Some call it Industry 4.0. Others feel the term Fourth Industrial Revolution gives a better idea of the epoch-changing impact of the phenomenon we are currently experiencing: a transformation comparable to the great industrial revolutions of the past.
The First Industrial Revolution, which took place between the end of the 18th century and the start of the 19th, centred around mechanisation and the steam engine. It turned an agrarian society into an industrial society. Electricity was the driving force of the Second Industrial Revolution, which occurred between the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th and saw the invention of, among other things, the assembly line and mass industrial production. The Third Industrial Revolution commenced in the 1980s and resulted in the transition from analogue to digital, first producing personal computers and then the internet.
More disruptive than the other revolutions
What we are experiencing right now, however, is not just the era of the Internet of Things but also the Internet of Systems: it is a new phase that is grafted onto the digital revolution but also extends well beyond it. Robotics, AI, self-driving cars, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotech, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing are just some of the sectors that are delivering spectacular rates of progress at the moment.
In light of all of the above, World Economic Forum (WEF) founder Klaus Schwab feels that the changes we are experiencing are not just a natural evolution of the Third Industrial Revolution but actually mark the start of the Fourth.
Schwab cites three core reasons underpinning this definition. First and foremost is speed: the pace of the breakthroughs being achieved today has no historical precedent and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is evolving at an exponential rate rather than the linear one seen with the first three. The second is scope: this revolution involves not only leading-edge developed countries and high-tech sectors, but practically anyone with a smartphone anywhere in the world. Lastly – and most importantly – is its impact: the potential changes extend not only to our production systems but also to the systems behind the organisation of our society and governance.
While the first two revolutions were rooted in the physical world and the Third in the digital one, the Fourth finally brings the two together and is also adding the biological world to the mix through bioengineering (such as prosthetics and robotics for biomedical uses) and biotechnologies (e.g. GMO). So, not only has it begun unfolding in front of our eyes, but it may potentially prove to be the most disruptive of all.
The new energy paradigm
Two sectors in particular have the power to completely redefine the shape of the cities of the future: energy and transport. An article co-authored by Enel CEO Francesco Starace and Schneider Electric CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire focuses on these two factors and where they intersect: e-mobility.
We are witnessing profound transformations in the energy sector right now. The clearest change is the transition to clean sources, distributed generation (also known as on-site generation) and decentralised grid management with customers themselves playing an increasingly active role.
All of this has been made possible by progress driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution: the development of storage techniques for electricity and, most significantly, grid digitalisation. These innovations are also driving the spread of electrification: they are allowing us to transition to electric power in many different contexts, starting with transport.
E-mobility and beyond
Electric vehicles are already a reality on our city streets. According to a Bloomberg study almost a third of new cars will be electric by 2030. Alongside electrification, the new possibilities afforded by digitalisation are fostering the spread of car sharing and mobility-as-a-service systems, in other words subscription-based mobility services. And this is only the start: in the future, we will be seeing commercial fleets of electric vehicles and the spread of self-driving vehicles, both paradigmatic examples of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Also by 2030, using mobility-as-a-service autonomous vehicles (AVs) will cost 40% less than running a personal-use ICE (industrial combustion engine) vehicle according to the “Electric Vehicles for Smarter Cities: The Future of Energy and Mobility” report published by the World Economic Forum.
An opportunity to embrace
As is the case with all revolutions, the impact of these innovations will depend on the use to which they are put. As Starace and Tricoire explain, the future of electric vehicles (EVs) will be linked to three guiding factors: the development of an adequate charging network, prioritising the electrification of heavy-use, high-mileage vehicles (such as public transport, those used for car sharing and commercial fleets) and the right approach by political decision-makers and investors. By “right approach” we mean one that is market-oriented and open to all the stakeholders involved.
If these opportunities are embraced, then the changes the energy and mobility sectors are already undergoing will converge, something that is vital if the Fourth Revolution is to maximise the benefits to citizens in the area of electric mobility: when the sustainable cities of the future become a present-day reality.