It’s only been a few weeks into 2018 and the year is already fizzing with energy. The dominant image to date is thankfully a positive one: a cherry-red Tesla drifting improbably into space. The simultaneous booster landings were equally impressive and a likely game-changer; the moment when Mars felt just that bit closer.
You could say we are now living in Muskian times, defined by the “impossible” – the what if. We are peering into a new world of opportunity: the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
This is good news for Brits who have given the world innovative leaps forward throughout the ages. We invented the telephone, toothbrush, toilet, steam engine, jet engine, sewage system, computer, television, railway, world wide web, ATM and Timmy Mallett. In other words, much of the modern world.
We do creativity and innovation very well (while other nations successfully “monetise” our efforts – after all, where would Apple be today without Sir Jonathan Ive?). Where our curiosity comes from, our universities aside, I have no idea. Maybe it’s our richly diverse nation. Maybe it’s the awkward weather – a case of more bugger-it thinking than blue-sky thinking. Maybe it’s our wildly contrasting landscape, inspiring us to dream.
Now we find ourselves rushing headlong into a new world, shaped not only by progress in individual areas like artificial intelligence, robotics and big data but moreover a blurring of these, or a connecting of the dots, that will give rise to unprecedented changes in how we live, work, play and learn – if such distinctions still apply. What would 3D-printed self-driving cars in a smart city look like, for example, as we’re ferried to our co-working spaces? And that’s assuming we’re all still working.
Furthermore, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be characterised not only by technological fusions but fusions of a different variety, in the form of cross-sector and cross-cultural collaborations.
I suppose it’s the logical next step coming years after globalisation and the internet connected the world for the first time in human history (that would be the Third Industrial Revolution). Tribes are brought together – virtual touch paper lit – resulting in the emergence of new paradigms and ideas. This is good timing, as pressing global challenges from climate change to rapidly ageing societies demand “out of the box” thinking.
Arguably, Vanilla Ice saw these days coming with his prescient 1990 words “Stop! Collaborate and listen. Ice is back with my brand new invention.” But I suspect even he doesn’t know what lies in wait for humanity.
We know what a world with smartphones looks like (glassy-eyed commuters hunched over a bright slab), but whatever comes next will probably take us all by surprise. We think we know, but really we don’t. The world moves in mysterious ways. After all, Concorde was a world-beating aircraft and look where it is today – parked forlornly on the Heathrow apron like an umbrella left forgotten on a Paddington bench.
But what is certain is that there is demand for world-class British ingenuity, in a collaborative context. It’s not just cultural exports like Shaun the Sheep proving popular, but our innovation in areas such as AI, smart cities, aerospace, space, fintech, design, esports, and more.
Here’s an example: China is rapidly urbanising and people are living longer. Brits are good at design, including designing stuff for older generations; we have strong smart city credentials, making cities more inclusive and liveable; and we are doing great work in digital health. If you’re good at designing products that bring lifelong benefits to all of society, for example, there’s a natural fit right there in China.
This is all a very long way of saying that all this and more will be discussed at the GREAT Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong this week, an event that will see very influential people from Britain and Asia in government, industry and education talk about world-changing advances from satellite technology to cybersecurity and how they will impact our lives.
The steam locomotive, the telephone, television, Concorde, Dolly the sheep, the world wide web: the UK is good at innovation because it always has been.
That's why we are hosting the GREAT Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong from Wednesday #GREATInnovation pic.twitter.com/mis3dCsM33
— Department for International Trade (@tradegovuk) March 19, 2018
Disclosure: I’m providing comms support alongside brilliant colleagues, but this personally inspires me (as I’m sure it will inspire many of you) and I’m writing in a personal capacity.
Reading about some of the things that our innovators and entrepreneurs do, I’m in awe. They’re quite brilliant. Like Small Robot Company, which replaces big tractors with small robots through a ‘Farming as a Service’ model. Why didn’t I, coming from a town excelling in robotics and surrounded by farms, think of that? Is my coffee not strong enough? (It also feels highly symbolic; it was the agrarian revolution, after all, that preceded the first industrial revolution.)
Topics at the festival will include the workplaces of the future, where tomorrow’s aircraft could take us, smart cities, the future of travel, green infrastructure, storytelling, esports, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and much more. The Belt and Road Initiative will also be on the agenda.
Around 10 years ago, the world changed in a series of pivotal events – the Financial Crisis, the birth of the iPhone, the rise of Facebook and the emergence of the millennial. We appear to find ourselves again at another juncture. Let’s make the most of it in ways that benefit us all.