Towards the quaternary sector: definition, structure, and analysis

The quaternary sector can be defined as an advanced segment of the economy, characterized by an emphasis on intellectual services and knowledge management. It transcends the tertiary sector by focusing not only on service provision, solidarity, and responsibility in all its forms, but also on the creation, dissemination, and application of information and knowledge. This article takes time to explore the various components that constitute this new economy.

The quaternary sector allows for a better recognition of the value created by fields such as education and research, information technology, financial and legal services, health and social services, social and environmental responsibility, as well as governance and public administration. It also integrates aspects of social solidarity, sustainable development, and social innovation, reflecting an orientation towards solving societal and environmental problems. The quaternary sector is distinguished by its impact on economic development, quality of life improvement, and the promotion of a sustainable and informed society. It is, therefore, a more holistic vision of what constitutes a society and civilization, integrating the challenges of all stakeholders.

1 — Intellectual and Knowledge Services

Education and research

Education and research services represent a fundamental pillar of the quaternary sector, focusing on the transmission and creation of knowledge. Education extends from primary and secondary schooling to higher education (universities, elite schools, etc.), also covering vocational and continuing education. Educational institutions aim to impart fundamental skills (reading, writing, arithmetic), develop advanced skills (critical thinking, analysis, discipline-specific skills), and prepare individuals for their professional and civic lives.

Research in this sector can be fundamental, aiming to extend theoretical knowledge, or applied, aiming to solve specific problems. It covers a wide range of disciplines, such as natural sciences, social sciences, medicine, engineering, and the humanities. The discoveries and innovations from research have a major impact on society, contributing to technological progress, public health, policy, economy, and culture.

Information technology and technological services

Information technology and technological services represent a crucial component of the quaternary sector. This field encompasses a wide range of activities from software development and IT solutions to the maintenance and security of systems and networks. It also includes the design and implementation of technological infrastructure, as well as cloud computing, database, and cybersecurity services.

These services play a vital role in the functioning and innovation of almost every sector of the modern economy. They enable not only efficient data and information management but also process automation, communication improvement, and the development of new technological solutions to meet contemporary challenges.

Companies in this sector are often at the forefront of technological research and development, working on advances such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Their contribution is crucial for technological progress and innovation in many other areas, including health, education, finance, and even government.

Health and social services

The health and social services domain is a vital sector of the quaternary, offering a range of essential services for the physical, mental, and social well-being of individuals. This sector covers not only medical and health services but also social and psychological support, playing a crucial role in society.

This dimension is essential for maintaining and improving the quality of life of individuals and communities. It plays an important role in the early detection of health problems, the provision of effective treatments, and support for people facing social and psychological challenges. This sector is also at the forefront in responding to health crises, such as pandemics, where its ability to respond quickly and effectively is crucial for public health.

Financial and legal services

Financial and legal services form an essential pillar of the quaternary sector, involving a range of activities and services that play a crucial role in the economic stability and legal regulation of societies and individuals. These services facilitate not only financial and commercial transactions but also provide indispensable legal advice and expertise.

These services are interconnected and play a vital role in supporting economic activities and protecting legal rights. They are essential for the smooth running of business, the protection of financial interests, and maintaining legal order in society. These services are also constantly evolving, adapting to technological changes, new regulations, and global economic challenges.

Government and public administration

The government and public administration sector encompasses a wide range of activities and services provided by government entities at various levels. This sector is fundamental to the structure and functioning of society, playing a key role in legislation, administration, policy implementation, and providing essential services to citizens.

This sector is essential for maintaining social order, promoting citizen well-being, and responding to societal needs and challenges. It is also constantly evolving, adapting to demographic, technological, economic, and environmental changes, and playing an active role in shaping the future of the community and nation.

Consulting services

Consulting services, an essential element of the quaternary sector, provide specialized expertise and advice to organizations and individuals. These services encompass a wide range of disciplines, from business management and strategy to human resource management and technology consulting. Consultants play a crucial role in helping businesses navigate complex and changing environments, offering external and expert perspectives to solve problems, improve performance, and drive change.

These services are characterized by their customized and adaptive nature, responding to the specific needs of each client. Consultants bring not only technical expertise but also an outside perspective that can reveal non-obvious opportunities and solutions. By working closely with their clients, consultants play an essential role in facilitating change, innovation, and continuous improvement in various sectors and industries.

2 — Solidarity and Social Services Humanitarian and Social Aid

Humanitarian and social aid

Humanitarian and social aid represent a vital aspect of the quaternary sector, focusing on support for individuals and communities in vulnerable or crisis situations. This sector encompasses a wide range of services and interventions aimed at providing immediate relief and long-term support to people affected by natural disasters, conflicts, poverty, or other humanitarian crises.

This dimension is characterized by a human-centered approach, aiming to alleviate suffering, save lives, and maintain human dignity in often extreme situations. This sector mobilizes a wide range of skills and resources, from logistics and crisis management to medical and psychosocial expertise, and heavily relies on international cooperation, public and private funding, and the engagement of volunteers and professionals.

Community development

Community development is an inclusive and participatory process aimed at improving overall well-being and quality of life within communities. It relies on the involvement and empowerment of local residents to collectively identify and solve community problems, fostering sustainable development, social equity, and community cohesion. This area encompasses a variety of initiatives and projects that may vary according to the specific needs and characteristics of each community.

Dynamic and evolving, community development requires a holistic approach adapted to local contexts. It relies on collaboration between residents, local organizations, businesses, and governments to build stronger, more resilient, and equitable communities.

3 — Sustainability and Environment Environmental Protection

Environmental protection

Environmental protection is a crucial aspect of the quaternary sector encompassing a wide range of activities and initiatives aimed at preserving, restoring, and improving the natural environment. This approach includes researching and implementing sustainable development practices, effective and responsible management of natural resources, and pollution prevention. The goal is to maintain ecological balance and ensure the planet’s health for current and future generations.

This area is primarily interdisciplinary and requires collaboration between governments, businesses, NGOs, local communities, and citizens. It has become a global priority in the face of increasing environmental challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, necessitating concerted and innovative actions to preserve the planet.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concept where businesses voluntarily integrate social and environmental concerns into their business operations and interactions with stakeholders. Going beyond mere legal compliance, CSR involves a conscious commitment by companies to act ethically and sustainably, thereby contributing to the economic, social, and environmental health of society.

CSR is increasingly recognized as an essential element of business strategy, reflecting an awareness that long-term commercial success is closely linked to the health and well-being of society and the environment. By integrating CSR into their business model, companies can not only contribute positively to society but also strengthen their reputation, competitiveness, and longevity.

I take this opportunity to recommend reading this article on Type I and Type II transformations, which helps to understand why and how some companies are more successful than others in integrating CSR into their practices.

Creation of new solutions

The creation of new solutions refers to the process of developing and implementing innovative and creative approaches to address and solve complex social and environmental problems. This process often involves thinking outside the box, using cutting-edge technologies, and interdisciplinary collaboration. The goal is to find sustainable and effective solutions that can have a long-term positive impact on society and the environment. This refers to both regenerative technologies and high-value-added social innovations.

The creation of new solutions is essential for addressing societal and environmental challenges in a holistic and sustainable manner. It involves not only the use of technology and innovation but also a deep understanding of social and environmental contexts, a human-centered approach, and a willingness to question and redefine traditional methods.

Analysis and Symbolism of the Quaternary Sector

To avoid mixing everything up, and to allow you to think at different logical levels, I propose several perspectives: semiotic, sociological, philosophical, and economic.

From a semiotic perspective, the quaternary sector can be seen as a system of signs and symbols reflecting the cultural and intellectual evolution of society. The services and activities of this sector are manifestations of social values such as knowledge, innovation, and social responsibility. The importance given to education, research, and technology symbolizes a collective quest for progress and innovation. Similarly, efforts in sustainability and social solidarity translate emerging ethical and moral values in contemporary society.

Sociologically, the quaternary sector reflects and shapes social structures and dynamics. It embodies the evolution of society towards a knowledge economy, where information and expertise are key social capitals. This sector influences class structures, creating a “creative class” or intellectual elite. It plays a crucial role in reducing inequalities, by providing essential educational and health services, and acting as an engine of social integration through solidarity and social services.

Philosophically, the quaternary sector can be interpreted as a manifestation of the evolution of human thought and values. It represents a transition from a materialistic worldview focused on industrial production to a more holistic perspective that values knowledge, ethics, and collective well-being. This sector raises fundamental questions about the nature of progress, questioning whether true development is measured in economic terms or by the improvement of the human condition. It reflects a quest for meaning and balance, where technology and knowledge serve humanity, not the other way around. This framework offers fertile ground for exploring philosophical concepts such as social justice, environmental responsibility, and the role of the individual in an interconnected and informed society.

In an economic analysis of the quaternary sector, it has a profound impact on the labor market, fostering the emergence of new highly skilled jobs, while posing the challenge of skill gaps and unequal access to opportunities. In terms of sustainability, this sector integrates and promotes environmentally friendly practices, reflecting a growing awareness of economic responsibilities towards social and environmental issues. It also influences public policy, with governments recognizing its crucial role and investing in supporting its development through education, research, and innovation.

How to move from theory to practice?

Although the concept of the quaternary sector has been theorized to describe the evolution of services in the modern economy, it is not yet formally recognized or clearly defined in standard economic classifications. Currently, it is often considered an extension of the tertiary sector, encompassing knowledge and innovation-intensive services.

For the quaternary sector to be recognized as a distinct economic entity and formally established, it would require broader recognition by economists, governments, and international organizations. This would involve clearly defining its boundaries and characteristics, measuring its economic and social impact, and adapting political and educational frameworks to support and promote its development.

This formalization would require interdisciplinary collaboration, combining economics, sociology, technology, and politics, to fully understand and integrate this dynamic and constantly evolving sector into our understanding of the global economy.

The question of the economic model also arises. For the quaternary sector to be formally recognized and integrated into the global economy, appropriate economic frameworks must be developed that take into account its specificities. This will involve innovations in economic policy, legislation, and skill training, as well as reflection on how these intellectual and knowledge services can be valued and supported in a rapidly evolving global economy, subject to permanent crises.

Key works for further reading

To support the discussion about the quaternary sector and its various aspects, several books and scientific articles can be cited. Here are some references that seem most relevant:

The coming of post-industrial society — Bell (1973)

Bell analyzes the transition from an industrial society to a post-industrial society, highlighting the growing role of services and knowledge, key elements of the quaternary sector.
→ Bell, D. (1973). The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. Basic Books.

Post-capitalist society — Drucker (1993)

In this work, Drucker explores the transformation of society and the economy towards a post-capitalist era, emphasizing the importance of knowledge and information, central themes of the quaternary sector.
→ Drucker, P. F. (1993). Post-Capitalist Society. HarperBusiness.

Natural capitalism — Hawken (1999)

This book focuses on the concepts of sustainable development and natural capitalism, which are closely linked to the environmental and social practices of the quaternary sector.
→ Hawken, P., Lovins, A., & Lovins, L. H. (1999). Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Little, Brown and Co.

The rise of the creative class — Florida (2002)

This book examines the emergence and influence of the “creative class,” a concept related to the quaternary sector, and its impact on various aspects of modern life.
→ Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. Basic Books.

These references provide a solid foundation for understanding the nature and impact of the quaternary sector in the modern economy, as well as its role in society in terms of knowledge, technology, social solidarity, sustainability, and innovation.


An in-depth exploration of the different elements of the quaternary sector reveals its immense diversity and complexity as a segment of the economy, playing a crucial role in shaping our contemporary society. From education and research to corporate social responsibility, health, social services, and innovation in environmental protection, each component of the quaternary sector uniquely contributes to advancement and well-being and to the preservation of all stakeholders.

This constantly evolving sector reflects not only changes in societal needs and aspirations but is also a driver of progress, innovation, and sustainable development. How these services adapt and respond to contemporary challenges, such as climate change, social inequality, and digital transformation, will largely determine future quality of life and the sustainability of our environment.

Ultimately, the quaternary sector is more than just an economic component; it reflects our values, hopes, and collective commitment to creating a better and more sustainable future for all. In upcoming articles, I will detail the necessary conditions for the implementation of the quaternary sector, as well as well-substantiated avenues for proposing a sustainable economic model of this new stakeholder economy.

[Article written on December 1, 2023 by Jeremy Lamri with the support of the Open AI GPT-4 algorithm for about 10%. Images generated with Adobe Firefly].

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