Rhodri Davies: Why civil society is a vital missing cog as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Tech companies cannot go it alone in this world of AI, blockchain and 'the internet of things'

Rhodri Davies
Rhodri Davies

The growth and convergence of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and the "internet of things" has led to a "Fourth Industrial Revolution".

Up to now it is the tech companies of Silicon Valley and beyond that have led this revolution, but if it is to have a lasting positive impact on humanity they cannot go it alone – it is vital that civil society is involved.

The creations of the new tech titans are changing the way we work, communicate and interact with each other. They are transforming financial systems, governance structures and even whole industries. But the benefits are often not felt equally across society, with some communities benefiting and others suffering. And civil society – organisations such as charities and NGOs – is left to pick up the pieces.

As a result, the World Economic Forum has today launched a new project called Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, at its annual Davos conference. Through this new platform, the WEF aims to bring civil society, industry and policymakers together to explore shared approaches to the opportunities and challenges that technological advances might bring.

The organisation of which I’m head of policy – the Charities Aid Foundation – is a contributing partner to this report and part of the ongoing advisory group, having explored the potential impact of emerging technology on charities for a number of years in our own work.

There are huge opportunities to deliver social and environmental missions more effectively through new technology. Around the world there are many inspiring examples of "tech for good" that attest to this: such as the application of machine learning to find new early warning signs for diseases like Parkinson’s, or the use of virtual and augmented reality to improve wellbeing among end-of-life care patients.

The role of civil society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not just about using technology, however. Civil society organisations also have a crucial role to play in highlighting some of the negative consequences of technological development on the people and communities that they serve, many of whom are often among the most marginalised in society.

We are already aware of some of these darker sides of technology. The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal last year brought the question of how our online personal data is used to the forefront of public attention.

Likewise, there is a growing awareness that when algorithms are trained using data that contains historical biases, they exhibit and strengthen those same biases, and that this is having a real-world impact as people find themselves on the wrong side of automated decisions based on nothing more than their gender or skin colour.

Civil society organisations can bring to light the ways in which technology is affecting real people’s lives and work with tech companies to ensure they minimise any unintended negative consequences.

But we might also need to question some of our assumptions about the inevitability of technological development and challenge the idea that problems with profound societal implications can be seen merely as questions of "tech ethics", dealt with from within the tech sector itself. In some cases, more traditional mechanisms of legislation and policy might be necessary.

That doesn’t mean that the relationship between civil society and the tech sector needs to be antagonistic, though. Civil society should value the tech sector for its vast range of skills and tools that could transform lives around the world for the better.

Likewise, the tech sector should value the perspective of civil society organisations – even when that perspective is occasionally challenging – because they bring genuine understanding of the needs and priorities of communities around the world.

We need to recognise that this will not happen automatically, however. There is a huge power imbalance between civil society organisations and giant tech companies. And even when they do meet they often seem to be speaking a different language. Organisations such as the WEF therefore have a vital function in bridging the gap between these worlds and enabling all sides to engage in a meaningful way.

Looking back at previous industrial revolutions, it is clear that civil society organisations played a key role. From the abolition of child labour to the introduction of clean air legislation, the work of civil society has helped to minimise the harm done by technological change while ensuring that the benefits are felt as widely as possible.

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, civil society needs to play this role once more. The WEF’s new project offers a valuable platform to ensure this happens, and we look forward to working with it and many others to make this vision a reality.

Rhodri Davies is head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation

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