IAF Liaisons

Industrial Revolution 4.0 as leverage to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Merih Malmqvist Nilsson

There are two main challenges with which humanity is struggling today. One is the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The other is adapting to the innovations which define the Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0). Both challenges require innovative thinking and a ground-breaking change of attitude. The first one is an existential challenge while the second one is of a more technical character.

The advantages and possible disadvantages of IR4.0 are already being discussed among researchers and in think-tank organisations. The discussions on disadvantages are focused on unemployment, increased environmental impact, increased gap between developed and developing economies, etc.  and possible negative impact on sustainability. The advantages are focused on better work environment, provision of tools for achieving the SDGs, facilitating everyday life, supporting reliable global value chains, etc. How countries embrace and adapt to the coming technological changes will determine whether they meet the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieve the SDGs. [3]

The easiest way to understand the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to focus on the technologies driving it. These include Artificial Intelligence (AI), new computational technologies and Big Data, robotics, 3D-printing, the Internet of Things (IoT), virtual and augmented reality, block chain technology, etc. [4] These technologies still have an unknown potential impact on sustainability and the environment. [3]

The SDGs have been developed as a response to the increasing negative impact of our chosen way of life on the planet and all forms of life inhabiting it. SDGs give a globally agreed definition of the problems which stand in the way of a sustainable planet. However, they only define the “what” but not the “how”. The “how” will be defined by the choices we make when embracing the technologies of IR4.0.

Technologies do not always have pre-determined outcomes for societies. Policy choices, social dialogue and public opinion all shape the ends to which technology is deployed [2]. The most desirable of solutions should be to use the IR4.0 as leverage to achieve SDGs. There are studies [5] showing that with the right policy choices the technologies of IR4.0 can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs and that, in fact, the SDGs can provide guidance in the realisation of the opportunities provided by IR4.0 [1].

While finding solutions to overcome difficulties created by for example climate change, innovations should also be used to reverse the process and achieve a sustainable planet in the long term.

New technology is already being used to counteract the problems defined under the SDGs. For example:

  • Pollinating and monitoring crops with drones
  • Online health care
  • Intelligent textiles for monitoring patients
  • 3D printing to substantially decrease the environmental footprint of production
  • Technology inventions have been shown in studies to make a meaningful contribution to food security, which underpins most of the SDGs [2]
  • Blockchain technology has been cited as having a great significance in the development of environmental sustainability
  • Data analytics have guided disaster relief efforts [3]

The plans to achieve an integrated but sustainable infrastructure, innovation and industrial development under Industry 4.0 are the most appropriate tool for implementing the SDGs. [1]

In the middle of these challenges what can the institutions of the quality infrastructure (QI) do? If we were to draw a parallel which is close to home, we could say that conformity assessment is the measuring instrument of quality. Standards, wherever available, provide the traceability and accreditation provides the proficiency testing. When talking about quality we have generally focused on functionality and safety. To use the IR4.0 technologies as leverage to achieve the SGDs we need to take a more holistic approach. It may in fact be the right time to redefine quality to also include the concept of sustainability. Thus, the QI institutions would be working to a triple bottom line: functionality, safety and sustainability. This should be done in relation to each individual product and service.

Funding of research and thus supporting innovation is usually based on criteria such as “which problem are you aiming to solve and at what cost?”. Another question which should be added to this is “how is this solution going to contribute to the achievement of SDGs?” – to not only make sure the product can be produced in a sustainable way but also consider what long term positive effects it is going to have on the achievement of the SDGs.

Integrating IR4.0 with the sustainable development goals in an innovation platform can help decision-makers make the right choices [3] to use technology as leverage to achieve the SDGs [3].


[1] UNIDO (2017). Accelerating clean energy through Industry 4.0: manufacturing the next revolution. Nagasawa, T., Pillay, C., Beier, G., Fritzsche, K., Pougel, F., Takama, T., The, K., Bobashev, I.
A report of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Vienna, Austria.

[2] The United Nations Development Programme 2018. Development 4.0: Opportunities and Challenges for Accelerating Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals in Asia and the Pacific.

[3] Industry 4.0 and Sustainability Implications: A Scenario-Based Analysis of the Impacts and Challenges (https://doi.org/10.3390/su10103740) by Silvia H. Bonilla, Helton R. O. Silva, Marcia Terra da Silva, Rodrigo Franco Gonçalves and José B. Sacomano.

[4] The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond; World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org, First published in Foreign Affairs, Author: Klaus Schwab is the person who labelled today’s advances as a new revolution. He is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum and author of a book titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution

[5] WAVES, Technology, Innovation and Policy: News, Reviews, Analysis and Views.

18 November 2018, Industry 4.0 drives the Sustainable Development Goals, by Rokon Zaman. (www.technopolicyviews.com)

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