The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a term many businesses have become all-too-familiar with, and though only coined as a phrase in 2015 by German engineer and economist, Klaus Schwab, the truth is we’ve been firmly part of it for some time and it’s evolving at lightning speed.

Scotland’s businesses have a unique opportunity to grasp hold of the prospects this presents. The country’s breadth of experience in the many fields driving Industry 4.0 -including robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 5G and the Internet of Things – is one way we’re equipped for the journey, but our greatest advantage is our DNA.    

Scotland is a really interesting size. The Goldilocks size, as I like to call it. We’re not too big, and not too small – we can wrap our arms around the economy, we can easily see what’s going on and become well-connected very quickly, whether that’s to people or technology – something many economies lack.  

Scotland can use its makeup to its advantage. The nimble nature of the country means businesses can adapt to the pace and change of technology and can react much faster to the opportunity for global connectedness Industry 4.0 presents. It has also broken borders that may have existed in the past, which has seen unique business models emerge in Scotland, giving companies the opportunity to engage with clients and customers in new ways. There are much fewer limitations for businesses now than ever before.

A reduction in outlay is another key change we’ve seen during Industry 4.0 compared to the industrial revolution. Where the industrial powerhouses of the last century were capital and asset-intensive, now, some of the world’s wealthiest organisations have very little capital or physical assets. Access to technology, data and compute resource has significantly lowered the barriers to entry for businesses, which has given many Scottish organisations the chance to grow – and fast.

But the Fourth Industrial Revolution isn’t without its challenges. The pace of change is so fast that it’s difficult for businesses to spot and leverage opportunities quickly, before the landscape changes again. A lack of boundaries can also become a challenge, as disruption – whether in the form of a business model or technology – can come from any angle, from any corner of the world, and can be deployed swiftly.

It’s hard, but extremely exciting to imagine where we’ll be five or ten years from now

Industry 4.0 means companies are no longer competing with the business down the street, or even in the next city, but rather, contending with each other on a global scale, certainly if they’re leveraging emerging technologies.

Automation and artificial intelligence present further challenges. From a societal perspective, we should be conscious of the impact on people’s working lives. In the industrial revolution of the last century, machinery changed the landscape of work and it’s happening again with these new capabilities. However, I don’t believe machines are taking over. Deployed appropriately, these technologies can augment the work we do, freeing up time to take on more challenging, stimulating tasks. They offer us an opportunity to grow, but business leaders must be conscious of leaving people behind. We must always ask ourselves if we are ensuring we take everyone with us on this journey and this is where investment in upskilling and training the workforce is crucial.  

In the four years since the Fourth Industrial Revolution was introduced as a named concept, so much has changed. It’s hard, but extremely exciting to imagine where we’ll be five or ten years from now. The speed at which technologies are evolving in Industry 4.0 can be intimidating for many businesses, which is why it’s important those who are unsure how to harness the opportunities collaborate with organisations such as The Data Lab to realise the benefits and to futureproof their companies.

There are also industry-specific innovation and support organisations, such as the Scottish Government-funded Innovation Centres programme, all part of a growing community of both businesses and passionate individuals, there to assist organisations and ensure they’re part of the journey.  

The Fourth Industrial Revolution presents a huge opportunity for businesses in Scotland, but investment must be made to grasp hold of it. Help exists to maximise the economic and societal impact of this evolution we’re undeniably part of, but the business community must work to understand their organisation’s role within it and work with their boards and leadership teams to identify the transformative opportunities that undoubtedly exist for them.   

Gillian Docherty is chief executive of The Data Lab.