Industry 4.0 Meets the 4th Wave of Environmentalism

June 28, 2018

Are you familiar with Industry 4.0? It is the name for the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It is also known as the “fourth industrial revolution”, and to fully understand Industry 4.0, we need to put it in the context of the other industrial revolutions:

  • First Industrial Revolution: It was a transition to new manufacturing processes that started around 1760 and continued until the 1820-1840 era, in Europe and North America. Rural populations started to become industrial and urban. The increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools, and the rise of the factory system were part of this period.
  • Second Industrial Revolution: Also known as the “Technological Revolution”, it took place between 1870 and 1914. It was characterized by the growth of existing industries and expansion of new ones (steel, oil, electricity), and the birth of the assembly line and mass production. The telephone, light bulb and internal combustion engine were all invented around this time.
  • Third Industrial Revolution: Also known as the “Digital Revolution”, it started somewhere from the late 1950s to late 1970s, and especially accelerated in the 1980s. This period ushered in the era of computers, the Internet, information and communications technology (ICT), and industrial automation where robots and machines began to replace humans on assembly lines.

In some way, Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, is the child of the third industrial revolution rather than a separate development. Industry 4.0 introduces the concept of the “smart factory” where cyber-physical systems monitor factory processes. Through the Internet of Things (IoT), physical assets and systems communicate with each other and with humans in real-time. Other technologies that are part of Industry 4.0 include big data analytics, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, etc.

Some of you may indeed be familiar with Industry 4.0 and the different industrial revolutions. What about the 4th Wave of Environmentalism? Are you familiar with it? Let’s do the same thing we did above and describe the previous three waves, so we put the fourth wave in context:

  • First Wave of Environmentalism: Characterized by a greater awareness of the need for conservation, this era started in the 1860s and extended until the 1960s. Conservation efforts included the establishment of National Parks in the U.S. with the goal of preserving and protecting wildlife, forests and natural resources.
  • Second Wave of Environmentalism: This era stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s. It was marked by greater environmental activism targeting overconsumption, pollution and other negative impacts on the environment. In the U.S., the EPA was established in 1970, and the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act passed in 1963 and 1972 respectively.
  • Third Wave of Environmentalism: This period started in the 1990s, especially with the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, which produced the Rio Declaration. The era was characterized by market-based incentives and solutions to achieve environmental goals, such as the reduction of packaging waste, greater recycling efforts, cap-and-trade programs, etc.

And now we are in the midst of a 4th Wave of Environmentalism. It is characterized by the use of innovation and emerging technologies, such as drones, sensors, blockchain, data analytics and artificial intelligence, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, natural resource consumption and waste generation, and to achieve other environmental goals. The fourth wave consists of the use of technology to benefit the environment, not just the bottom line.

A report by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Business and the Fourth Wave of Environmentalism, examines the following seven technologies and how they can help drive sustainability:

  • Data Analytics
  • Blockchain
  • Automation Technologies
  • Sharing Technologies
  • Sensors
  • Dematerialization
  • Mobile Ubiquity

When we look at Industry 4.0 and the 4th Wave of Environmentalism, we clearly notice an overlap in the innovations and emerging technologies that are fueling both trends. What does this mean? What is the conclusion? The takeaway is that innovations and emerging technologies provide an unprecedented opportunity to fully align business and environmental goals. For decades, many corporations considered that improving the bottom line and protecting the environment were two conflicting objectives. It doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

Companies should be ahead of the curve and implement technological innovations that help improve both business and sustainability performance. This also leads to a competitive edge and better brand reputation. Improving the bottom line and corporate sustainability can now be fully harmonized. That’s the promise of Industry 4.0, the 4th Wave of Environmentalism, and the emerging technologies that are common to both.

View the recording of our webinar with LNS Research to learn how advanced analytics capabilities can enable a more proactive, predictive approach to EHS and risk management to achieve operational excellence:

Webinar LNS - Advanced Analytics