The World Economic Forum last week, as always, generated plenty of news and controversy. The main theme this year was the threat of climate change, although the discussions also underlined that powerful voices remain who believe the dangers are, at the least, exaggerated.
But the week showed that many businesses and investors are not waiting for more evidence. They are instead already altering plans and priorities both to reduce their own impact on the climate and to protect their operations as well as communities from changes already underway.
What was also clear was the essential role that innovation and technological advance must play in reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the impact of the climate changes already happening. Without such developments, it is impossible to see how the necessary steps can be taken without prosperity and living standards being badly hit.
It was against this background that the agreement signed at Davos between the Government of Kazakhstan, the Astana International Financial Centre and the WEF to develop a new regional innovation hub in Nur-Sultan had added significance. The announcement confirms Kazakhstan’s determination to play its full role in helping find the technological solutions to global challenges, such as climate change but also to seize the incredible opportunities that are opening up.
The aim of the new centre, that will be based at the AIFC, is to develop the framework to shape what has become known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Experts predict that the technological advances of the next few years – and, importantly, the way they will work together – will have a more profound impact than the past revolutions driven by the harnessing of steam, of electricity and, in more recent years, computers and the internet.
Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder of WEF who first coined the phrase Fourth Industrial Revolution, has forecast that it is this fusion of technology and blurring of lines between the physical, digital and biological sphere which will make the transformation so fast and extensive. We can’t know how these connections will play out, but we do know that no aspect of our lives will be unchanged.
Nur-Sultan’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Centre – one of a series across the world – would give Kazakhstan a major role in shaping this revolution. The initial aims are to help create the right policy and regulatory framework to encourage innovations in areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, data policies as well as the Internet of Things and smart city development. It is hoped it will quickly become an important regional centre, drawing in governments, businesses, research institutes and civic society from across Central Asia.
Kazakhstan has, of course, long grasped the importance of technology to the economy and increasingly to society. First President Nursultan Nazarbayev put it at the forefront of his government’s programmes. And well before the term Fourth Industrial Revolution was well-known, he was using it in his speeches and urging the country to both prepare for it. This urgency is shared by his successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and the new government.
Major new investment is also being made in digital connectivity and skills to ensure the economy, state services and citizens are ready for the opportunities ahead. Kazakhstan has estimated that the introduction of digital technologies in agriculture alone could see an increase of up to 50 percent in productivity and decrease of 20 percent in costs. The benefits of getting this right will be enormous.
Such rapid change will, however, also inevitably brings challenges. The largest may well be that inequality in wealth and influence – already a major problem across the world – will, without action, grow. It is a concern that President Tokayev has already made clear he recognises and is determined to prevent.
He also knows that the best way to tackle these concerns and seize the opportunities this incredible marriage of technologies will bring to raise living standards and find solutions to challenges, such as climate change, is to try to shape the coming revolution. And that is exactly what Kazakhstan has shown it is determined to do.