If you wanted proof that we are indeed on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution that will profoundly change our society, look no further than Google’s announcement yesterday that it will split into two companies.
Old Google – essentially a massively successful sales and marketing company – will split and a new company called “Alphabet” will be created. Alphabet will be a cutting-edge research, investment and speculative company that hopes to be at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution.
A big issue for Dublin and Ireland is whether much of the New Google or Alphabet’s R&D will be based in Dublin or whether Dublin will remain a sales and marketing hub?
Let’s come back to Ireland a bit later after we’ve looked at the big picture – this industrial revolution idea. This fourth industrial revolution is about a groundbreaking series of innovations in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology – all connected by billions of smart devices.
Google wants to own this revolution (or at least a big part of it) because the people who run Google realise that the world and the global economy is being restructured before our very eyes.
In time, there may not be any need for doctors, lawyers or accountants. One highly competent doctor with an iPad will be able to scan people’s files, diagnose and deploy medicines in the same way that travel agent software that can identify best prices and options destroyed the travel agent. In a similar vein, Airbnb is changing the hotel landscape.
The fourth industrial revolution will eliminate thousands of less competent doctors at a stroke. This will be creative destruction like we have never seen. Google wants to be on top of these changes.
My own experience with Google has always been positive. I first came across the inner sanctum of Google when I was asked to speak at its Zeitgeist Conference in the US a few years back. This experience allowed me to observe CEO Larry Page up close. He appeared to me to be a sort of phenomenon: part entrepreneur, part engineer – a 21st century hyper-nerd with huge vision – and, most of all, a dreamer who takes big risks. He is the one, it seems, joining up the dots.
And there are a lot of digital dots to join up. For example, every minute last year the world’s internet users – all three billion of us – sent 204 million emails, uploaded 72 hours of YouTube video, undertook 4 million Google searches, shared 2.46 million pieces of Facebook content, published 277,000 tweets, posted 216,000 new photos on Instagram and spent $83,000 on Amazon.
Google is a corporate monster at the centre of all this.
It handles 3.5 billion searches daily and controls up to 90pc of the market in most countries. It was valued at $400bn last year – more than seven times General Motors, which employs nearly four times more people. Google is essentially a huge digital sales and advertising company. And it is advertising that drives revenue.
Its two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are worth $30bn apiece. But they are not content to be glorified advertising salesmen; these guys are dreamers and they understand that the fourth industrial revolution will have winners, and these winners will take all.
This logic explains Alphabet.
In the same way as the internet has created monopolies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, which have destroyed the competition and made monopoly-style fortunes for their owners, the fourth industrial revolution, from genetics to 3D printing, will do the same.
Governments should be aware of this and look to get a piece of this industrial action which will provide jobs, extra tax revenue and the hope that a Google operation in the country or the city will be the anchor tenant for a spawning tech business.
As the likes of Google are now central to the broader fourth industrial revolution with its investments in life sciences and genetics, the aim would be to build a fourth industrial revolution platform in Ireland.
Ireland is very small; we need only a tiny piece of the global action to make a big difference.
This brings us to Silicon Dock and Dublin in general.
Despite their ruthless ‘winner takes all’ attitude to business, the ethos of companies of the fourth industrial revolution is cosmopolitan, liberal and driven by a lifestyle that is suited to urban living. These businesses will not locate in the middle of nowhere. They will locate in the middle of everything.
The cities that provide this kind of lifestyle will have the edge in 50/50 investment decisions over those that don’t. And speaking English is essential; not helpful, but essential.
One part of the lifestyle, not just for foreigners but for us too, is to have a liveable, preferably walkable city that sees itself as public amenity for the people who live there. This means, whether we like it or not, dramatically reducing the number of cars in the city centre.
All over the world, getting more cars out of the city rather than more cars into the city is the central plank of urban regeneration. Dublin has got to be the same. We also have to build more apartments and build up so that we can have the population density to nourish a living city. There’s no point in having a car-free city centre if no one can afford to live there.
The city has to be part of Ireland’s sale pitch for the new fourth industrial revolution.
I’m not saying that we should remove cars from the city because Larry Page wants to rollerblade through College Green on a Wednesday afternoon, but reducing cars and ceding space to walkers and cyclists is the future of urban living.
Cars clogging up cities are very much the story of the last industrial revolution, the mechanised revolution of Henry Ford’s day.
The new, urban fourth industrial revolution will walk, not drive.