I believe we are at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, not as expected with artificial intelligence but with home working and shopping. A completion of the circle from people moving into cities to work in factories to people leaving offices to work at home.
We have seen over recent years, changes in the way people work and shop. The movement towards homeworking, online meetings and online shopping was taking place pre COVID. What COVID has done is turbo charge this change; some have said it has moved it forward five years and others that it has moved forward ten years in the last twelve months.
Thirty years ago, I was telling my students about how video conferencing was the way forward and that there was no reason to travel for meetings. Fifteen years ago, I was giving effectively the same lecture with very little progress in the meantime. We have in the last year discovered how well ZOOM and TEAMS work especially where high speed broadband is available. I wish luck to anyone who tries to get finance directors to fund them travelling long distances for meetings especially short meetings.
The Welsh Government also needs to set working from home targets for itself and other publicly funded bodies. The private sector will do what works for each individual company. People in general do not want to spend 2 hours a day commuting. I know I do not relish the thought of travelling back to Cardiff post COVID hoping there is not an accident or roadworks on the M4.
Competitive recruitment will mean that the offer of a job where you can work mainly at home will be more tempting than one which involves a commute of 2 hours a day.
Also, it gives you an opportunity to decide where you live as opposed to needing to live close to a railway hub or near an A road or motorway.
The growth of home working will be decided by lots of individual decisions which when aggregated will produce a direction of travel. Do not forget the cost of office space will have a strong influence on decisions.
The home working experiment over the last year has taken place under sub optimum conditions with home learning for children alongside homeworking and no study has shown a substantial drop in productivity with some showing improved productivity.
When we return to city centres post COVID we will find lots of empty units of various size including the empty former Debenhams stores. The future of department stores has never looked so uncertain. Online is now not just Amazon, every major retailer has an online presence, and all are working towards improving their online offer.
Home manufacturing using three D printers is the next stage of development. There are two current problems which are the price of 3D printers and their capability. Both are almost certain to be resolved in the next few years.
Whilst 3 D printing is in its infancy, small firms including one in Swansea are using 3 D printers to produce prosthetics within their manufacturing unit. Also, we know that PPE was produced on a small scale using three D printers.
It is only a small step to the home production of many goods. What 3D printing gives you is Flexible Design, allows for the design and print of more complex designs than traditional manufacturing processes, rapid prototyping, and print on demand.
Whilst inefficient for large scale production it works for small scale and bespoke manufacturing.
This is the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution a complete full circle from the first.
Mike Hedges is the Labour and Co-Operative Candidate for the Welsh Parliament for Swansea East