Blog Post

IR 4.0 is not a Scientific Revolution: A Paradigm Shift in the Making

The idea of sustainable development in the era of the Anthropocene seems to be getting in conflict with itself.

Past developments, especially since the 1st (1760) to the 4th Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0), are characterized by increasing rates of technological innovations, population growth, increasing social and economic network densities, and anthropogenic impacts on the biosphere, which cross planetary boundaries and lead to global systemic risks. Particularly due to increasing network densities[1] and the possibility of more systemic feedbacks, external effects of development cannot easily be overlooked and need to be internalized. The idea of sustainable development in the era of the Anthropocene seems to be getting in conflict with itself.

Development in the era of the Anthropocene can be demonstrated by the transition from rural to urban lifestyles which have occurred for a majority of people on earth. During this development, attempts are made to make cities less polluted, less wasteful, and more compact and efficient in the use of resources per capita. These efforts, which are sometimes referred to as ‘decoupling’ (i.e., achieving more wealth for all, with less resource use and waste per capita) have led to efficiency gains, or “urban advantages” in cities. The changes since the 1st industrial revolution also led to a speeding up. The great acceleration does not only consist of increasing rates of major technological innovations, which are able to avoid, or better, postpone the Malthusian system collapse, but also to an increasing acceleration of the pace of human life (see Filipe Duarte SantosGeoffrey West).

While those developments are now much better understood, less thought has gone into the impact of another phenomena, called the Jevons paradox[2]. Therefore, urban growth may have enabled a smaller ecological footprint per capita in cities but it has not led to a reduction of the total ecological footprint of cities.  Similarly, past developments have led to urban growth, but not necessarily to urban health, and past achievements of global economic development have had detrimental impacts on planetary health.

In the context of a modern industrial revolution, these accelerating cycles of major innovations, which have avoided system collapse, have been referred by Klaus Schwab, as ‘paradigm shifting’, because of their “velocity, scope, and systems impact.” However, those past developments, which include the 1st to the currently proclaimed 4th Industrial Revolution, have been described by Geoffrey West in his book “Scale” (2017), as follows: “We’re not only living on an accelerating treadmill that’s always getting faster and faster, but at some stage we have to jump onto another treadmill that is accelerating even faster and sooner or later have to jump from that one onto yet another one that’s going even faster. And this entire process has to be continually repeated into the future at a faster and faster rate.” Accordingly, each of the four industrial revolutions have been a treadmill and we continue to jump from one treadmill to another, going faster and faster – “a bizarre psychotic behavior” which, West says, cannot “be sustained without our having a collective heart attack”.

Although West refers to those innovations as paradigm-shifting, my central argument here is that jumping from one treadmill to another, which is each going faster than the previous, is not inherently evidence of a paradigm shift. That development is not driven by the deep changes in values, institutions and worldviews which characterize paradigm shifts; changes which are also characteristic for a societal transition based on reflexive intelligence. It seems that the addictive excitement about jumping from one technological innovation ‘treadmill’ to another, and the economic opportunities associated with it, prevent deeper and more fundamental changes which would actually indicate a shift of paradigms.

A better understanding of complexity and entropy could help identify where the paradigm shift for sustainable development could eventually come in. All increases (and decreases) in complexity are tied to increases in entropy.  Developments since the 1st Industrial Revolution have come with immense increases in complexity, most stunningly visible in the global processes of urbanization. Social organization, values and institutional arrangements have likewise become increasingly complex, due to the availability of cheap energy in form of fossil fuel, as Ian Morris argues in “Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels”.

If the era we currently live in is the era of complexity, as Professor Stephen Hawking posited[3], what could be the paradigm shifting effect of that era? The paradigm shift could originate from the changing awareness of a global collective[4]. The impact from the (small world) global economic and technological development on the ecological life support systems and on health, have been positive in the past. However, when the shift occurs from a small to a big world[5], the (old) societal homeostatic regulation system (depicted as circle in the figure) begins to malfunction. Levels of deteriorating urban and planetary health only slowly trigger feedback signals which eventually change the perceptions and the development paradigm of a collective in the “big world” (Figure).

IR4: A paradigm shift on the making
A paradigm shift in the making. Negative health impacts from previous types of development eventually lead to a paradigm shift.

The paradigm shift, which is in the making in this era of complexity, also marks a shift from an anthropocentric to an eco-centric worldview, which is more humanistic in that it aims at avoiding negative human and planetary health consequences from development.  Ecological humanismdigital humanism and ecological civilization, for example, adopt an eco-centric view which considers deeper development impacts on our natural, social, economic and technological environments.

Theoretically, from a rational choice perspective, the paradigm shift occurs at an inflection point when marginal economic returns from technology innovations begin to diminish, e.g., when there are negative (external) effects on society (e.g., inequality) and nature (e.g., pollution), which (if they were taken into account) make continued growth in the “small world”, uneconomic. But we do not know how negative those effects need to be before they trigger systemic change and there are many more unknowns.

The shift in values which is associated with the paradigm shift in the making, is not only about a more complete account of (total economic) values, but also a recognition of new values which had not been considered ‘economic’ before, because they are of intrinsic and not of utilitarian nature.

For science, the paradigm shift marks the difference between normal and post-normal science. By “normal” Funtowicz and Ravetz mean what T.S. Kuhn (1962) refers to as the puzzle-solving of science in the context of a policy environment which assumes that sufficient knowledge is available for scientists, or experts to solve puzzles. In the new policy environment values are in dispute, facts are uncertain, stakes high, and decisions urgent. Due to radical uncertainties and a plurality of values and perspectives, new intellectual tools must be found which build on the participation of an extended peer community in the problem-solving process. That approach does not just apply simple citizen science methods in order to collect data from people by people. Participatory research in the context of a post-normal science strengthens collective intelligence, builds the capacity to think and work together and institutionalizes changes in value. Thereby it contributes to the paradigm shift in the making.


[1] See, e.g.,  “Network Structure and City Size”, “Social-Ecological Connectivity to Understand Ecosystem Service Provision across Networks in Urban Landscapes” and the relationship between urban density and economic growth.

[2] The Jevons Paradox states that an increase in efficiency in resource use will generate an increase in resource consumption rather than a decrease. Giampietro and Mayumi (2018) clarify the links between innovation, efficiency and sustainability.

[3] In an interview with San Jose Mercury News on 23rd January 2000.

[4] The global collective comprises of a group of people which have been connected and communicate by means of digital technologies.

[5] Rockström, Johan and Mattias Klum. 2015. Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries. New Haven, CT ; London, Yale University Press


In the blogs in this series, we will unpack some of the factors impinging on the achievement of collective intelligence within the United Nations, highlight the alignment of collective intelligence with some of the key principles of the United Nations, undertake detailed case studies of how collective intelligence is being operationalised and employed across some of the UN agencies, and share our work on leveraging digital technologies to enhance collective intelligence within the UN system for solving sustainable development challenges

Suggested citation: Gatzweiler Franz., "IR 4.0 is not a Scientific Revolution: A Paradigm Shift in the Making," UNU Macau (blog), 2023-03-28, 2023,