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Much is being made today of the so-called “industrie 4.0”, with many commentators saying the exponential growth in technology and innovation will break, not just disrupt, entire economies.

Although Sir Tom bristles at the mere mention of a fourth revolution, he doesn’t hold back when he says that in the coming years society will face some of the biggest challenges it’s ever had.

“I have a problem as a historian about seeing three industrial revolutions before this one. By any criteria a revolution is root and branch. It needs to be a change of the system, not just a change within the system.  Revolutions two and three actually did not change the structure of society, as did the classic Industrial Revolution, they simply added to the original development.”

Nature of Humanity

“But this revolution will be different, and will be as disruptive, if not more so, than anything we have ever seen before. It promises to challenge our work and leisure lives, economic and political systems, societal structure, and indeed, even raise important questions about what is the nature of humanity itself, all in a way which the previous so-called revolutions did not.

“It's possible it will have the same kind of major opportunities of the industrial revolution, but it will also have very real perils and dangers as well.

 “One of the biggest problems, which is already emerging, is how do you manage change to make sure it gives more opportunities and rewards for as many people as possible, rather than just the elites.”

 Sir Tom continued: “It took a long time – and it was only after government intervention - before society managed to produce a system which controlled the negative aspects of the industrial revolution.  We need to be very aware of that today.

“Social inequalities may become more acute during this forthcoming period, so all governments, especially those in the developed world, have got to move in a modern interventionist direction. There's no doubt today that many of the great world corporations are more powerful than nation states already.

“That’s a major global political challenge that has to be confronted.”

"...many of the great world corporations are more powerful than nation states already....that’s a major global political challenge that has to be confronted.”

Sir Tom Devine, Historian

When asked how Scotland could prepare itself for these tumultuous times ahead, the Professor said education and entrepreneurship are key, and he believes a new modern Scottish Enlightenment will be essential for the country’s future both at home, and on the global stage.

“One of the good things about Scotland  is that it has  proven itself in recent times to be pretty resilient. The country  has mainly rebuilt its economy on the ashes of the old industries. Despite still visible scars from de-industrialisation, particularly in poorer communities, we are doing pretty well relative to other economies.

“The economic landscape was arid from the 1920s through to the 1980s. It was a landscape of decline. Now the situation is different, and I think its no coincidence that in the last 10-15 years there’s been a significant increase in Scottish start-ups.

But Sir Tom cautioned: “However, we've also seen a definitive movement over the last 50 years towards a new specialised professionalism in prestigious subjects in higher education. This won’t fit at all with the model that's going to be developed,” he said.

Scottish Enlightenment 2.0

“Most of the employers in the future will probably not specify any degree type (except of course in areas such as medicine, law, science and technology). They’ll mainly want trained minds. Also, the specialist who will be at the cutting-edge of future transformations - some of which are already underway, many of which are still to come – should be aware of the broader social, ethical and indeed spiritual implications of what's going on.

“When I taught at Strathclyde there was a one year course required as part of engineering degrees which looked at history, literature, philosophy, ethics and religion. We need to reintroduce this kind of thinking again. We need the type of discussion and debate that was prevalent during the Scottish Enlightenment. We need to reinvent that wheel.

“In addition to that, the graduate of the future must also have a greater emphasis on critical intellect, how to argue, how to try and convince, how to weigh evidence and come to convincing conclusions. They must also be able to write in clear English cogently, and have a degree of control and mastery of numbers. “

Sir Tom pointed out that Scotland is well placed to nurture these talents as it has five Universities in the top 200, and with nearly 30,000 universities around the globe that is a major achievement. He claims that proves our higher education sector is in “good and strong heart", and that is thanks, in no small part, to the Scottish Government which  has “been relatively kind to the universities in terms of finance and support.”

"This needs to be an issue of great debate in the public domain, particularly in schools round the ethical issues. Some of these changes are very threatening to the traditional concept of humanity."

Sir Tom Devine, Historian

Cherish The Educators

However he goes on to say that the government could be more supportive of schools and teachers.

“We need to cherish our teaching profession to a much greater extent than we do. Primary and secondary teachers are undeniably the most important profession we have,” enthused Sir Tom.

“Their status has been downgraded, their salaries have not kept up and there are definitely morale problems within the profession.

“If you look at the most successful educational systems certainly in Europe, such as Finland, teachers are held in very high regard, as they used to be in Scotland until perhaps the 1960s.  The point I'm really coming to is that our future, which is our children’s future, is in the hands of the teaching profession. That  vital fact needs to be taken much more seriously by government.”

Time to talk

Sir Tom said the debate about the future of work, and in turn the future of skills, needs to move from the periphery of public policy to the centre of public debate.

“This needs to be an issue of great debate in the public domain, particularly in schools round the ethical issues,” he contests.

“Some of these changes are very threatening to the traditional concept of humanity. It would be a terrible betrayal of our country’s youth if future historians looked back in 50 years time and this new unrelenting dynamic was never ever raised, far less discussed, at a mainstream political and media level.

He concluded: I am not a futurologist, or whatever this crystal ball gazers claim to be nowadays,  but the value of history is that it gives you perspective. The one thing that is guaranteed is you cannot say definitively what change will look like, as there are so many twists and turns to come yet.”

Professor Sir Tom Devine’s talked to us ahead of the Thriving In the workplace of the future conference taking place in Glasgow on 1 November, organised by the Centre for Work-based Learning and SDS.

Check out the video below which sets the scene for the event. 

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