First published in Politik : Perpektive, The student-run German politics journal based at Leeds University.
At this year’s CeBIT expo, Japan presented its Society 5.0 initiative to the land of Industrie 4.0. CeBIT is the largest expo for data and communication technology in Europe, taking place annually in Hannover. As strikingly similar initiatives, it is noteworthy to compare each of them in light of Japan’s visit to CeBIT. Why are political initiatives being promoted at a German technology expo and what do these initiatives say about their country’s socio-political challenges?
The name Industrie 4.0 refers to an initiative which aims to maintain and develop Germany’s position as a manufacturer. It is seen as the next stage of economic progression which began with the process of industrialisation in the 18th century up to now – a fourth industrial revolution through the development consisting of ‘cyber-physical’ systems. Germany’s current industrial development signposts the combination of physical industry with the possibilities of advances in data technology advances such as big data and the ‘Internet of things’.
Japan’s Society 5.0 is in principle very similar. It is an initiative working towards effectively combining the possibilities of information technology with the ‘real’ world. Like Industrie 4.0, this initiative is described as the next stage of a historical progression. But where the German initiative is at the end of industrial progression, Society 5.0 is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the next societal advancement. It is promoted as a “super smart society”, following on from the hunting, agrarian, industrial and information societies.
Society 5.0 focusses on society as a whole, not only industry and manufacturing. At least within government rhetoric, Society 5.0 is committed to raising the standard of life, whereas Industrie 4.0 strives only for a more effective economy. This is however not the whole story. Industrie 4.0 is one of the ten ‘future projects’ set out by the German government in 2006. These, as a whole, address industrial, environmental, and health issues, but do not extend to the breadth of Society 5.0.
The difference in focus between Industrie 4.0 and Society 5.0 is significant, regardless of the initiatives’ shared goal of developing data technologies. Their respective names highlight the problems each initiative is attempting to resolve. Industrie 4.0 is an attempt by the German government to maintain the country’s position as a global leader in industrial manufacturing. Meanwhile, the Japanese government wants first and foremost to tackle issues such as Japan’s rapidly ageing population through Society 5.0.
These initiatives are predominantly political, not business projects. It was after all Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who was present at CeBIT to make a speech endorsing Society 5.0. It is a form of political rallying behind emerging technological trends. The different names and approaches simply represent a national interpretation of those trends. Each initiative reflects each country’s own challenges and tries to push that agenda internationally. These initiatives promote patterns that would eventually develop independently. Just as ‘Industrie 1.0’ or ‘Society 1.0’ were not political decisions, neither will their contemporary counterparts be. The politicisation of an existing progression is simply a declaration of interests and an attempt to steer a boat that already has its course.
As nationally focussed projects they will not necessarily translate well onto the international stage. There are a number of potential conflicting interests between Germany and Japan alone. For a bureaucracy-loving country such as Japan, AI maintenance might be great news, since the current human-run administration may finally be streamlined. Expanding AI possibilities do not enthuse Germans nearly as much, however. Germany is already suspicious of Google and its ever-growing digital capabilities. AI maintenance isn’t too far off becoming AI surveillance – a sensitive topic for a nation that suffered at the hands of surveillance in both the National Socialist period and the Communist period in the east.
We have to consider what triggered a need for the countries’ respective projects. In regards to Japan, it is clear from their publications on Society 5.0 how important the challenge of a rapidly increasing population is to the initiative’s development.
Germany’s aims are a little harder to pinpoint. Germany is already one of the world’s great manufacturing nations and one could easily jump to the conclusion that tinkering with Germany’s successful manufacturing sector is a mix-up of priorities. The urgency for Industrie 4.0, however,may have its roots abroad. China is an established manufacturing powerhouse. China’s business culture, that of inviting foreign investment and business into China for formative purposes, has gradually allowed it to compete aggressively with its ‘teachers’. Germany remains one of its most prominent teachers. Yet, China does not play by the usual rules, so a rule-abiding nation like Germany may have to work doubly as hard to maintain its leading manufacturing position.
Unfortunately for Japan, putting its initiative alongside Industrie 4.0 has highlighted just how uninspiring the Japanese vision of Society 5.0 could be to an international audience. It has unwittingly shown the world how a nation famed for its technology is actually very behind in the places it matters most. Included amongst Society 5.0’s suggestions for dealing with Japan’s ageing population is the digitalisation of medical records – something much of the world did a long time ago. Likewise, cashless payment technology is promoted, which – though a worthy advance for Japan – is hardly ground-breaking on a global level. And, although Japan may be a technology giant, Society 5.0 may represent a realisation that it needs to focus more on practical than fun technology.
The differences in aims and approach between the two projects highlight their political natures. Each initiative represents a political steering of a progression that will happen regardless of politics. However, the convergence of interests between Industrie 4.0 and Society 5.0 does point towards developing international recognition that new data and communication technologies can benefit the world. Though Germany’s focus on manufacturing is unequivocally beneficial in the short term as a means of maintaining competitive advantage, improvements in data and communication technology will be better implemented through closer international cooperation. The benefits of new technology developing interconnectivity will only be fully realised through simultaneously improving interconnectivity between the national initiatives that attempt to drive the development. With this in mind, both Japan and Germany are missing the point by attempting to become world leaders in the implementation of these new technologies.