Leadership challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution As much as technology is a product of science and engineering, it is also a product of values and institutions.

Leadership is about defining what the future should look like and getting stakeholders not only to share but develop that future together.

This definition is at the core of the World Economic Forum and the design of its programming. But what happens when the future reveals itself only by blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological?

At the practical level, we appear to be adapting quite well when it comes to adopting new technologies that assist our daily lives. For example, our mobile phones are used to do everything from purchasing grocery items, to providing translations, to giving us the latest information on public transportation.

But the “ubiquitous” systems that enable our purchases (e.g. GPS, 4G, iOS and Android) are also ushering in a future where billions of connected devices will transform business models and customer experiences. At the conceptual level, we seem less adept at processing the systemic implications of rapid technological change. Perhaps our mental models are better suited to a “complicated” reality where change is often linear versus a “complex” one where change can be exponential.

Whatever the case may be, now is the moment to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions that influence how society at large envisions the future. For example, have we accepted the notion that companies promoting your singularity are also pursuing massive scale, which relies on using your data ? Do we trust governments to have the competency to address such regulatory challenges that require novel solutions? These are the leadership dilemmas of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Holding on to our human values in a digital revolution

Technological change not only forces us to reassess reality but also to reflect and reassert our values. Today, pharmacology and genetic engineering promise powerful treatments that go far beyond therapy. What if human enhancements become essential to compete for top grades and top jobs? Gene editing technologies not only open the door to personalized medicine but are also an increasingly viable tool to resurrect extinct animals like the woolly mammoth or to eliminate dangerous pests like disease-carrying insects. What if human design replaces evolution?

To tackle such questions we need to expose contradictions and orchestrate collaboration within and across individuals and constituencies. Much of our programming is aimed at fostering well-informed debates about the societal dilemmas that emerge from scientific and technological innovation. The topics range from our growing addiction to algorithms to the implications of corporate-led research.

To shape the impact of technological change we must clarify what matters most, in what balance, with what trade-offs. We must face problems for which there are no simple and painless answers. Technical challenges match well with a thought-out, detailed plan, and this gives us comfort. Adaptive challenges require novel solutions, but until we discover them our future readiness will rely upon greater resilience and agility.

Collaborating to succeed

Collaboration between the next generation of industry, government and academia will be essential to create a shared vision of the future. The speed, breadth and depth of the Fourth Industrial Revolution forces us to rethink how countries develop and how organizations create value.

Seven years into the global economic recovery, the reconstruction of the future is in full swing, but conclusions of the impact of technological change are divided. Engineers say that a new idea has been “invented” when it is proven to work in the lab. Economists point to an “innovation” only when it can be replicated reliably on a meaningful scale at practical cost. But both camps agree that innovations with larger systemic implications occur when ideas from entirely different fields intersect.

From machine intelligence to advanced robotics, major breakthroughs at the intersection of the physical, digital and biological worlds are expected to reach their tipping point from invention to innovation within less than 10 years, according to more than 800 executives and experts surveyed by the World Economic Forum. The caveat is that when seeking out examples of great innovations we look for shiny new things. At the other extreme, those fearing technology-driven disruption risk suffocating innovation and entrepreneurship.

The key is understanding that technology does not evolve in isolation. As much as it is a product of science and engineering, technology is also a product of values and institutions. Rather than asking what technology will do to us, we need a shared vision of how it can better benefit economies, societies and each and every one of us. The challenge is to convince our leaders to collaborate to this end, as the true impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution lies in our own hands.

This article was published by HBR Chinese on June 22, 2016

About Sebastian Buckup