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Britain can lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution

4 min read

Alan Mak MP writes ahead of today's Backbench Business House of Commons debate on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which he is leading.

The House of Commons chamber has seen plenty of firsts during its history. Today a small, but not insignificant addition is made to that list when MPs take part in the first ever debate on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The subject made it into the mainstream earlier this year when it was the theme for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos. The 4IR describes the unprecedented, fusion of digital, physical and biological technologies, which is being catalysed by artificial intelligence (AI), mass-automation and hyper-connectivity.

Headline grabbing breakthroughs have included the recent partnership between the Government and Amazon to test the use of drones to deliver parcels, slashing delivery times, as well as the rise in 3D printing, driverless cars, biotechnology, artificial intelligence and the “Internet of Things”. These advances will make as big a difference to the everyday lives of people as the World Wide Web did 30 years ago.

The web has undoubtedly become far bigger than Tim Berners-Lee could have imagined when he invented it. It is estimated that soon more than 50 billion things will be connected online – everything from washing machines to heart monitors.

The fast-moving pace of the 4IR means we need an early proactive approach to harnessing its power, so the UK can develop an early comparative advantage and become a world leader. Nearly 250 years ago Britain was able to seize that chance when it used coal powered engines to drive a steam revolution. Building on the British entrepreneurial spirit that fuelled the First Industrial Revolution must now be at the heart of a new strategy for the Fourth Industrial Age. We must adopt a free-market approach to policy development, preparing for the impact of disruptive technologies instead of reacting to events as they occur.

This Conservative Government already has a strong record of promoting enterprise and we would be building on strong foundations. Delivering the G20’s lowest corporation tax rate, attracting the world’s talent through the Entrepreneur and Exceptional Talent Visa schemes, and backing innovation hubs such as TechCity and Canary Wharf’s fintech-focused Level 39 will all help foster 4IR firms.

But while it is right to focus on opportunities, the rise of the 4IR stands to threaten some low-skilled professions, with some estimating that close to half of all jobs are at “high risk” from the threat of automation in the coming decades. For example, in the future only a constant supply of raw materials and energy might be needed to produce goods, which means continued investment in education and training is needed to nurture a flexible and skilled workforce that can adapt to labour market changes in the future.

Alongside a world-class workforce, businesses will also need the right tools to succeed. Just as the roads, bridges and viaducts of the First Industrial Revolution were driven by Great Britons such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the 4IR will need state-of-the-art digital infrastructure such as universal broadband and 5G internet. This connectivity will make it easier for companies to operate anywhere in the country, and it is vital the Government continues to roll-out its devolution programme so it is not just London and the South East that benefits from 4IR.

Britain has never been afraid to adopt a pro-innovation approach to technological development. We soon realised it was counter-productive to require drivers of early cars to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag. The same, forward-thinking approach when it comes to the 4IR must be adopted.

The time is now when it comes to developing pro-4IR policies, especially as the Prime Minister develops a new Industrial Strategy for the nation. That’s why I secured the debate with cross party support and why I will listen with interest to my colleagues’ contributions. Policymakers should approach the 4IR with the same free-market and open-minded spirit that brought global success to Britain 250 years ago.

Alan Mak is the Conservative MP for Havant & Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Entrepreneurship.

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