, technology is only a tool, and as such its purpose is to serve people.
Many people will be required to unlearn concepts and ways of doing things that they have learned over a lifetime in order to successfully rebuild their careers. This shift in the workforce will, without doubt, disrupt many existing businesses, even if they invest in automation and new technologies.
One way for businesses to weather the storm is to help their employees develop skills such as critical thinking (an ability to reason and analyze) and creative thinking (an ability to invent or create something new). Despite what most people think, these are not natural-born talents; they are skills that can be taught. For these very reasons, human-centered design thinking, which encompasses these elements, has already emerged as a supplemental education of choice for many executives and entrepreneurs across a wide range of sectors.
How To Survive Industry 4.0
If employers invest in retraining their workforces to be curious, ask the right questions and seek answers across disciplines, then every moment of change will become a new moment of opportunity. More than ever before, business leaders need to embrace critical and creative thinking as key factors that can drive competition in the marketplace. And in many ways, this is already happening.
As the Harvard Business Review points out, there is already a growing acceptance in the business community, even in the tech sector, that fields such as humanities, arts and social sciences are becoming essential in a world dominated by technology. The only way that companies can develop successful businesses — even if these enterprises are driven by technology — is by developing an understanding of what it means to be human.
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