The Fourth Industrial Revolution - For all or for some?

Personal takeaways from the World Economic Forum on ASEAN


For the most part, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is seen as an exciting pivotal moment in the evolution of work and commerce. It seems like almost every other day, a new technological disruption takes place, and we see reports extolling the benefits of a new advancement. But with progress comes the inevitable need to shift. What happens to those who are left behind? What can large companies and governments do together? How do civil society organisations and social enterprises help to make this shift less jarring for the everyday global citizen?

These were some of the questions raised at this year’s World Economic Forum on ASEAN, held in Ha Noi last September. I had the privilege of representing Halogen Foundation at the Forum, invited as a member of the Global Shapers Community in Singapore, and brought across the youth-centric messaging to the high level delegates present and seeking to learn more.

The Forum does a good job of reporting the happenings, but I’d like to focus on five personal takeaways, and specifically in the context of youth development and building for the future.


1. Technology and its Impact on Jobs

A common theme centered upon what the job market looked like for ASEAN in the midst of its cautiously enthusiastic adoption of technology and disruption. In summary, governments and the youth are optimistic — bullish even — about the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on their futures. The survey released by WEF at the session revealed that 51.7% of youth in ASEAN think that technology will increase the number of jobs, and the speeches delivered by heads of state motioned for a closer collaboration within the region in areas such as skills education and free movement of data to embrace the ongoing disruption.

What is really interesting to me is the disparity of optimism among the youth depending on the countries they are from. While the average percentage of youth across ASEAN who think jobs will increase as a result of technology is 51.7%, this is largely due to countries like the Philippines and Indonesia(60.3% and 54.0% respectively). Singapore youth are more pessimistic: Only 31.2% of them think so. This further reinforces how education really moves the needle — both in terms of expectancy for the future as well as preparedness. In Singapore, which has a youth populace that has higher education levels, the hypothesis by WEF researchers is that youth recognise more threats than opportunities. This results in us having two paths ahead, not unlike the ‘glass half full or empty’ mentality: Do we expect to be displaced as an inevitability, or do we work harder towards preparedness? Unfortunately for a country, this cannot be forced, and is an individual mindset shift that must happen among the young.

2. Outperforming Economies

I’m not an economist by any measure, but the nature of market forces and how humans and behaviours affect outcomes in a very real (and sometimes disproportionate) way interests me greatly. This interest was stimulated at a closed breakfast session hosted by McKinsey & Company, where they launched their report on emerging economies and the companies that helped propel them into high-growth. Singapore was one of seven long-term outperformers, achieving a 3.5% annual GDP per capita growth for 50 years. The report identified key government policies that allowed for commerce and large companies to drive rapid growth.

The question for us is: What’s next? Rapid growth is to be expected when you are a young developing country, but once you attain high-income status as a country, you start tapering down to an easier gradient. A separate McKinsey & Company report states that investment growth in Singapore has slowed significantly since 2008, and consumption growth has been sluggish. A heavy conversation piece now centers around income inequality and the social divide it threatens. This is something that the other outperforming economies of ASEAN should also anticipate, seeing as South Korea (like Singapore) is experiencing the effects — or some might say trade-offs — of this growth. Youth should take this as a rallying cry of sorts: The economy will grow, and Gini coefficients will rise. Do we sit and expect for something to be done by the powers that be, or can we — while we increase in affluence ourselves — do something for those that don’t?

3. Diversity in Workplace 4.0

As the workforce evolves, how will diversity be seen and respected in the wake of the fourth industrial revolution? A panel discussion on Workplace 4.0 didn’t have a consensus on best practices, whether on an individual level, corporation level, or government level. There was general agreement over some salient points, more notably the need for inter-sector collaboration, experimentation among the workforce, and a mindset shift on what to expect.

The mindset shift was most crucial to me. In the evolving workforce, we begin to unveil new types of workers: Retirees, triple-job holders, single mums, etc. How do we as business leaders and policymakers support that growing demographic of unconventional worker? Is there equality in treatment and benefit? How does this affect the trade unions and labour movement? The transition stems from all three sectors. In the public sector, enact policies that consider the support that should be given to ease their transition. In the private sector, lead by example and innovate on business models to take advantage of the workplace being disrupted. And in the non-profit sector, keep a keen ear to the ground and sense for those who have slipped through the cracks, ready to help them even the playing field. Regardless of sector, I think young people should also consider their role as the future of their country. Young people considering their careers should be guided by the 80,000 Hours concept, and recognise their immense potential to bridge the gap.

4. The Fight against the Illicit Economy

My first brush with Bitcoin was in October 2013 when I read about the owner of the online black market Silk Road being arrested. What began as intrigue into how the FBI tracked a man whose methods of evasion included using public computers in libraries went into how Silk Road managed to maintain the drug trade without the paper trail, trading exclusively in BTC. I bought 2 BTC then, as a fun experiment and at ~US$300, but eventually spent it on some in-game currency for World of Warcraft at a big steal (I stopped playing WoW a while ago). You can imagine my bewilderment when 1 BTC traded for ~US$18k in December last year.

But I digress. The panel at WEF on ASEAN focused on the rise of illegal activity, both enabled by tools such as cryptocurrency, but also disabled by law enforcement’s savvy use of groundbreaking technology. My story above simply notes how it took the rise of a black market on the Dark Web to proliferate the use of cryptocurrency, and the implications the fourth industrial revolution would have today. Thomson Reuters gave a presentation on how they are able to map through connection networks the different links on terrorist financing and money laundering, and financial institutions were cautioned about the tenuous balance between innovation and security. While the discussion was centered mainly upon the financial industry, I couldn’t ignore the concern of how this would permeate into other aspects of security — societal, physical, even moral. (Think: Altered Carbon.)

5. The Role of Community

After the Forum, I realised that the best moments of my time there weren’t during the sessions, but during the conversations I had with some amazing people. And these weren’t all the big names. The World Economic Forum is an equalising platform indeed — government officials, top corporate leaders, business superstars, you name it — and in whatever context you enter with, you are placed on the same level for a discussion that matters to your respective entities. Because of that, there was access to persons who had influence to make big things happen, and naturally there were many deals to be made.

But the real value was in building relationships. The World Economic Forum runs three communities: The Global Shapers Community, the Young Global Leaders, and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Selected members of each community were invited to the Forum, and I was fortunate to meet people who were making enormous change in their own fields. These were folks who were young, still in their 20s and 30s, and already inspiring countless others to adopt the audacity and tenacity they had in pursuing impact. This is in line with a common piece of advice I give to youths: Build your network, build relationships, build goodness. Support people doing good work and be a giver. This is absolutely essential in your late teens and early 20s. Reach out to me if you want to find out more about committing and contributing to a community like the Shapers.


As we progress, who are we endangering or leaving behind?

In all the optimism and excitement for the fourth industrial revolution, it’s worth thinking about those who might not be so fortunate to ride the wave, but instead are in danger of being swept away. These include:

  • Our elderly. Already we observe how the shift to cashless payments has created the possibility of them having to rapidly learn how to operate digital money transfers and pay for their meal through their phone. What more in the age of driverless cars and delivery-by-drone?

  • Vulnerable or exploited persons. Touched on very briefly in an earlier point, the nature of exploited persons being further endangered is a real possibility. Only 1% of illicit activity done over digital connections are caught — is there more we can do? Can we benefit more from tech, despite tech being neutral and value-ascribed?

  • Underserved youth. One hypothesis that WEF and Sea Group researchers had in the youth survey commissioned is that youth are more optimistic the lower their income-base, and this could be due simply to the access they might have to emerging frontier technology. But with lagging exposure comes the risk of being left behind or ‘late to the game’. How can we even the playing field so the gap between the privileged and underprivileged; the access-easy and the access-tough, is not widened?

I leave the Forum feeling enriched, both intellectually and emotionally, but stirred for change. It is a commendable effort to bring the youth voice to a platform such as this, but we need more. We need more youth representation, and not youth who act like grown-up businessfolk. We need to raise the youth voice higher, spread the inter-generational work wider, and make advocates out of would-be adversaries.

I spoke to some participants about the 80,000 Hours concept, and this is what I stand by. But you don’t have to make a career change to prove an economist’s view of altruism — that is not for everyone. What you can do is simply to make your own contribution. The world needs more. We can do more. At Halogen Foundation, we are doing more. Join us to uplift a generation.


Thanks to Ivy Tse and Sean Kong for reading drafts of this article and giving their thoughts.

(Timothy Low is the Chief Operating Officer of Halogen Foundation, a youth development non-profit organisation focusing on building young leaders and entrepreneurs. Prior to this, he founded a training consultancy, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence in an L&D firm, and led an accelerator-VC programme for deep-tech startups. Outside of work, Tim is involved with communities making real impact, including Sandbox, Global Shapers, Kairos Society, and +Acumen Impact Circle.)