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Have We Entered the 4th Industrial Revolution?

In this episode of Shift, we uncover some powerful, historical insights about innovation and invention. We also begin to tackle the question, “Have we entered the fourth industrial revolution?” with our esteemed guest, Arthur Daemmrich, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director of the Lemelson Center for the study of invention and innovation at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Lemelson Center carries out historical research into invention and innovation, develops educational programs to inspire the next generation of investors, and creates exhibits that engage some 4.5 million museum visitors annually.

In this episode, the main items we will cover are:

  • The difference between invention and innovation.

  • Thomas Edison and why his light bulb was so successful.

  • The myth of the visionary.

  • If we are in the beginning stages of the fourth industrial revolution, what does it look like for the production of goods and services? What will be the role of independent inventors?

  • Are we patenting things that shouldn’t be patented?

  • The innate desire for “solution sexiness”, meaning, if the idea isn’t new, exciting, or 100% unique, it isn’t worth pursuing.

  • How manufacturing systems have evolved over time.

  • The future of work and how the job market is changing.

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Key Takeaways:

Invention VS Innovation

Traditionally, we tend to think of inventors as people who create something new. It’s a unique material, a new device, maybe even a process or a new method. Arthur believes that the key thing for someone to be considered an innovator or for a thing to be classified as an innovation is the fact that it answers a societal, customer need.

Inventions on the other hand, can be completely void of market value. In fact, a lot of inventors find it difficult to be the first to go to market with a new invention. They are driven by their own mindset and creativity to be inventors, not necessarily to be business owners. There is one distinction, and that is the idea that an invention may or may not have a market use, but an innovation by definition should. Otherwise, it’s not an innovation.

“An invention may or may not have a market use, but an innovation, by definition, should. Otherwise, it’s frankly not an innovation.”


The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Are We There?

Before jumping into whether we are experiencing the fourth industrial revolution (as Professor Klaus Schwab dubbed it), the first questions Arthur proposes we might ask instead are all about providing context:

“What exactly do we mean by an industrial revolution, and how useful is that term when in fact, a lot of what we’re talking about isn’t so much in industrial production in the 19th century model?”

He believes that we should think about it across several dimensions: the changes in technology, output, production, and consumption.

He states, “in the first industrial revolution, as you begin to use steam power and begin to set up factories, it comes a little later the United States than in Britain, but the US really pioneers what we call an American system of manufacture around precision parts, interchangeable pieces, and it goes from guns, to sewing machines, to bicycles, to a whole host of other areas.

You get these small New England factories that then spread elsewhere in the country. They’ve got a change in output but also changes tremendously what people can consume. It brings the price down significantly of clothing, of a bicycle for example.

In 1897, there’s a massive bicycle boom and over a million bicycles are sold in the United States over the space of two years. After which, there’s a big bust because people only buy one and not two or three. It creates the mobility then suddenly, which in turn sets the stage for automobile because people are now used to moving around from town to town on their own.

That changed in consumption.

They all set a change in the innovation system. We go between the industrial revolutions from small independent people starting up their own factories, to industrialized research labs in the 20th century, to a new model in recent years around information tech that involves new collaborations across academia, across independent firms, and often government entities.

There’s the idea of a more open source model.

That’s the question.

If we’re going to have a fourth industrial revolution, what’s different about how we produce? What’s different about how we consume? And what’s different about how we innovate?

Artificial intelligence alone could change manufacturing to some degree, but I don’t think that alone is it. Are we seeing a new way of production because of 3D printing? Not yet, but it could come.

It could be that there’s a time when if I don’t have a 3D printer in my home, there’s at least one somewhere, very close by, and when I want to make a part for a home repair, that’s actually a cheaper way to do it than going to the hardware store, which has to stock 10,000 or 100,000 discreet parts to satisfy the diversity of consumers.
There would be a real change in how we produce and in how we consume. We’re not there yet, but that is what people are seeing on the horizon.”

“If we’re going to have a fourth industrial revolution, we should be asking ‘what’s different about how we produce? What’s different about how we consume? And what’s different about how we innovate?’”


The Future of Work

One final area for discussion is around whether people should be excited or terrified about the future, especially with regard to the job market.

The current trend is that more and more people are turning towards entrepreneurship – the way that the job market functions today will not be the case for tomorrow. People will need to be able to independently sell their abilities and keep themselves motivated throughout their careers by thinking about how to find other interesting parts of their lives that are inspiring. This might mean choosing work that is meaningful, and understanding how to continue generating value in a landscape where having a single job or purpose is no longer the norm.

The challenge that we are facing is that we can no longer just expect to work 9-5, go home, hang out with our families, watch TV, and repeat the same routine the next day with the same vigor for years to come. It has become apparent that people have to take ownership of their own personal development and keep finding new areas in which they can build a certain amount of expertise in order to feel a sense of satisfaction and remain relevant in the workforce of tomorrow.

Whether you are an inventor or something else entirely, it is important to keep training yourself, keep finding new things that you find interesting, and learning about them in depth. You are responsible for your own personal growth and development.

“Keep training yourself, keep finding new things that you find interesting, and learning about them in depth.”


Resources and References:

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About Our Guest:

Arthur Daemmrich is the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution. Daemmrich’s scholarly work analyzes the emergence of technology-based industries, explores the relationship between regulation and innovation, and compares innovation systems internationally.

He is the author of Pharmacopolitics: Drug Regulation in the United States and Germany and has published over 50 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and teaching cases in science and technology studies; the history of science, technology, and medicine; and health and business policy.

Before coming to the Lemelson Center, Daemmrich was an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, a visiting professor at the China Europe International Business School, and a research fellow and director of contemporary history at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He holds a PhD from Cornell University in Science and Technology Studies and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in the History and Sociology of Science.