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If there’s a common buzzword in almost any industry these days, it’s sustainability. Its ubiquity tells us something about its importance — but even as we become more familiar with the term, the concept itself has become largely diluted.
Traditionally, our conversations around sustainability have been focused on two concerns: fighting global warming and conserving natural resources. These are indeed two serious challenges that need to be addressed on a global scale, but true sustainability goes beyond simple discussions of environmentalism.
If you look at the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, environmental concerns are just a fraction of what sustainability really means. It is not just about climate change; it’s about society, equal opportunity, health, education and creating healthy economies. A sustainable future is one in which goods and services are cheaper and easier to access for more people. It is a future that elevates our collective standard of living and allows future generations to do the same.
If the narrative continues to focus solely on global warming and alternative energy sources, we impede collaboration by politicizing the issue, while also hindering our ability to elevate humanity as a whole. We have to take a more holistic view.
Instead, our conversations about sustainability should be about improving efficiency and raising standards of living through the judicious use of emerging Industry 4.0 technologies. This does not mean we stop development or the use of natural resources. It means developing to support human life in the long-term and using resources with minimal impacts on the environment.
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The friend of progress
The Industrial Revolutions of the past brought about the advancements that now allow us to live healthier, longer and more comfortable lives. The first Industrial Revolution gave us steam-powered engines and the use of machines to replace hand production, thus transforming our workforce, economies and lives forever. The second is known as the Technological Revolution, which gave us the freedom to transport and communicate in ways we never imagined through the creation of railroads and telegraph networks. The third, coined the Digital Revolution, brought computers for programming, making it possible for us to explore space, develop biotechnology and conduct more expansive research.
We are now on the cusp of yet another Industrial Revolution, known as Industry 4.0. Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, defines it as “new technologies that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries.” Every day we find possibilities within our reach that once only existed in science fiction novels. Through advances in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, the Internet of Things and cyber-physical systems, our processes will be streamlined and people will be more connected than ever.
But as we take the next step forward in the evolution of mankind, we’re barely grasping the concept of what Industry 4.0 will mean for the human race. We could take a more transformative approach if we start looking at our drive to be sustainable as an integral part of our shift to Industry 4.0.
Sustainability should view these advances through the lens of how they can help us work more efficiently, protect the climate and support modern life while continuously raising the standard of living for those in need. And we can see this type of sustainable development emerging all around the world, often as a consequence of increased computing power and virtualization.
Beyond physical resources, digital advancements can help us save time and money on systems and processes development. Instead of risking the real-world effects of a new or unproven process, we can simulate it using AI and plan accordingly. In this way, our decision-making is more sustainable because of the lower costs and lower environmental impacts of virtual modeling.
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An opportunity for everyone
With machines taking over human roles at a rapid pace, previous technological advances have created a fear that humans would be rendered obsolete. But as technology progresses, thousands of people worldwide will continue to be lifted out of poverty daily. When individuals can look beyond their immediate survival needs, they will be freer to perfect their talents, dream and self-actualize. Humankind’s capacity for creativity and innovation will be amplified, and there will be no shortage of jobs.
A sustainable shift to Industry 4.0 will demand continued human oversight, particularly in transitioning away from outdated technologies or “legacy systems.” As countries worldwide upgrade their infrastructures for the next wave of technology, humans will be required to manage that integration. This shift provides a chance for each person to play an integral role in our climb to a more sustainable future.
Sustainability is about elevating human life on this planet and Industry 4.0 is the vehicle to get us there. But we can’t know everything. We still don’t know the full impacts of self-driving cars, for example, or all the healthcare advances that artificial intelligence will fuel. But, just like the Industrial Revolutions of the past, Industry 4.0 innovations will improve the future of humankind for ages to come.
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