February 1, 2018
From the President

Philanthropy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

By Hilary Pearson

January is the month in which the World Economic Forum holds its Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Media coverage of this event usually focuses on the speeches and pronouncements of political leaders, and economic and financial projections of global economic growth and wealth distribution. But the WEF meeting has an underlying agenda, focused on the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution – a revolution in human economy and society brought about by emerging technologies. These technologies extend the digital technologies of the Third Industrial Revolution which began in the 1950s with digital computing. They include the extension of digital technologies (for example the Internet of Things); artificial intelligence and robotics, biotechnologies and altered reality technologies, and major changes in manufacturing, energy and geoengineering.

Why is this important to philanthropy? As they develop, these technologies will change the way we work, eat, move around, communicate, create, and understand the world around us. They have the potential to bring about a fundamentally different society and economy, and to have an impact on inequality, democracy, and gender relations, to name only a few areas of human life. The role of philanthropy is to create social good – to make the world better. Philanthropists must understand the opportunities and risks of these technologies if they hope to succeed in whatever area they have chosen to work for public good.

Some examples of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution affects areas of concern to philanthropy:

  • Artificial intelligence and automation are changing the world of work and the skills needed for the jobs of the future – any philanthropist interested in youth, education and attachment to the work force has to understand these changes to frame relevant philanthropic strategies.
  • Digital platforms and social media are changing the way in which people access information, get “news” and learn about issues – any philanthropist interested in citizen engagement, democratic dialogue and equal participation needs to understand how these platforms are changing the context for democracy and government.
  • Digital technologies are fundamentally changing medical research and diagnostics and the delivery of health care – any philanthropist interested in scientific discovery or improving health outcomes needs to understand how these technologies are accelerating the opportunities for health systems breakthroughs.
  • Connected digital platforms and tools such as downloadable smartphone apps are enabling the transfer of information and virtual “cash” directly into the hands of people who need it. Any philanthropist interested in humanitarian relief, support for refugees and migrants, and support for marginalized people excluded from financial systems and communication networks will be interested in finding out how the new systems will rapidly empower people and transform their capacity to help themselves.
  • The digitization of data collected by government about individuals will provide compelling opportunities for nonprofits and their funders for better evidence –based interventions. This digitization also raises the need for rules to govern data sharing and security that are essential for nonprofits and donors to understand and to develop in collaboration with government.

These are just some of the examples of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution matters for philanthropy. What is becoming clearer is that philanthropy, as every other sector, will be changed itself and will witness fundamental changes in the practices of partners and collaborators. As we move forward, philanthropy can engage more proactively in the changes by:

  • Supporting communities and organizations who want to understand and use the new technologies most effectively;
  • Developing strategies that take into account the impacts of emerging technologies and how to use them to empower people not to disenfranchise them;
  • Collaborating to support the development of regulatory frameworks that build trust and confidence in the new technologies as tools to benefit, not damage, human life and the environment of the planet.

For more reading:

The WEF has produced an article defining  the Fourth Industrial Revolution and has launched a 10-part podcast series for those who want to understand more about the very complex social and technological changes to come.

Note re Davos 2018:  For those interested, the WEF makes available on video some of the discussions that took place at the WEF Annual Meeting. One particularly interesting conversation on The Evolution of Consciousness features Prof Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, Prof Yuval Harari of Hebrew University in Israel, and Dr Jodi Halpern of UC Berkeley on the fascinating question of what a future of intelligent machines and conscious human beings might look like.

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