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World Economic Forum Guide for Regulators Highlights the Benefits of Voluntary Standards in the Fourth Industrial Revolution


Voluntary consensus standards have long supported innovation in the increasingly complex balance of technology and regulations. A new regulators’ toolkit released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) underscores the importance of voluntary standards, highlighting them as a valuable tool in helping regulators respond with greater agility to innovation and disruption in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Agile Regulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A Toolkit for Regulators,” published by the WEF in December 2020, offers regulators techniques to keep pace with innovation as technological breakthroughs in the digital, biological, and physical spheres bring forth a new industrial revolution. Traditional regulation methods may hinder innovation and provide outdated protections; the guide provides strategies, solutions, and case studies to help regulators keep up.

One suggestion highlighted is the use of “soft law” frameworks such as voluntary standards. Standards can be used alongside goal-based regulation, reducing regulatory uncertainty for businesses while allowing the flexibility needed to innovate. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution is fast-paced and complex, industry-led voluntary standards can often provide better-informed policy objectives more quickly than government regulations. The guide reads:

“Industry-led governance mechanisms, such as voluntary standards, codes of conduct and industry covenants, can help deliver policy objectives more rapidly than regulatory intervention. The information asymmetry between businesses and regulators means that industry is typically better placed to manage the risks from technological innovation in a way that is most efficient and effective.”

The guide also lauds voluntary standards for their ability to formalize faster-paced industry-led governance:

“[T]he use of standards can help in building trust or credibility of industry-led governance. Standards may be particularly relevant for governments seeking to co-regulate, where assurance is needed about the process by which governance will be designed, implemented and reviews.”

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) are referenced in the document for their contributions to the international voluntary standards system, including development of good-practice principles and guidance on using standards to support co-regulation. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the U.S. member body to ISO, and to the IEC via its U.S. National Committee (USNC).

ANSI is in full agreement on the benefits of voluntary consensus standards in supporting fast-paced innovation and regulatory needs. ANSI recently released the newest United States Standards Strategy (USSS), a document updated every five years that describes the principles and tactics that guide how the U.S. develops standards and participates in the international standards-setting process. The USSS also affirms voluntary consensus standards as tools for supporting regulatory needs. Government agencies at all levels rely on voluntary consensus standards to support efficient regulatory activities, in lieu of creating additional regulatory requirements. The USSS states that standards are relevant and effective in responding to regulatory and market needs, as well as scientific and technological developments.

“The USSS is a symbol of the diverse voices that, as a whole, have a monumental impact on the standardization system, and in turn, the nation,” said S. Joe Bhatia, ANSI president and CEO. “The framework document echoes these interests in a vision for the future of the U.S. standards system, which is an essential driver of public health and safety, innovation, and U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.”

Access “Agile Regulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A Toolkit for Regulators” on the WEF website. The most recent United States Standards Strategy (USSS) is available at


Jana Zabinski

Senior Director, Communications & Public Relations


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Beth Goodbaum

Journalist/Communications Specialist


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