The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) heralds a rapid increase of new technologies into our work and social systems bringing widespread disruption to how we interact with technologies and how that interaction shapes our environment. 

Universities should prepare graduate research students to find successful careers and provide ethical leadership in 4IR. It is likely that an understanding of how technologies are used in graduate research education (GRE) management could aid in this objective.

This project is driven by PhD candidate Bec Johnson, and has as its central focus Sociotechnical Systems (STS) in 4IR. It is situated within the context of the Graduate Research Environment (GRE) at Higher Education Institutes (HEIs). The primary measures are around graduate qualities. The intended outcomes are a positive impact on preparing graduates for Industry 4.0 and equipping them with the capabilities to be ethically responsible leaders in 4IR. The project is underpinned by the growing discussion on the ethical considerations and consequences of new sociotechnical systems in the fourth industrial revolution.

Concept Map for thesis framework

The ubiquity of new technologies in our social environments, signals substantial changes in our sociotechnical systems.  Sociotechnical systems (STS) theory examines how human and technology agents interact with each other and with societal and organisational structures.  The field was initially developed in response to social upheavals caused by the mechanisation of coal extraction in the 1950s.  As we pass into 4IR with its signature fusion of cyber-physical systems, there has been a renewed interest in the field of STS as a way to navigate the enormous changes we are facing. 

Sociotechnical systems relate to the interaction of people and technology in organisational design.

The new work landscape has been dubbed Industry 4.0. As with previous industrial revolutions, the skills most sought after by employers are changing dramatically. Systems thinking skills and learning how to learn capabilities are crucial for adept navigation in a future in which the only certainty is uncertainty. Creativity, collaborative competence, and emotional intelligence have become amongst the most desirable attributes by Industry 4.0 employers. In addition to changing skills for Industry 4.0 is a call for liberal-based capabilities, such as ethics, to have more emphasis in preparing future leaders for 4IR. More on this on the Measures page.

Industry 4.0 is a subset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It was originally characterised by manufacturing automation and connectivity.

There are substantial ethical consequences of 4IR technologies implemented into our human system. High development of the human qualities of ethical acuity, empathy, self-agency, and global consciousness, are vital to provide leadership into the 4IR we hope for. More on this on the Ethics page.

The ethics of 4IR technologies, such as AI and genome editing, have attracted much discussion.

How universities should plan for these shifts, has been critically discussed across the literature. Higher Education institutes are sites of multiple interacting STS and are where many of our future leaders are incubating new ideas for 4IR. Facilitating the acquisition of Industry 4.0 skills and attributes is an obvious requirement of our universities. What may be even more vital is the careful attention to developing ethical qualities in our future leaders. At the core of this, universities must show leadership in ethically responsible implementation of new STS in their learning environments. More on this on the Context page.

The Project

This project is focused on ethically responsible STS in 4IR, and is situated within the GRE environment. The diagram below shows how the first part of the thesis will proceed.

STS – Sociotechnical Systems
GRE – Graduate Research Education
4IR – Fourth Industrial Revolution

The measures employed are university graduate qualities similar to these undergraduate qualities list and graduate researcher responses to these before and after changes in the STS they interact with in their candidature management.

The methodology is agile in response the the wide variety of Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) planned for inclusion in the study. In some HEIs, data collection will be single snapshot, where possible, before and after comparisons. In ideal situations, the project will employ STS implementation interventions based on the principles of cybernetic organisational learning, and measure longitudinal shifts in student perceptions.

Sample sets will start with a primary focus on The University of Sydney. The project plans to include a cross section of older, traditional universities as well as newer, smaller, more agile universities and institutes. 

Research Questions.

Primary Question 1:

How can graduate qualities lists better address the attributes required for Industry 4.0 and ethically responsible leadership in the fourth industrial revolution?

Sub question (1.a): What are the most important 4IR-ready graduate qualities?

Anticipated Outcome (1.a): A defensible 4IR-ready graduate qualities list.

Sub question (1.b): Do university strategies adequately address 4IR-ready qualities?

Anticipated Outcome (1.b): Clearly identified gaps.

Primary Question 2:

How can a better understanding of STS in graduate research environments facilitate the acquisition of 4IR-ready graduate qualities (GQ)?

Sub question (2.a): What is the causal relationship between STS and GQ?

Anticipated Outcome (2.a): Identify if there is a link between the two and what that link is.

Sub question (2.b): How do current STS help students develop GQ?

Anticipated Outcome (2.b): Create a map of how STS help develop GQ.

Sub question (2.c): How can STS enabled candidatures better help students achieve 4IR-ready qualities?

Anticipated Outcome (2.c): Create an organisational design model that helps universities better utilise STS to facilitate 4IR-ready GQ.


The anticipated impact of this project is that it will contribute to an understanding of how universities can better equip graduates of research degrees to be successful contributors to Industry 4.0 and ethical leaders in the fourth industrial revolution. The end goal is to develop a tested, working model for ethical implementation of new technologies into a GRE organisational system that may be adapted and employed by other learning institutes. More on this on the Impact page.

Project site

The University of Sydney, Australia

The project is research work leading to a PhD degree for candidate, Bec Johnson, a graduate student at the University of Sydney. Bec is supported by a strong team including her research supervisor, Prof. Ross Coleman, Director of Graduate Research; auxiliary supervisors Prof. Dean Rickles from the School of History of Philosophy of Science, and Assoc. Prof. Lina Markauskaite from the School of Education; as well as, industry supervisor, Dr Lucy Cameron from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. More details on the Team page.

Preparing for uncertainty

The problems of how to prepare for the unprecedented changes of 4IR affect every everyone as well as the planet itself. Universities have an important role to play in addressing this challenge.  In a world in which the only certainty is uncertainty, and where our poor ethical choices can be magnified at vast scales of social impact, our future PhD graduates should provide a valuable contribution to navigating the current revolution.

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