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World Standards Day 2018: Consumers, standards and the fourth industrial revolution

To mark this year’s World Standards Day, our standards expert Antonino Serra explores the 2018 theme; ‘International Standards and the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and outlines why international standards are more important than ever if we are to fully harness the power of emerging technologies.

Back to the future?

The first industrial revolution was a time of social and economic change like never before. By making the transition from hand production methods to production powered by steam, machines and factories, almost every aspect of the way we produced and consumed products and services evolved. 

Fast forward three centuries and we are now in the midst of a new period of dramatic change. The Fourth Industrial revolution, which is characterised by the emergence of new technologies that are blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds, promises to permanently alter the way we produce, communicate and consume.

As with the first industrial revolution, the fourth is also being driven by machines. But rather than being powered by steam, these machines are now powered by big data, algorithms and cloud-based networks that seamlessly connect people, products, content and information together. These innovations in digital technology offer us huge possibilities in terms of the choice, convenience and flexibility when we interact with products and services.

But with new technologies come new questions and challenges. How can we ensure the products we buy online are safe and meet our expectations? Can we trust the services we interact with to keep our personal data secure? How do we know what the implications of artificial intelligence are if we don’t understand how AI systems are making decisions about us?

One thing is for certain. To regulate and harness the power of the emerging technologies we have at our disposal, the use of international standards will be essential.

Restoring consumer trust

Just as standards were embedded in the 18th century to support production and engineering and common conventions such as time measurement, weights and measures, they are already playing a critical role in the fourth industrial revolution.

Earlier this year, a global survey by CIGI-Ipsos outlined that consumer trust in online platforms, such as social media sites and search engines is deteriorating.

Many of us no longer feel confident in the online reviews we read, the news we consume on social media, the online platforms who promise to keep our personal data safe in the wake of mass security breaches. And the digital growth we have become accustomed to in the fourth industrial revolution is at risk of being stalled without trust.

To restore consumer trust in the digital products and services they interact with, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) already has a growing catalogue of digital standards. Key areas covered include restoring credibility in online reviews and providing best-practice guidelines for e-commerce sites. They are also in the process of developing a standard related to privacy by design.

Another good example is ISO IWA 27:2018 on Sharing Economy that was launched last year and is the first attempt from ISO to frame the phenomenon of the collaborative economy by giving guiding principles that can address the economic and social impacts of its implementation and management.

International standards are important because they are developed in consensus by consumers, business, standards and government experts. Their credibility emerges from the transparent and open process of development that ensures they have a strong legitimacy. They establish more consistent approaches across countries - a positive for consumers but also for international companies that need consistency. They are a powerful tool that make things and processes more predictable and reliable. They help to boost innovation and trust in different markets, ensuring the same levels of certainty and excellence.

A brave new world

Consumers International is committed to working with ISO, ISO COPOLCO and our members to develop new international standards that meet the challenges of the digital world. By working together, we can aim to create a balanced environment where standards that champion consumer safety, security and privacy become a catalyst, rather than an obstacle, for digital innovation.

As new technology continues to blur the lines between the physical and digital world, it will also become increasingly important to use the guidance provided by the UN Sustainable Development goals to build a blueprint for the digital world that is sustainable.

This World Standards Day, we must accept the challenge of using international standards to build the foundations for a fourth industrial revolution that not only delivers speed, efficiency and innovation but can also create a revolution that is sustainable, fairer and more inclusive than those that came before it.