Foresight and Societal Paradigm Shift, Towards a Third Industrial Revolution?

Bucharest, 26 June 2013 [1]

 An understanding of the world requires explanatory and pedagogical models that can be used to explain transformations that are underway, accelerate them or advocate them. Philosophies, ideologies, scientific theories and business models are embellished with these grand tales that arouse sometimes enthusiasm and sometimes scepticism from intellectuals and those involved. Paradigm shifts are cited; societal transformations or civilisational changes are described. In these models, revolutions often constitute rites of passage and lend their tempo to or punctuate the major periods of history. If the past is under consideration, historians generally preside. If it is the present or future that is to be interpreted, futurists become the high priests who invoke these transformations. Recently Jeremy Rifkin, chairman of the Foundation on Economic Trends (Washington DC), a fine writer and excellent speaker, a regular at the major gatherings of the World Futures Society, has thus provided us with a Third industrial Revolution, which he continues to promote, especially at the EU level and in the European countries and regions [2].

An Industrial Revolution is a profound transformation in all areas of society

This is certainly not the first time that such an advent has been announced to us. In the 1980s, bolstered by its new economic autonomy and industrial dynamism, the Flemish Region announced, on the occasion of the major exhibitions entitled Flanders Technology, its intention to initiate the “DIRV”, the Derde Industriële Revolutie in Vlaanderen (Third Industrial Revolution in Flanders). Marc Eyskens, a professor of economics at the KUL and former Belgian Prime Minister, described these changes in 1985 as an ongoing industrial revolution, in which innovations and technologies abound everywhere [3]. This announcement is in line with the transformation described since the end of the 1960s, notably by American sociologist Daniel Bell, the pioneer who conceived of the post-industrial era [4]. In France, ten years later, the French Finance Inspectors Simon Nora and Alain Minc described the principles of the computer revolution in a well-known report addressed to President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing [5]. Raymond Rifflet, chairman of the fifth congress of French-speaking Belgian Economists in November 1982, already preferred to speak of a transition from one era to another, an evolution that, he noted, was neither simple nor linear: it is therefore necessary to structure the transition from an industrial and para-industrial society (with the tertiary depending on the secondary sector) to a post-industrial society in which the laws of development will be very different  [6]. At the same time, the American futurist John Naisbitt expressed the idea of a time of parenthesis between two eras [7]. In his Rapport sur l’état de la technique (Report on the State of Technology), published in 1983 under the direction of Thierry Gaudin and Marcel Bayen, André-Yves Portnoff cited a revolution in intelligence. There he described a profound transformation in organisations, a transformation during which Europe would go from mass industry, organised in hierarchies, with moderately qualified personnel, to industry in small units, structured in networks, with a high density of brainpower and talents [8]. Inspired by the work of historian Bertrand Gille, the authors of the Rapport sur l’état de la technique show that, in each transition from one type of society to another, fundamental changes take place in the four key aspects of materials, time, energy and living things. Innovations in the third transformation correspond to each of these aspects: polymers, artificial intelligence, nuclear and solar energy, and genetics.

However much the idea of a transformation toward an Information Revolution, or even a Cognitive Revolution as Thierry Gaudin would call it later, attracted me at the time – John Naisbitt described it exactly in 1982 in Megatrends – the idea of a Third Industrial Revolution seemed to me inappropriate.

Of course, the concept of an Industrial Revolution as it took place first in England, then in Belgium, and especially in Wallonia, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, is well known. This profound transformation in all areas of society was moreover described by numerous contemporaries – one thinks notably of the remarkable report by Natalis Briavoinne presented before the Royal Academy of Belgium in 1839. To read this text is to understand what an Industrial Revolution is. The most striking excerpt of this follows:

In the second half of the past century, faster progress was imprinted on the human spirit; knowledge took on a focus that was both more intense and more practical. A remarkable phenomenon! At the very time when all the classes and almost all the peoples of Europe were rushing furiously at each other, amassing enormous efforts to destroy each other, at the same time people everywhere were seized with a greater desire for improvement. This passion then took such a great hold among men, it endowed them with resources so fertile, that a twenty-five-year war accompanied by internal convulsions could not stop progress in all branches of the material organisation of society. In the midst of this enormous unrest, the sphere of work enlarged; the means for performing it were multiplied and simplified more each day. As a consequence, the population grew as risks of mortality were reduced. The treasures that the earth contains were better and more abundantly exploited; man produced and consumed more; he became richer. All these changes constitute the industrial revolution [9].

The systemic and holistic aspects of the effects of the transformation were blatant. They established the idea of global transformation dear to Bertrand Gille when he spoke of changes in the technological system and not a series of inventions independent of each other, of partial technical progress [10], much more than did the text by Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui (1798-1854), the economist and professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, although he is often cited as the inventor of the concept of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, Natalis Briavoinne shows that the Industrial Revolution was not just a revolution in technology, but a profound change in every area of society. This is what Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui did not understand when he wrote that he was limiting his list of discoveries to those that involved the manufacture of cotton cloth, because these are the ones that have brought about the industrial revolution that has changed relations among nations, that has allowed our civilisation and our expertise to penetrate into every country where our fabrics have found a place, that finally has given a large number of workers the occupation and the salary they need to live and support their family [11]. As Patrick Verley wrote in 1997, the entire society and the entire economy, including agriculture and services, were directly or indirectly involved [12]. Quantitative historical studies conducted under the direction of Pierre Lebrun have shown that the change in structure constituted by this phenomenon should in fact be interpreted in systemic terms as to its multidimensional impact on the whole of society [13]. The works that have followed, with more qualitative approaches, have certainly stressed social relations more, but have also strengthened the necessity for this systemic view [14].

To understand this is to understand that what is sometimes called the Second Industrial Revolution is not of the same nature. Moreover, is it not stressed that what is involved is first and foremost a technological revolution? [15] The Revolution of the turning point of the 18th and 19th centuries constituted in fact a systemic change in the structure of society. It was marked by the generalised advent of entrepreneurship, capitalism and the proletariat, with new production methods, described precisely first by Adam Smith and then by Karl Marx. What is called the Second Industrial Revolution constituted rather a process of partial substitution of oil and electricity for coal, with the transition to internal combustion and electric engines. Unlike the changes that marked the Industrial Revolution, these never seemed to me to be either systemic or emblematic of a transformation in the very nature of generalised capitalism, the driving force of Western Europe since the beginning of the century. And so, in my opinion, these technological transformations certainly do not deserve the name of “Second Industrial Revolution”

A convergence between a new communications technology and a new energy system

Jeremy Rifkin surely does not share this opinion. His thesis, his common thread, his theory is that the major economic transformations of history occur when a new communications technology converges with a new energy system. Rifkin believes that the new forms of communication then allow the more complex civilisations that the new energy sources make possible to be organised and managed. The First Industrial Revolution is consequently interpreted via the introduction of steam technology into printing, making it a means of communication allowing the transformation to be managed. The developments in printing, the reduction in costs that allowed printed matter to proliferate in America and in Europe, encouraged mass literacy, creating, thanks to the public schooling initiated between 1830 and 1890, a literate workforce that was able to organise the complex operations of an economy based on the railway, the factory, coal and steam. Jeremy Rifkin sees a second Industrial Revolution in the conjunction of centralised electricity, the era of oil, the automobile and the construction of suburbs. It underwent two stages of development, a first period between 1900 and the onset of the Crash of 1929, and a period of development in the aftermath of the Second World War marked by the construction of motorways and residential real estate. This era has been in decline since the end of the 1980s. The problem that Rifkin stresses is that telephone, radio and television, these types of centralised communications that should have played a major role, were not able to do so through a sort of temporal discrepancy. To Rifkin, the information technologies sector, including the internet, has not constituted an Industrial Revolution as it has not converged with a new energy regime. For the author of Biotech, the establishment of an energy-communications infrastructure over a period of several decades initiates the long-term growth curve of a new economic era.

Thus it is the confluence of internet communication and renewable energies (that) is engendering a Third Industrial Revolution. Rifkin justifies this on the basis of a compelling account that has been lacking until now both in America and in Europe, capable of recounting the story of a new economic revolution and explaining how all these technological and commercial initiatives, seemingly random, are part of a vast strategic plan. This account is marked by the support, described at great length, of European powers that be, politicians and entrepreneurs for the idea of entering a post-carbon era of zero emissions in 2050. For the American economist, this Third Industrial Revolution rests on five pillars:

– the transition to renewable energies;

– transformation of the global building stock into an ensemble of small power stations that collect renewable energies onsite;

– deployment of hydrogen technology and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure for storage of intermittent energies;

– use of the internet to transform the power grids of every continent into energy-sharing inter-grids;

– the transition to electric vehicles that are plug-in or have a fuel cell, capable of buying and selling electricity on a smart continental interactive power grid[16]. Rifkin believes that a worldwide effort to install this five-pillar infrastructure of the Third Industrial Revolution will create hundreds of thousands of new businesses and hundreds of millions of new jobs.

One can be anything but naive when one speaks of democracy…

My purpose of course is not to report on this work, but to measure the degree to which the model of Jeremy Rifkin constitutes an alternative to the paradigm changes that have been described to us up to the present. What is striking is that behind a general discourse that veers constantly from the messianic to the strategic, aside from a few fantasies and liberties with regard to historical knowledge, the discourse on the Third Industrial Revolution on the whole recycles those on the energy transition and Greentech to which Rifkin has moreover contributed widely for twenty years. In addition, he partially answers our question on the change in the nature of capitalism by indicating that we are entering the era of distributed capitalism where business practices will be cooperative, stressing the cooperative nature of the new economy and evoking social entrepreneurship. Thus, this third transformation would sound the death knell of the industrial model itself as, Rifkin observes, the Third Industrial Revolution is indissociably the last phase of the great industrial saga and the first of the emerging cooperative era.

The strongest criticisms that can be addressed to Rifkin’s account appear to me to be of three kinds: ecological, political and philosophical. First, because his very technocentric discourse upholds the confusion between the relatively free nature of internet communication – relatively, as the costs of the digital revolution in fact translate into tangible monthly bills for businesses and families – and the potential pseudo-free nature of so-called distributed domestic energy production. In fact, this domestic production can only be developed by substantial investments – according to a model that remains very capitalistic – and by increasing extraction of more and more rare natural raw materials [17]. Then, because the new roadmap Rifkin proposes, while it helpfully endorses a model of governance involving the participants as promoted today by international institutions, cannot be followed in the idea that energy regimes determine political systems and that in this case a lateral democracy could emerge from this model, after the example of the democratic internet. Everyone knows that there is much to be said and written on internet governance and on the methods of direct democracy in which it might result. One can be anything but naive when one speaks of democracy… Finally, and the debate organised on France Culture between Luc Ferry and Jeremy Rifkin [18] on 13 February 2012 was enlightening in this regard, the assumptions of “the man who has the ear of the powers that be [19] on homo empathicus and biospheric consciousness, based on the biophilia concept of biologist Edward Osborne Wilson[20], add to the scepticism with regard to the Rifkin model.

Some have seen in The Third Industrial Revolution a pertinent and rather easy means of advancing the ideas of the transition to sustainable development, GreenTech or the changes necessary faced with energy and climatic challenges, or even political ecology, with a more presentable vehicle than the works of Tim Jackson [21] or Thierry Gaudin. The author of L’avenir de l’esprit (The Future of the Spirit) recalls in his latest work that storytelling is the response to disorientation, hyperchoice, future shock – another idea of Alvin Toffler –-  that is imposed on us by the speed of machines that generate and circulate information at speeds that our neurons can neither follow nor master [22]. But in his work L’impératif du vivant (The Imperative of Life), Gaudin invites us less to read a story or discover a vertically designed strategic plan than to work together. He invites us to a sociological analysis intended to guide us, individuals, institutions, societies, in our development, as a tool for continuing functioning of the collective consciousness. In fact, he writes, while humans fear changing their mental references because they foresee the risk of conceptual confusion and confusion of identity, it cannot be hoped that they will evolve without ongoing, sustained and reassuring analytic deliberation. Furthermore, no representation of the world can be excluded from this. Quite the contrary, the French futurist very correctly observes; acknowledgement of the participants’ visions of the world constitutes a precondition to the cognitive approach and a necessary condition for organising it [23]. We know with Johan Galtung that there is no final state of development and will never be [24]. Just a common path we have to build together. Concretely, on the field, just like we heard from Maya Van Leemput’s Katanga foresight exercise.

A sustainable, tenable, viable world is yet to be constructed, we were reminded recently [25]. In concrete terms, everything remains to be determined and probably to be redefined. It is important to do this together, departing from the path that marks itself out, or that is plotted out for us. And to do this through dialogue, and openly. First, by listening to each others as Jennifer Gidley, President of the WFSF, invite people to do at the opening of the 21st Conference in Bucharest. Let us avoid copy-and-paste strategies that confine us, and construct ours based on those who will have to implement them, basing our understanding on the acknowledgement of others, and open to democratic deliberation. This is what Minister of State Philippe Maystadt, the former president of the EIB, said recently to the Walloon Parliament on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of The Destree Institute [26]. Ultimately, deliberative democracy is the only valid strategy for transforming the world and going ahead in the search of harmony.

 Philippe Destatte

[1] A short version of this paper has been presented at the 21st World Futures Studies Federation World Conference, Global Research and Social Innovation: Transforming Futures, Bucharest University of Economic Studies, June 26, 2013. – About these questions of Paradigm Shifts, see also:  Philippe DESTATTE & Pascale Van Doren, Foresight as a Tool to Stimulate Societal Paradigm Shift, European and Regional Experiences, in Martin POTUCEK, Pavel NOVACEK and Barbora SLINTAKOVA ed., The First Prague Workshop on Futures Studies Methodology, p. 91-105, CESES Papers, 11, Prague, 2004.

[2] Jeremy RIFKIN, The Third Industrial Revolution, How Lateral Power is transforming Energy, The Economy and the World, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

[3] Marc EYSKENS, La source et l’horizon, Le redressement de la société européenne, p. 85sv, Paris-Gembloux, Duculot, 1985. – Hugo DE RIDDER, Sire, Donnez-moi cent jours, p. 14, Paris, Duculot, 1989.

[4] Daniel BELL, The Coming of Post-industrial Society, New York, Basic Books, 1973.

[5] Simon NORA & Alain MINC, L’informatisation de la société, Rapport à M. le Président de la République, Paris, La Documentation française – Seuil, 1978

[6] Raymond RIFFLET, Discours de clôture, dans Cinquième congrès des Economistes belges de Langue française, Alternatives économiques et sociales : choix et responsabilités, Actes, p. 186, Charleroi, CiFoP, 1984.

[7] John NAISBITT, Megatrends, p. 249-250, New-York, Warner Books, 1984.

[8] Rapport sur l’état de la technique, La Révolution de l’intelligence, Sciences et Techniques, numéro spécial, mars 1985, Paris, ISF, Paris.Rapport sur l’état de la technique, La Révolution de l’intelligence, Paris, Ministère de l’Industrie et de la Recherche, Numéro spécial de Sciences et Techniques, Octobre 1983.

[9] Natalis BRIAVOINNE, De l’industrie en Belgique, t. 1, p. 185-186, Bruxelles, E. Dubois, 1839.

[10] Bertrand GILLE, Histoire des techniques, p. 773-774, Paris, Gallimard, 1978.

[11] Jérôme-Adolphe BLANQUI, Cours d’économie industrielle, t. 2, p. 42-43, Paris, Hachette, 1838.

[12] Patrick VERLEY, La Révolution industrielle, Histoire d’un problème, p. 120, Paris, Gallimard, 1997.

[13] Pierre LEBRUN, Marinette BRUWIER, Jan DHONT, Georges HANSOTTE, Essai sur la Révolution industrielle en Belgique, 1770-1847, Bruxelles, Parlais des Académies, 2ème éd., 1981.

[14] M. BERG & P. HUDSON, Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution, in The Economic History Review, vol. 45, n°1, 1992.

[15] Andrew ATKESON, Patrick J. KEHOE, The Transition to a New Economy after the Second Industrial Revolution, NBER Working Paper Series 8676, Cambridge MA, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2001.

[16] Jeremy RIFKIN, La Troisième Révolution industrielle…, p. 58-59.

[17] See Laurent MINGUET, Je n’aime pas la “3e Révolution industrielle” de Jeremy Rifkin,, Le blog du vrai développement durable.

[18] La Troisième Révolution industrielle sera-t-elle démocratique ? Du grain à moudre, Une émission d’Hervé Gardette avec Jeremy Rifkin et Luc Ferry, France Culture, 13 février 2012.

[19] Voir Jean GADREY, Jeremy Rifkin, le gourou du gotha européen, 1, 9 mai 2013.

[20] J. RIFKIN, op. cit., p. 336.

[21] Tim JACKSON, Prosperity without Growth, Economics for Finite Planet, London, Earthscan, 2009

[22] Thierry GAUDIN, Le choc du vivant, Suggestions pour la réorganisation du monde, p. 173, Paris, L’Archipel, 2013.

[23] Thierry GAUDIN, Le choc du vivant…, p. 209sv.

[24] Johan GALTUNG, A Theory of Development, Overcoming Structural Violence, p. 10, Oslo, Kolofon Press, 2010.

[25] Philippe DESTATTE, Une Transition… mais vers quoi ?, Blog PhD2050, 12 mai 2013.

Une Transition… mais vers quoi ?

[26] Philippe MAYSTADT, Pour une stratégie régionale de Développement durable, Namur, Parlement wallon, 11 juin 2013.

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