While there had been a gradual shift to flexible working over several years, the lockdown accelerated the need for people to adapt and learn to use various technologies and online platforms to keep in touch with friends, family, colleagues and clients.
As a result, the fourth industrial revolution has become more pertinent than ever. But what does this revolution involve and how will it impact parts of the economy, most notably the public sector?
The fourth industrial revolution combines the power of connected digital technology with artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and builds on the third revolution which introduced those connected digital technologies.
The first industrial revolution mechanised manufacturing and moved people from agricultural living to urban centres in the 19th Century, while the second revolution ushered in an era of mass production and consumption.
Simon Greenwood, an expert at global IT and business consulting services company CGI, believes people will be the critical factor behind the ultimate success of the fourth industrial revolution.
He says: “For the last 30 years, we have been deploying technology that helped people to be more efficient and productive. Now we are deploying technology that does the work of people at a much bigger scale than it did for previous generations. That will free up people to do other, more valuable work.
“This means that any organisation starting on an automation journey needs to think about how they are going to get the best out of their employees and give them rewarding careers. Strong change management is absolutely critical right at the start of any automation journey of this nature.”
CGI has many public sector clients, from central government to local authorities including Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Borders. It is involved in advising them on how to make the most of the opportunities that the changing landscape of work can bring and overcome any challenges.
Sumant Kumar, CGI director of digital transformation, says: “It’s not a matter of technology for the sake of technology. When engaging with the public sector, we look at how we can improve the citizen experience and increase efficiency. All public sector organisations have a budget challenge, so we look at how we can do more with less or the same money to improve lives using technology.
“The fourth industrial revolution is about leveraging technology to create benefits for society and the economy.”
He believes that the latest revolution can help address the issue of society becoming more divided, for example in terms of disparity of income. This is why governments are focusing on inclusion technology, such as AI, to help narrow gaps.
“We absolutely need to use technology to put people to better use and improve employment opportunities.”
Kumar believes that technology can aid recovery from the impact of the pandemic, for example with effective track-and-trace, and improve the situation for citizens in the longer term.
“Digital technologies can help open up the economy in a controlled way to get people back to employment and the economy back to normal,” says Kumar.
“The pandemic is likely to be a key milestone that will lead to a paradigm shift in the way we approach work. We also need to focus on building digital skills.”
Looking at challenges for the public sector in responding to this ‘new normal’ and benefiting from the fourth industrial revolution, Kumar points to the importance of quicker, more flexible purchasing processes.
He explains: “In the past, public sector procurement methods have sometimes been more strongly suited to buying bulk items than technology, but this is evolving in response to changing demand.
Greenwood strongly believes that the fourth industrial revolution will free people from ‘daily grind’ tasks and enable them to spend time on work that will, for instance, improve customer experience for users of public services.
He explains: “There will be opportunities but there will be challenges in the upskilling of people and education.
“It’s incumbent on everyone to upskill and accept they can’t go into a role at the age of 21 and expect to stay in the same job at that organisation for the rest of their lives.
“All industrial revolutions have brought benefits, but we also need to understand the socioeconomic challenges that come.”
He adds that previous marked shifts like this have generated more jobs, and the current one has the potential to do the same – but roles will be different.
“Not all work can be or should be automated,” says Greenwood. “We will still need such roles as care workers, teachers, doctors and nurses and these are all in the public sector. We might need more of those kinds of workers.”
And he believes the fourth industrial revolution will help citizens. “Many things could be cheaper and more abundant,”
As an example, Greenwood cites the creation of a 3D house in a single day, which would make it cheaper to construct than one that would take months and several workers to build.
Further improvements will come in the public sector as a result of harnessing new technologies to help improve services that are failing because of poor processes.
He says: “Technology will reduce costs. Citizens and consumers should continue to embrace the change and the better services and products it will deliver.”
President and chief executive of CGI George D Schindler shares the company’s perspectives on how clients can navigate through the impact of the pandemic and prepare for the future in his recent white paper, Charting the Path Forward with Resilience and Adaptability, available online at bit.ly/32EPV3dFor further information on preparing for the future of work, visit www.cgi-group.co.uk/en-gb/intelligent-automation