House of Commons Debate

Fourth Industrial Revolution Backbench Business Debate

On 8 September 2016 Alan Mak MP led the first ever House of Commons debate on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee after representations from Alan, and well attended by MPs from both sides of the House. 

Click here for a full video of the debate

Alan's opening speech can be found below:

​I beg to move,

That this House acknowledges that the UK is in a strong economic position to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; welcomes the view of the World Economic Forum that fusing physical, digital and biological technologies can promote further economic growth; notes that small and medium-sized businesses across the country contribute invaluable expertise and market leadership; and calls upon the Government to continue introducing and supporting policies that keep the UK at the forefront of this revolution in the future.

I thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) and other Members across the House for supporting my application for the debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to bring the motion before the House. I believe that this is the first time that the topic has been debated in the Chamber.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the world’s first industrial revolution began here in Britain. New engines driven by coal and steam made manufactured goods and allowed them to be transported across the country on new railways, roads, bridges and viaducts, heralding a new era of British industrial strength.

Now, 250 years later, after two further industrial ages, driven first by electricity and then by electronics and the internet, we stand on the cusp of a new, fourth, industrial revolution. Since the turn of the century, we have witnessed an unprecedented fusion of technologies that blurs the traditional boundaries between the physical, digital and biological spheres. This fourth industrial revolution is now accelerating, characterised by an exponential increase in automation, digital connectivity and technological innovation. Breakthroughs and new products in fields such as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, the internet of things, driverless cars, drones, 3D printing and nanotechnology, to name but a few, have captured the imagination of the public and the attention of policymakers.

This revolution offers significant economic growth and productivity advantages to the countries that seize those corresponding opportunities, as well as new jobs, lower prices, more competition and greater product choice for consumers. These technological advances will also disrupt almost every industry in every country and pose profound economic, political and social challenges, especially to countries and communities that are unprepared or unresponsive.

At the global level, the World Economic Forum has taken the lead in exploring this issue. Indeed, the 4IR, as it has become known, was the theme at its annual meeting this year in Davos. At a national level, however, we in this House have a key role to play by leading the debate, understanding the opportunities and challenges, and making the 4IR a success for Britain. The fact that we have a new Government Department and new Minister recently in place, and a new industrial strategy, makes today’s debate all the more timely and relevant.

My view on the issue is clear. Britain is in a global race for economic success and we must actively seize the opportunities presented by the 4IR to drive economic growth, proactively shaping and harnessing the technological and social changes that it brings for the nation’s benefit. Britain can and should develop an ​early economic comparative advantage to become a world leader in the new 4IR global economy, but to do this, we must take a proactive, free market approach to policy formulation, and prepare for the impact of disruptive technologies, not just react to them. Put simply, we must make mastering the new 4IR a key part of the Government’s industrial strategy. Just as Britain launched the first industrial revolution 250 years ago, it can and must lead the new 4IR in this new century.

To understand the scale of the innovation that is taking place on a practical level, we should consider for a moment some of the new products and services that are already transforming the way we live and work. The 4IR’s key technological advances are pervasive digital connectivity, widespread automation, and advanced computer software based on machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques. All these give rise to a range of economically disruptive products and services, including driverless vehicles, robotic manufacturing and 3D printing. This shift from the simple digitisation of information that is so characteristic of the third industrial revolution to a fusion of technologies that will help businesses, streamline production, lower costs and deliver new products is truly revolutionary.

Intervention by Kit Malthouse MP

Well done to my hon. Friend and county colleague for securing the debate. I recognise the technologies that he said underpinned the fourth industrial revolution, but does he agree that other technologies will revolutionise our lives, not least synthetic biology, in which we are a world leader? Will he support me in encouraging the Government and the Minister to revive the vigour that is needed for the eight great technologies policy, which the Government adopted not four years ago?

Alan Mak MP

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I know that he has a long record of passionate activity in this field. I certainly support him in his aims, and look forward to working with him on that. I will mention those technologies later in my speech. What he said reflects the transition from the digitisation of information to the real fusion of technologies, whether biological, physical or digital. For example, it is already conceivable that entire factories could become automated, requiring only a constant supply of energy and raw materials in order to operate 24 hours a day. That certainly affects the biotech sector as well.

Similarly, the 4IR is already blurring the lines between manufacturing and the service sector as networked products make life easier for consumers. For example, smart boilers that monitor themselves to detect faults, call an engineer and even pre-order spare parts are already making their way into the consumer market.

This fast-moving and innovative environment to which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) referred also presents opportunities for Britain’s small and medium-sized enterprises, which are often the most nimble when it comes to job creation and launching new products. An excellent example comes from my Havant constituency, where local start-up Dream 3D is getting a head start in the 4IR economy by selling 3D printers and providing training about how to use them. The founder James Preen and his growing team have seized the opportunities presented by the 4IR to create new jobs in a new industry, selling new products and generating new wealth.

Intervention by Tom Tugendhat MP 

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the important things that we in the House need to begin to think about is a change to patent law? The UK has the principle that the first to file secures the rights. On that point about SMEs, does he agree that “first to invent” is surely the best way for securing a patent? If there is a wait for the first to file, we give an advantage to large companies that can afford to file many patents.

Alan Mak MP

My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) makes a strong case. A strong legal regime, especially in respect of intellectual property, is certainly key to making Britain a world leader in the 4IR. I thank him for making that point, which is one that Dream 3D, the business in my constituency, is very well aware of. Its success has been predicated on protecting the work that it has produced. It is no surprise that its clients already include Rolls-Royce, Land Rover and Pinewood Studios. That said, larger businesses of the sort that my hon. Friend also mentioned can bring scale and expertise to innovative processes. Havant-based defence contractor Lockheed Martin, for example, has used its big data expertise to develop a new system called Mailmark that helps Royal Mail to track parcels more efficiently as the e-commerce economy grows.

It is clear that by embracing these new disruptive 4IR technologies, we can create new jobs, deliver new services and generate new economic growth. It is also clear that the countries that are best able to take advantage of the 4IR are those with nimble free market economies, low taxes and a competitive regulatory environment. I hope that the Minister, who I congratulate on his appointment, will confirm that the Government will continue to focus on pro-enterprise policies that will make Britain a world leader when it comes to starting and growing a business, particularly in the new 4IR economy.

I can offer three suggestions as the Minister and his new colleagues develop our new industrial strategy. First, the economic benefits of the 4IR must be shared throughout the country and not just concentrated in London or the south-east. Regional investment funds for 4IR technologies should therefore be made available to promote regional hubs that will stimulate growth and innovation outside the M25. I see local enterprise partnerships as key partners and potential funders in this process.

Secondly, Government should use their procurement power to buy British when it comes to 4IR products. Advanced economies such as Israel already play a key role in helping new sectors to develop, and our Government should do the same. Finally, Britain must continue to invest in its digital infrastructure, which is as essential today for our future economy as railways were in the age of steam. This should include a new phase of the fibre optic broadband rollout and 5G mobile internet. I ​commend those suggestions to the Minister, and draw his attention to a forthcoming report from the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Free Enterprise group of Conservative MPs, which will set out more.

We should be clear that, while the 4IR will certainly bring economic benefits, it will also cause societal challenges, but by shaping the way in which the 4IR evolves, we can tackle these issues head on. For example, as automation increasingly substitutes for human labour, the displacement of workers by machines could result in short-term unemployment, especially in low-skill or low-wage sectors of the economy. The Government certainly have a role to play in dampening the downside effects of the 4IR, principally by bridging the gap between short-term unemployment and long-term prosperity, primarily through welfare, education and training policies.

We should be clear that the technology that I have talked about and the disruption that it may bring is not an external force over which we have no control. All of us in this House have a duty to be responsible and to help guide its evolution, so while Britain must grasp the opportunities of the 4IR, we must also shape and direct it to reflect a future and economy that involves our common objectives and shared values.

As the fourth industrial revolution gathers pace, we in Britain should embrace it, encourage its growth, harness its benefits and shape its evolution. We must act now to ensure that our political and economic structures are fit for purpose. From continued investment in digital infrastructure to reform of our welfare and education policies, the Government have a key role to play. At the same time, we must address the 4IR’s shortcomings, making sure that no one is left behind as we reshape our economy and society. This new industrial revolution must consist not of changes that happen to us, but changes that work for us all.

Throughout our history, Britain has adopted a pro-innovation approach to technological developments from farming mechanisation to domestic labour-saving devices. We have never allowed fears about the future to stunt our economic or social progress. We soon realised, for example, the folly of requiring early cars to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag, and we must adopt the same forward thinking, pro-innovation approach when it comes to the 4IR because here in Britain we reach for the future rather than just yearn for the past.

Just as before, the new wave of technological change can bring about substantial benefits from greater productivity, new jobs and lower production costs, to more choice for consumers through new goods and services. I hope that the Government will take that proactive and positive approach by placing the fourth industrial revolution at the heart of its new industrial strategy. In doing so, we can usher in a new manufacturing renaissance, launch a new industrial era built on high-quality innovation and, above all, give Britain the head start it deserves in the global race for success.

Click here for the full transcript of the debate in Hansard

Text of the motion

The following motion was sponsored by Alan Mak MP, and co-sponsored by Peter Kyle MP: 

That this House acknowledges that the UK is in a strong economic position to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; welcomes the view of the World Economic Forum that fusing physical, digital and biological technologies can promote further economic growth; notes that small and medium-sized businesses across the country contribute invaluable expertise and market leadership; and calls upon the Government to continue introducing and supporting policies that keep the UK at the forefront of this revolution in the future.