Vertical lights in a city

Industry 4.0: Emerging Trends Shaping the Future of Work & Business

Technological and cultural changes are altering the way we work—rapidly. Learn the emerging trends for the future of work and their implications for your industry.

Heather Benoit

May 11 th 2021 | 15 minute read

From factory floors to creative suites, the future of work is changing. Emerging technologies have exposed opportunities for new business endeavors, impressive efficiencies and novel solutions to tough systemic challenges. The companies adapting to these new trends are positioning themselves to lead the market, while those that conduct “business as usual” risk losing out on the coming wave of economic opportunity.

But navigating the waters of change is no easy feat. Employers and employees alike have a duty and vested interest in understanding the emerging trends and threats shaping the world of tomorrow. By looking at how scenarios may unfold over the coming decades, we can chart a smoother course to a bright and prosperous future.

Trend 1: Trade school for tech jobs

In the past, we’ve relied on educational institutions to train future workers. The expectation is that postsecondary education is enough to get you started, and then you’ll learn the ins and outs of the job over the life of your career. However, the rapid adoption of new technologies has made the need for ongoing education and re-skilling far more critical. Compounding that, a massive shortage of qualified talent and policy changes limiting the supply of work visas have pushed tech companies into building their own educational curriculums to fill the skills gap. In parallel, the astronomical cost of traditional postsecondary education has left many students looking for more affordable alternatives. Enrollment in massive open online courses (MOOCs) and professional boot camps is on the rise, while these programs’ credentials are becoming much more widely accepted.

By 2040, we imagine a world in which corporate trade schools are the primary means of training and entry to both established and emerging tech jobs. Traditional four-year degrees will look far less compelling to employers when students coming out of a corporate program are guaranteed to have skills fitting their exact needs, familiarity with their systems and tools, and established relationships with future co-workers.

Beyond hiring, corporate educational platforms will allow for greater adaptation of the workforce as technology and market conditions change. Systems highlighting job openings and advancement opportunities, along with the coursework required to qualify, will make charting a career path more transparent and navigable.

Mild Prediction: Big tech companies partner with established universities to create hybrid courses and certifications. Enrollment in corporate-specific programs nearly always guarantees a job or at least an internship. To improve retention and success (and attract top students), universities build AIs that generate personalized deep-learning experiences. Institutions without corporate partners suffer a significant drop in enrollment and many collapse into bankruptcy.

Wild Prediction: Bootcamps are bought out and run by big tech companies. Employees train on intensive, months-long apprenticeship programs and skip college altogether. The cost of education is subsidized by the employer but requires a multi-year employment commitment, effectively reversing recent job-hopping trends. Universities drop their role as a training ground for employment and instead fully embrace curiosity-driven research and art.

Trend 2: Working in the neo-office

For those in the professional services, the movement towards remote work has been an ongoing, decades-long trend. COVID-19’s legacy won’t be in kickstarting WFH, but rather in exponentially accelerating it and cementing its position as a viable alternative. With a vaccine being deployed, many workers will happily head back to the office, but hybrid working is likely to remain a permanent fixture of work culture.

With so many employees partly remote, office spaces will need to be optimized and repurposed to prioritize community and collaboration. In the future, it makes little sense to pack workers into isolated, permanent desks that essentially replicate a siloed home office. Instead, more resources will be dedicated to teamworking commons that emphasize project-based activities. Project war rooms will remain the center of gravity, with satellite team members moving freely between workspaces as needed. Workstations built for individual activities are more likely to adopt a hot-desking approach, freeing up space to be used by whoever comes into the office. This allows organizations to improve operational efficiency by reducing equipment costs and footprint, all the while improving culture and communication.

And, with the benefits of remote work having become evident, full-time WFH will also continue to grow. A number of current trends are likely to drive this forward over the next decade:

  • rising cost-of-living in urban centers
  • growing commute times
  • expense of commercial real-estate
  • emergence of digital nativism
  • access to a limitless talent pool
  • ability to recruit in emerging markets
  • diversity and inclusivity initiatives
  • creation of digital nomad work-visas

Co-working spaces are positioned to benefit, as they provide a flexible space for human connection and collaboration. But virtual offices also stand poised to challenge the market as AR/VR headsets become more accessible and mainstream. A thriving wave of new tools will create a robust ecosystem of products for the home office, but the real transformation will be in the gamification of work as we all seek to deepen our digital experiences. Likewise, residential architecture will increasingly feature more integrated and elaborate office spaces to help us focus and collaborate more effectively.

Mild Prediction: Remote work continues to grow in popularity, mostly for tech workers and professional services. Following the basic tenets of economics, wages for white-collar jobs drop dramatically as the supply of available workers saturates the market. Virtual offices fizzle out as XR headsets are still too cumbersome and heavy to be practical, so most workers split their time between home and corporate offices.

Wild Prediction: Virtual offices overtake physical offices in popularity. Digital twinning enables professional avatars to duplicate our presence and engage with co-workers naturally. Advanced haptics technology and electronic skins provide a way to touch and feel the digital world, bridging the gap to reality. Energy and bandwidth demands surge, leading to frequent outages as the grid struggles to keep up. To maintain their culture, corporations host regular off-sites embracing a greater balance between work and play.

Trend 3: Corporate cyborgs and the rising wave of employee augmentation

Wearable technology provides the ultimate platform for rolling out augmentation products. Once we’re all accustomed to being tracked and monitored on the daily, it’s not such a giant leap to wearing devices that enhance our abilities. Even today, fringe companies are looking for unique ways to break through this wall and establish new workflows. Implanted RFID chips can provide access to sensitive information and equipment, bypassing the need for hackable passwords and spoofable biometrics. AR glasses provide in-context information in real-time, improving efficiency and performance. Even robotic suits that augment strength and speed are breaking into the market. These technologies all seek to bypass our human limitations and help us do better work, faster.

Within the next 20 years, as human augmentation becomes mainstream, the nature of work will fundamentally change. Whether it’s an implant with an onboard AI providing real-time advice or an e-skin display that provides contextual insights, technological enhancement will become integral to workflows across industries. And, though the low-hanging fruit may lie in physically demanding jobs and field service, even professional and creative jobs are likely to be redefined. Research in memory prosthetics and neural interfaces will evolve over the coming decades, leading to completely new ways to interact with computers and synthesize information.

Mild Prediction: Adoption of more invasive augmentation has been limited by the establishment of corporeal worker protection laws. Wearables and AR headsets, however, are everyday tools of the trade. They’re genuinely helpful to employees, as they automate tedious tasks and help fill gaps in knowledge. People are able to career-hop more easily because premiums historically placed on training and experience have become less of a barrier.

Wild Prediction: Augmentation is a requirement for employment and is, at times, invasive. Augment upgrades are commonly offered as a corporate perk, but most are designed to be easily removable pending employment status. Work for the un-augmented is much harder to come by, as companies are unmotivated to sacrifice operational efficiency. Hacking is sporadic but crushing, so companies pay premiums to bolster their cybersecurity.

Trend 4: The crowd-sourced commoditization of creative work

Swimming in a sea of sameness – the very place no company wants to find itself. And yet as commoditization threatens nearly every business, it feels increasingly inevitable. Long a malignance that’s plagued products, commoditization a growing issue for service-based companies too. Crowdsourced fulfillment platforms, the likes of Uber and 1-800-FLOWERS, push profits down by flooding the market with “equivalent” lower-priced options that suck away the incentive to innovate. It’s convenient, on-demand service with little risk and little downside for the buyer, and increasing pressure for the seller.

Creative work is no exception. Crowdsourced design and the move towards gig work threatens to commoditize the whole gamut of professional services from graphic design to engineering. Today, pools of disparate talent are brought together on open innovation platforms to solve complex challenges and are left to fight it out for a single reward. It’s great for non-critical tasks and low budgets, but far from practical for more specific, controlled, and confidential projects. However, by 2040 we imagine these platforms will have wrestled with these challenges and created a flexible cooperative of reliable professionals. As they gain popularity and their economic viability is established, the trend is likely to continue expanding into new domains, fundamentally altering the nature of talent management, corporate culture, and intellectual property.

Mild Prediction: Design competitions are a popular way to build a portfolio and start a career. Most corporations keep their own internal teams to protect confidential information, create consistency, and maintain tribal knowledge. But for start-ups, entrepreneurs, and NGOs, these platforms offer a path to commercialization with very little risk and little overhead. It’s also a great way for foreign designers to gain a foothold in a new regional market. Gig workers make up nearly 40% of staff.

Wild Prediction: Crowdsourced gig work is the new normal, effectively replacing the traditional employee-employer model. Instead, mega-cooperatives use an on-demand Uber model to pair workers with projects as needed, ensuring the right skills are matched to the job. Workers are easily replaced and hungry for work, and companies aren’t afraid to take advantage. Those with the most skills get the most consistent income, so upskilling becomes a popular way to remain competitive.

Trend 5: Surveillance ubiquity in the information economy

40 zettabytes.

In case you’re not familiar, that’s twenty-one zeros. To put that in context, that’s roughly the equivalent of a trillion 1GB flash drives worth of data floating around today’s digital world. It’s a staggering, nearly incomprehensible number, but by most estimates, it’s expected to more than quadruple over the next 5 years. And as more and more companies digitize their operations and millions of new IoT devices come online, the pace will only continue to accelerate over the coming decades.

However, as big data grows even bigger, it will become increasingly impossible for overtaxed human workers to keep pace, especially given the projected shortage of data scientists. Which is why automated data analysis is quickly becoming standard practice. Highly-trained, AI-enhanced analytics platforms will be exponentially faster and more efficient than their human counterparts. But leaving the discovery of critical insights to machine-learning algorithms that are notorious for their susceptibility to bias is a huge risk. So, to mitigate, companies are likely to start requiring basic data and programming literacy, much like typing and familiarly with MS Office became de facto requirements in the 1990s.

As these platforms become ever more sophisticated, it’s likely that several tailor-made algorithms will be created – each slicing the data a slightly different way. Predicative AIs will extrapolate trends into the future, helping sales teams forecast consumer behavior and executives foresee looming shifts in the market. Product AIs will pass performance data from device to digital twin, creating a vast library of virtual replicas for every product sold and helping engineers better understand potential reliability issues before they happen. Market research AIs will collect data on feature usage rates, supplanting antiquated user studies with a live stream of user-generated data. Business operations in almost every department are likely to undergo a fundamental shift as companies look to generate more value from every megabyte.

Of course, as data becomes the centerfold of business activity, it begs the question: how will business models evolve as IoT devices proliferate? If the world’s leading tech companies can make billions while providing “free” products, it stands to reason that other industries may try to follow suit. Another decade of market penetration by connected devices and ultra-thin, flexible displays and it’s possible that we’ll see more products offered for free, supplemented by ads and aggressive data collection. Businesses that traditionally offered physical products may start to see more lucrative sales stemming from their ability to routinely provide deep insights back to their customers.

Mild Prediction: Rising energy prices force companies to weed through their low-quality data and invest in more efficient storage centers. Cybersecurity experts and hackers continue their game of cat-and-mouse, slowing adoption in some sectors and spawning a ransomware insurance market. Surveillance creep is uncontrolled as both private and public spaces are increasingly quantified. The pervasiveness of data collection leads to a public backlash over privacy concerns and calls for regulation mount.

Wild Prediction: To create the most value and offer truly useful insights, companies form data collectives and pool their bits in a central database. Because data has become essential to product development, product “purchases” are made through the exchange of personal data and attention instead of a financial transaction. It also becomes a popular means of payment in developing countries, where companies are eager to impress their brand upon the rising middle classes. Products that are ad-free and data-safe are considered a luxury, and they sport a hefty price tag.

Trend 6: Biofabrication as the next Industrial Revolution

Synthetic biology and genetic engineering usually conjure up hazy images of cloned sheep and strange Petri dishes of glowing ooze. Many of the first real applications for these technologies were in biologically-based products – hardier food crops, insulin production, vaccines, and the like. But those applications are really just the most straightforward. Where and how these technologies can be applied is really only limited by our collective imagination. Still on the fringe, scientists and artists are exploring how biology can disrupt traditional manufacturing and product design – improving cost-efficiencies while creating more sustainable practices. From hydroponically-fed bricks to lab-grown fabrics, synthetic biologists and engineers are finding innovative ways to challenge the status quo.

These burgeoning, new bioprocesses flip the industries of farming, materials processing, and manufacturing on their head. Growing your own custom biomaterials onsite can mean huge savings in processing time, harvesting costs, shipping, and warehousing. Not to mention, manipulating crops (like cotton) to produce a more finished product enables the elimination of entire manufacturing processes (like dying) and their toxic byproducts. Biology can even be exploited to grow final products directly, much like these packaging trays grown from mycelium and biomass. With all of the potential upside, it’s only a matter of time until gene-hacking becomes a routine part of business.

Mild Prediction: Forward-thinking material suppliers invest in R&D or buy out start-ups with applicable technology. Slowly, synthetic biomaterials are added to catalogs. Uptake by OEMs is glacial, but fashion and consumer goods pave the way with exotic biomaterials. Worried about the competition, manufacturers invested in more traditional processes push back by vilifying GMO products in heavily biased advertising campaigns.

Wild Prediction: Breakthroughs in the field allow for cost-effective, repeatable fabrication results. A couple of biomaterial start-ups have run-away success with new materials, ushering in the biological revolution. R&D dollars are funneled into even wilder technologies where researchers start investigating issues like growing large structures and self-organizing assemblies.

Trend 7: Transitioning from the experience economy to the emotion economy

The global adoption of mass production and endless consumerism has left people knee-deep in apps and surrounded by junk. Comfortable yet unsatisfied, a new wave of post-consumerism is generating a growing desire for products and services that offer something more than strict functionality. In parallel, the growth of service and experience design has shown that understanding user behavior and creating engagement is critical to a business’ strategy.

These trends have emerged just as affective computing is giving rise to a new economy of emotions. The latest wave of artificial intelligences are being trained to detect, interpret, and predict human emotional states. The hope is for more human-centric products that can respond to their human counterparts more intelligently and naturally. So by 2040, as the technology matures, entire markets are likely to be structured around providing hyper-personalized, deep connections to users. In the effort to forge these emotional bonds, companies may find themselves needing to hire an increasingly diverse talent pool, including artists, engineering psychologists, and anthropologists.

Mild Prediction: Emotive engineering inspires a wave of products and apps. They hold the promise of a better life, but provide little more than flawed tracking of emotional states. The AIs are too robotic to be believable and, despite all the advances, the complexity of humanity lies beyond the grasp of even the most sophisticated neural networks of the day.

Wild Prediction: Consumer products are hyper-personalized, each providing a personal AI voice assistant completely in tune with our inner-most thoughts. The AIs are predictive and routinely influence our behavior at the moment decisions are being formed. Strong regulation and oversight from consumer protection agencies ensures the technology isn’t used for profiteering, though some malware does wreak havoc from time to time.

Trend 8: Making friends with your robot co-workers

Recent forecasts claim that nearly 50% of all work could be automated by 2025. Others report that 8.5% of jobs could be lost globally with an uneven distribution that cripples more advanced economies. Highly repetitive, labor-intensive jobs are the first on the chopping block, but AI expands the reach of automation to many white-collar jobs historically considered safe. Whether it’s self-driving cars, advanced warehouse AVs, or an AI robot smart enough to run its own experiments, automation is burgeoning in every sector and few jobs will be completely safe from the looming threat of obsolescence.

That said, the coming decade will also see the creation of new jobs as humanity recalibrates and learns to work alongside its cobot counterparts. Smart factories of the future may require far fewer line workers, but they’re bound to need more data managers and robotic repair technicians. Likewise, as routine tasks are automated out of office, lab, and logistics work, humans will be left to take on more interesting challenges. The digital workforce has yet to master creative and strategic work, and it’s a far cry from truly understanding the complexity of human behavior and decision-making.

Mild Prediction: Consistent adoption of automation across sectors leads to widespread unemployment. Some companies offer retraining programs for their top performers, but not everyone is interested in swapping careers so abruptly. Economic hardship and civil unrest lead to a backlash against many companies. Shopping protests become common, while others consider following in the footsteps of their Luddite predecessors.

Wild Prediction: The government works with industry to automate sectors in a staged fashion, while simultaneously providing generous retraining and certification programs to citizens. The digital workforce quickly outnumbers the human one, leading to unprecedented gains in productivity and wealth creation. To get its piece of the pie, the government rolls out automation taxes to replace income taxes and fund a nationwide UBI program.

Trend 9: Distributed manufacturing and the right to repair

The growing demand for locally made products has intersected developments in additive manufacturing, crowdsourced design, and the maker movement at large. The result has been an increased interest in distributed manufacturing that puts local makers directly in the fulfillment process and skirts the fragility of global supply chains. It’s a trend that has only been further amplified by recent trade wars and climate-driven policies that crack down on the carbon emissions which shipping is fraught with.

There are, of course, many hurdles to overcome in terms of manufacturing capability, assembly, and quality control. Interestingly, the right to repair movement may offer a roadmap for rolling out hyper-distributed manufacturing. As more companies are forced to make spare parts available and consumers become more familiar with how their products are assembled, the idea of building your own device will likely become more palatable. Corporations may find it’s in their best interest to focus on design rather than manufacturing, allowing them to sport vast digital catalogs without the risk or cost of housing physical inventory. Why spend millions on a new assembly line when a network of micro-manufacturers gets the job done on-demand and with little overhead?

Mild Prediction: Local shops specialize in small-batch manufacturing and repair. They mostly work with recycled plastics and locally sourced materials, so the parts they can produce are limited based on availability. Most products are still produced via traditional methods, though carbon taxes have created a need to on-shore remote operations.

Wild Prediction: Many corporations shed their manufacturing arms, choosing instead to produce only digital assets. Products are customized and produced on-demand, so few stores hold any inventory other than sample products. Local manufacturing hubs crop up in every major city and most towns to support the local exchange.

The Case for Strategic Vision

The coming decades will be anything but “business as usual.” The technologies rolling out now are shaping the world and, by extension, the way we interact with the products and services we use. But, right now, the world needs the captains of industry to give us something great to strive for. In a world beset by chaos and uncertainty, it is important to be reminded that we are all the same – people simply trying to find meaning in our days and pursuing the efforts that have the best chance at improving our and our families’ lives.

In the past, great leaders have shaped our world by giving us aspirational projects to work on: long-distance communication, eradication of disease, landing on the moon. All of these challenges were once inconceivable, incredibly risky, and outlandish ideas. But it’s the wild ideas that leave the most impact on our societies, technologies, and cultures. Given the challenge, people will be determined and ingenious enough to rise to it.

About the Author

Heather Benoit – Engineering

“Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit.”
-Baltasar Gracian