2019 Raleigh Lecture -The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Its Context and Its Impact on Entrepreneurship

The revolution will be televised.  It will also be digitised, analysed, and personalised.  The Fourth Industrial Revolution is affecting the ways in which we all live and work.  Recent decades have introduced technologies to the workplace that change how we work – the internet, emails, and video conferencing.  However, IR4 is changing the very nature of work itself. There is a need to re-evaluate which attributes, experiences and working practices hold the most value and where new opportunities may be found. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Its Context and Its Impact on Entrepreneurship was the title of the 2019 Raleigh Lecture.  Sponsored by Briars Group and PDA Group, the lecture was once again held in the splendid surroundings of Drapers’ Hall.  Over 100 students from state and independent schools with links to the City of London gathered for an event which comprised of two parts.  The afternoon featured workshops and a group discussion on the history and context of IR4.  In the evening, the students and other distinguished guests were treated to a keynote speech by Dr Ruben van Werven followed by a panel discussion featuring both academics and entrepreneurs.

The inaugural Raleigh Lecture in 2018 focussed on the entrepreneurial life of Sir Walter Raleigh himself.  The shift in time from the Tudors to tomorrow is not as great as you may imagine.  It is often said that the past is like a foreign country.  The same may be said of the future.  The new world heralded by IR4, like an unexplored shore, might appear daunting, be filled with exciting potential, or perhaps both.  The students, in their discussion groups, believed that the potential advantages and opportunities of this new world outweighed the risks.

One student remarked that “the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the online nature of business will bring significant opportunities to entrepreneurs”.  Indeed, recent years have produced numerous case studies of forward thinking individuals finding new commercial applications for emerging technology – perhaps well beyond what the original inventors of the technologies had envisaged.  Another advantage discussed was technology as a social leveller.  From the days of Raleigh to recent times, patronage and connections were key to success.  Now that we can reach a global audience from the comfort of our smartphone, things are different and, as one student commented, “Anyone can start with an idea then build from there”.

The flipside of IR4 was also discussed.  Though no students were fearful of a Hollywood style AI revolution or the robots turning on their masters, there were genuine fears expressed about data protection and privacy in this new age.  This is a generation acutely aware of, and affected by, this issue.  Though many of the Freemen facilitating the event remember a time before our data was routinely harvested and sold, the students have had their preferences and online behaviours recorded for their entire lives.  This has instilled an optimistic but guarded attitude to life and approach to entrepreneurship.  “Be aware of which companies you give info to and protect your online privacy, both as a consumer and a producer” was a common refrain.  It is very sound advice.

Other key themes to arise from the students’ discussion on technology were education, ethics, and entrepreneurial spirit.  It was acknowledged that AI will dominate the number-crunching data analysis of the future (or indeed, of today).  What will remain beyond the grasp of simple AI is the ability to interpret results, draw conclusions and generate new ideas.  These tasks require teams of humans, ideally equipped with a strong set of ‘soft skills’ in order to work effectively together – but the question remains as to how students can be better prepared for these roles and how these skills can be assessed.

Dr van Werven’s fascinating talk revisited the themes discussed that afternoon, reminding the audience that IR4 is a genuine revolution.  Unlike new technologies which have increased efficiency or the ability to communicate, the changes underway stand to alter not just how we work but the nature of work itself:  IR4 impacts the amount of jobs, initiates changes in job roles, and creates a shift in the skills needed.  He also echoed the students’ views on improved technology enabling greater diversity and concluded that “The Fourth Industrial Revolution creates opportunities for everyone”.

The event was a resounding success and there were moments of value to be found throughout the day, even between the set-piece proceedings.  Many students spoke with great enthusiasm about the networking time and the opportunities they were given to speak to Freemen of the Guild of Entrepreneurs – to pick their brains or hear stories of their journeys.  Many thanks are due to the organisers, our sponsors, our speaker and our hosts for making the event possible and let us look forward to the next Raleigh Lecture, sometime in our digitally revolutionised future.

James D.F. Mellor

Hon. Historian 

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