The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos this year will be the epicenter of two of the world’s most important trends:

  • The rollout of 5G, the next-generation networking infrastructure that will more tightly bind together the world’s 7.7 billion people, as well as the four billion “things” expected to be deployed by 2020.
  • The ongoing rise of 1.2 billion people residing in China, led by President for life, Xi Jinping.

Every other aspect of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the hot topic once again in Davos at the World Economic Forum meeting – must be placed within this macro context. 5G + Xi = 6G.

5G: Not Your Grandfather’s Network

5G networks lay the foundation for fulfilling the promise of the Internet of Things, big data and artificial intelligence. For those of us who can remember the hiss of a dial-up modem, 5G  speeds – which offer the ability to watch Netflix on the morning commute – seem astonishing. G’s 4 through 1 are nothing compared with the power and speed that 5G is set to present us.

With 5G as the backbone, MRIs will be sent from remote locations to radiologists thousands of miles away; wave turbines will upload huge volumes of environmental data from their lonely mid-ocean anchorage points; sensors in lamp posts will report on traffic conditions with millisecond latency, allowing for traffic algorithms to reroute autonomous vehicles with a precision and efficiency that will really move us. Fridges will speak to fridges (yours to your supermarket’s warehouse), and houses will tell us what is ailing them. Truly, a science fiction world will reveal itself.

Though 2019 will be the early stage of the 5G wave, the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos will mark the point where business and civic leaders begin to understand that “digitization” is not simply about doing existing things faster, better and cheaper but also about the emergence of an entirely new range of things that can be done. Imagine trying to tell someone on the cusp of the Second Industrial Revolution in 1914 that that the next war – not the one they’re just about to fight – will be ended by a hydrogen bomb. That’s the leap we must now make: to imagine how the things that will be invented on the platforms of 5G, IoT, big data and AI will make the tools and technologies of the Third Industrial Revolution seem no more powerful than the Gatling gun.  

Belt and Road … and Code

This year marks the 47th anniversary of President Nixon’s historic visit to China, which brought the Middle Kingdom (back) into contact with the modern Western world. In nearly half a century, China has gone from marginal player on the world stage to starring role. In fact, any discussion of the next 50 years that doesn’t consider China’s role – its ambitions, capabilities, weaknesses – is not worth the silk scroll it’s written on.

Many see China from a distance – literally and metaphorically. A far-away country of people who love their children too but who are, in a way, unknown. A country full of factories producing iPhones, televisions, the very clothes on our back. A people pleased to enjoy the fruits of their labor and happy to leave the poverty and subjugation of their past behind.

But few in the West see that China is on a mission – one that, to succeed, will place the nation at loggerheads with many of the countries, institutions and leaders taking prominent places on the Davos stage. China, in short, wants to right the wrongs of the Third Industrial Revolution, the period in which the great European powers, plus the U.S. and Japan, developed technologically and economically in ways that placed China at a disadvantage. The “great humiliation” (as it is euphemistically known in China) is said to have caused so much psychological pain that the country is now laser-focused on dominating the next great wave of geopolitical/socioeconomic advancement: the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The pre-Davos chatter suggests that many World Economic Forum delegates are of mixed emotions on this.  Some appear entirely comfortable with China’s ascension, while others have a growing unease that China’s strategy and its tactics bear closer scrutiny. U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech in Davos last year touched on this. Vice-President Mike Pence’s recent remarks at the Hudson Institute fleshed these thoughts out more thoroughly.

When Revolutions Collide

That 5G runs through the Fourth Industrial Revolution … that American and Chinese greatness is predicated on priority in this next phase of the great game … that national security now rests largely on cybersecurity … that the incredible opportunities available to improve the state of the world rest on ongoing technological development –  that all of these trends intersect at Davos 2019 is evidence enough that this year’s annual meeting has never been greater. This is particularly true in the current climate, in which it would be easy to be cynical about our ability to navigate such turbulent waters.

The technologies that will mature and flower with 5G will make for a world quite different from the planet we know today. When we get to that world,  we’ll find Chinese people and Chinese companies there, along with U.S. and European people and companies. This will be a world none of us have ever known. 6G – the collision between 5G and President Xi – is the story for this year’s Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos – and many more to come.

For more on Davos, see my blogs “World Economic Forum 2019: Making the Future Work” and “World Economic Forum 2018: Final Reflections.”

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books What To Do When Machines... Read more