Process automation, systems integration, digitalised production, the internet connecting every object in the factory, collaborative robots transformed from “caged” machines into intelligent colleagues.

These are just some of the technological innovations that underpin what has come to be known as the fourth industrial revolution: Industry 4.0.

The subject is interesting and extremely complex: leaving aside the innovation it brings to production and the value and competitiveness it can generate (the Industry 4.0 plan introduced by the Italian government in the 2017 Stability Law moves in this direction), it opens up scope for thought and action in the area of corporate social responsibility.

In my opinion, there is a very close link between the fourth industrial revolution and CSR. The digitalisation of industrial production has a direct impact on employment and, through this, on society. And if the forecasts are right – 47{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622} of industrial production will be fully automated by 2028 – the impact could be explosive.

Will people lose their jobs because they’ve been replaced by machines? Will the numbers of new professionals required by digitalisation (data scientists, automation experts, application or smart device developers, software programmers, systems integrators, etc.) be greater or smaller than today’s factory workers? Will the boost to productivity and competitiveness be sufficient to guarantee new jobs for people in companies that lose out to competitors and have to cut their workforces?

It’s not my role to make forecasts or suggest solutions. There is already a significant output of material, supporting often diametrically opposed opinions. Some authors suggest possible political action (citizenship income), others advocate a modern form of Luddism.

The point I want to underline is this: whatever the outcome of the current process of change, the companies leading it – and their stakeholders with them – must take responsibility for the process and steer it in a direction that simultaneously ensures economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Too often, manufacturers and their suppliers still focus on only one of these areas – economic sustainability – or on the advantage the technological investment can bring to their own organisation.
They fail to see that this revolution will change everything. What would happen, for example, if the jobs of 50{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622} of the workforce were actually lost to the productivity and zero defects guaranteed by automation? What market could survive with a 50{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622} fall in consumers?

On a less provocative note, I believe companies that offer “enabling technologies” – the name for the innovations taking us towards Industry 4.0 –, the companies that use them and their consultants – including CSR and communication specialists – should embark together on a collaborative initiative as soon as possible to establish what type of social and environmental context, as well as economic context, should be built.

This doesn’t mean stopping innovation and evolution, which, in any case, offers significant benefits for the automation of strenuous, repetitive or potentially dangerous work or the ergonomic improvement of jobs and related duties.

It means governing a process that will call the world as we know it into question – is indeed already doing so – and, if necessary, introducing social, political and economic (not only production) changes that guarantee widespread wealth. Even if, as some people think, this will entail taking a new look at the social pact that unites us, the generally accepted definition of wealth and the dogma of profit at any cost.

What do you think?