Two major visions of the future, with different histories, directions, and ambitions regarding the role of technology, dominate current discussions about what societies, economies and the environment will be like in the years ahead. The questions that drive these discussions are how to respond to changing socio-economic and environmental conditions; how individuals and societies can shape their worlds for the better; and how technology can be deployed to improve quality of life and the environments that support life.
The first of these two visions, conceptualized as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), promises a better world made possible through fresh advances in digital technologies and the progressive digitalization of economy and society. The primary focus of 4IR is on opportunities to improve the economies of industrialized countries, which are located mainly in the Global North. (1) These countries have already benefited from the previous three industrial revolutions, which were made possible first by the mastering of steam power at the end of the 18th century, then by electric power at the end of 19th century, and lastly, by the development and wide adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) at the end of the 20th century. (2) The resulting accumulated benefits include safe drinking water, sanitation, affordable energy, efficient transportation, a secure food supply, public healthcare, quality education, and access to ICTs and mobile communication infrastructures. (3) The big transformational promise of 4IR is in cyber-physical systems that will merge different digital technologies and integrate them within the physical, digital, and biological spheres. This will produce deep and systemic societal changes at a larger scale and a more rapid rate than previously seen.
The second vision of the future is articulated in the 17 goals and 169 targets of the UN Sustainable Development 2030 Agenda (SDGs). They are presented as "integrated and indivisible, global in nature and universally applicable, [and] taking into account different national realities." (4) The SDGs build on the efforts, achievements, and lessons of the previous UN Development Programme (UNDP) from 2000 to 2015 and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Both agendas assume that ICTs will make an impact, but decline to translate these expectations into concrete details. Concerns that "ICT is explicitly cited [but] the full potential of ICT is neither systematically nor adequately reflected in the individual goals and subsequent targets" have been magnified by the growing interest in 4IR. (5) For instance, a recently published UNDP report asks, "What contribution can new digital technologies make to the achievement of the SDGs, and in what ways do they threaten progress? How, when and by whom will these impacts be felt? What can be done to avert negative outcomes and ensure that automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and the new digital economy make a net positive contribution to the SDGs?" (6) These questions define a new perspective on the relationship between ICTs and development.
The digital divide is not the only possible source of digital inequality. (7) Moving away from preoccupations such as who has access to ICTs and how ICTs are used, which have influenced past ICT for development (ICT4D) research and practice, we should first ask what kind of future we can create with ICTs: what is possible; what is desirable; what is needed; and what is sustainable? For this, we need new research to more fully understand the relationships between (new) digital technologies, how change enabled through ICTs happens, and how ICTs influence socio-economic development. (8) Digitalization of society and economy requires not only investment in technological advancements, but also that countries develop capabilities in a wide range of areas that contribute to success: reliable connectivity and quality standards, internet and data security, financial and legal frameworks, and scientific and innovation capital. (9)
The aim of this paper is to offer a fresh theoretical perspective on possible routes to a more equitable digital future. The ideas presented are based on the analysis of findings reported in research literature and have been further strengthened through peer-review feedback. The paper outlines the role of four key stakeholder groups, who are active at the intersection of the sustainable agenda and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: those delivering the SDG targets, including the research communities who are members of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN); those who are involved in the implementation of the 4IR vision; those advancing ICT4D; and those who control trade in digital technologies, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). (i) The paper explores their roles in technology adoption and incentives to promote socio-economic change, and maps them to key drivers of technological change identified in the literature. Finally, the paper proposes a theoretical framework that classifies the various options on how to benefit (or not) from ICTs into four plausible scenarios: "digital inequality," "digital divide," "digital accretion," and "digital harmony." These scenarios help organize the circumstances under which change happens by adopting two axes of uncertainty along which impact is possible: that of a global versus local focus, and exclusive versus inclusive development.
Four Key Stakeholder Groups
Fourth Industrial Revolution Advocates
In the vision of the future proposed by the advocates of 4IR, established and emerging digital technologies, such as computer hardware, software, sensors, machine learning, AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and big data, will converge to create cyber-physical systems that will transform how we work, how we live our lives, how factories are operated, how manufacturing processes are controlled, how healthcare and transport services are rendered, and what kind of consumer-markets can be created. (10) The most vocal proponents of this vision are the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the leaders of today's dominant digital technology companies. They are located primarily in the industrially advanced countries of the Global North, which may influence what kind of future they see as desirable. For these actors, the core arguments for 4IR are economic. (11) The focus is on creating and controlling markets for products and services, enhancing business success in global competition, tackling manufacturing and resource-use inefficiencies, establishing new business models that can create value from digital transformation activities and information, and mitigating the consequences of an aging workforce. (12)
Clearly, developed countries are more ready than the developing ones to commit themselves to the huge financial investment in research and innovation that is needed to create cyber-physical systems of the necessary quality, summarized as "smart," "safe," and "secure". (13) In Germany, 4IR discourse complements the notion of "Industry 4.0," which has attracted strong support from the government and private sector to invest heavily in quality infrastructure, including standardization, accreditation and conformity assessment, metrology, technical product safety, and market surveillance. Nationally, it is seen as an opportunity for technological revival that will strengthen the "Made in Germany" brand. (14) According to one recent study, 80 percent of industrial enterprises in Germany expect to have digitalized their entire value chain by 2020, which implies investing 40 billion euros per year. (15)
In 2015, the WEF conducted a survey of 800 technology executives and experts from the ICT sector to identify the technology tipping points expected by 2025. (16) The survey provides useful insights into the kind of digital future the ICT sector is building toward. These corporate leaders identified a total of 21 technological advancements that were either ready for deployment or would be deployed by 2030. Among the most popular were:
* "10 percent of people wearing clothes connected to the internet," chosen by 91.2 percent of the respondents.
* "The first robotic pharmacist in the US," chosen by 86.5 percent of the respondents.
* "The first 3D-printed car in production," chosen by 84.1 percent of the respondents.
* "5 percent of consumer products printed in 3D," chosen by 81.1 percent of the respondents.
* "90 percent of the population with regular access to the Internet," chosen by 78.8 percent of the respondents.
* "Driverless cars equaling 10 percent of all cars on U.S. roads," chosen by 76.4 percent of the respondents.
* "The first transplant of a 3-D printed liver," chosen by 76.4 percent of the respondents.
* "Over 50 percent of Internet traffic to homes for appliances and devices," chosen by 69.9 percent of the respondents.
The views of the ICT industry leaders are by no means the only possible realizations of the ambitions of 4IR. A different perspective, one that incorporates potential humanitarian benefits of cyber-physical systems, has been proposed by the U.S...