Key takeaways

  • Emerging technologies are profoundly altering our understanding of what it means to be human.
  • With technology that can be used for good or evil, leaders need to be strategic in how they design the future and its tech-human interactions.
  • Using human-centered principles will align societal good and allow humanity to be augmented, not sidelined.

We are in the midst of a revolution like no other; one that is converging physical, biological, social, and political spaces and profoundly altering our understanding of what it means to be human.1

Characterised by rapid advancements in artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, genetic modifications, the internet of things, drones, neuro- and bio-technologies, autonomous vehicles and big data, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is disrupting society in unimagined ways.

Often spoken about in apocalyptic terms, this future state is imagined as a zero-sum game that pits humans against machines. By recognising the principles that underpin our humanity, however, designing the future will give humanity the upper hand.

vs human?

Technology is not value-neutral. Its components and usage is complex and evolving, shaped by the biases that exist within our world: technologies embody the principles and values of their creators and are reflective of and subject to human society. As the World Economic Forum’s whitepaper on value, ethics and innovation notes, technologies “shape worldviews, and world views shape them as well”.2

Emerging and future technologies have the potential to extend and enrich the human experience, provide enormous economic value and enhance workplace productivity. Yet they also pose moral and existential threats to labour markets, social cohesion, inequality and the personal and collective identity of humankind.

Technology can positively benefit humanity. Social robots with interactive capabilities provide treatment for elderly patients in care facilities.3 AI systems are already detecting and diagnosing cancers, brain injuries, heart disease and more.4 Self-driving cars could eliminate 90 percent of the 1.3 million road fatalities each year.5

Conversely, tech can also be used in ways that are decidedly not in our best interests. Cyber criminals are launching more sophisticated cyber-attacks, manipulating stock prices and stoking geopolitical tensions,6 while human genome editing may be used as a tool for the privileged to ‘improve’ biological characteristics, widening social and economic inequalities between humans.7

Human-centred principles
to the rescue

Human-centred principles — designed to serve the human perspective — offer us an opportunity to positively shape the interaction between technology and humanity, ensuring that the advances of the next century augment human potential, rather than substitute for it. With 4IR predicted to create up to US$3.7 trillion in value by 2025, the case for global leaders to embrace human-centred principles has never been stronger.8

Used effectively, they can stand as a bulwark against the uncertainties and threats that emerge from great technological turbulence and provide leaders with a solid foundation to ensure the positive and thoughtful design of the future instead of reactionary responses that entrench bias and vulnerability.

Flexibly designed and aligned to societal priorities, these principles should emphasise the elements that define us as human: collaboration and community, trust and empathy, imagination and creativity, curiosity and learning, adaptability, flexibility and agility. They should be focused on elevating the ‘human’ skills the WEF defined as imperative to thrive in 2020, such as emotional intelligence, relationship making, critical and creative thinking and negotiation while leaning on technology to augment the human experience through processing, analysing and evaluating.9

As a starting point, human-centered principles should be:

  • A force for good — benefiting humanity and the planet
  • Diverse and inclusive — representative of all people
  • Empowering — enabling self-determination and agency so individuals can reach their full potential
  • Accessible — designed to include the most vulnerable user
  • Outcome aligned to human need —not just created because we can
  • Sustainable — supporting the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals10
  • Transparent — open and responsible disclosure in decisions and outcomes
  • Accountable — guidance and governance mechanisms established

Shaping the
future economy

A thoughtful set of universal human-centred principles such as these could provide leaders with clarity and further opportunity to challenge existing systems. This could mean, for example, replacing the linear career model of ‘learn, do, retire’ with rapid skill building and learning. It could increase focus toward diversifying skill sets so people can excel in a digitised future, as well as shift businesses to cross-functional and team-based work.

All stakeholder groups stand to benefit from embedding universal principles into their future strategies as it will create a shortcut  to assess decisions quickly. The good of the many, or the human, will thus always be at the heart of choice. This will enable business leaders to adjust, for example, to new markets and skill demands. Education systems will enjoy renewed vigour from a society that views every individual as both a lifelong student and educator  that should be empowered. Governments will be able to re-establish trust with transparency, accountability and enable a socially responsible future, while society will benefit from the design of societally aligned technologies.

Time to
change direction

Rather than prepare for a technology-centred world, governments and business leaders need to co-design a future economy where quintessential human principles guide the interplay between humanity and technology.

The risk of a future digital landscape that represses and excludes humanity is real. Already, the lines between human and technological capabilities are being blurred. Over the coming decades, the human story needs to focus on how we define our priorities and consider the values, ethics and principles that will shape our collective technological identity.

The transition to the future economy is underway, and will not be without challenge. However, if we are committed to playing an active role in defending, embedding and nurturing our ‘humanness’, with human-centred principles at heart, then the change will need to be more inclusive, sustainable and reflective of the best of humanity. It is up to all of us to uphold its principles.


Digital Pulse Natalie Kyriacou OAM


Natalie Kyriacou OAM

Natalie Kyriacou OAM is a management consultant at PwC Australia.

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