Seeing Like An Ecosystem – Industry 4.0 and Place

By Hannah Stewart – Royal College of Art.

We hear the underlying automated hum of our ‘industry 4.0’ future near constantly at the moment, robotic factories and a data surveillance augmented society, VR and haptic interfaces gamifying our shopping or replacing our sex lives – it’s everywhere – the constant near audible hum of a hype cycle wave forming and reforming the expectations of our future everyday.

Even factory futures don’t land, fully formed and simply replace the could-be-anywhere terrain that they crunch down upon. Futures take place somewhere, and the characteristics of that somewhere affect the way that future evolves.  The way that people live, the way knowledge moves, the things we make and do together changes not just the way we experience that future, but also the very nature of that future itself.

All futures happen somewhere. That gives places a lot of agency. 

The governments industrial strategy recognises this, bringing back ‘place’ as part of the 10th pillar.” Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places – We will create strong structures and institutions to support people, industries and places to maximize local strengths” . The notion of ‘strong structures and institutions’ when it is sat in a government report conjures up a very particular way of working with localities, in recent memory we have regional development agencies and city partnerships, LEPs and growth hubs, clusters and knowledge quarters. Each of these mechanisms sits at the vectors between networks trying to harness the flows of money, data and people to mediate the relationship between the local and the global, the human and the digital, here and somewhere else.

But not all knowledge is reducible to raw data.

In our digitized present, there is an underlying narrative that everything is now accessible and transmittable via the internet, knowledge moves differently now, enabling radically different markets and supply chains, products for the market of one and ideas distributed everywhere. But not all knowledge is reducible down to its raw data or able to be transmitted and exchanged, tacit knowledge is by its nature encoded in actions and bodily ways of knowing. While craft skills are observable, the ability to ‘know’ your material comes only through practice – no amount of youtube tutorials will make you a master ceramicist if you aren’t able to touch and get to know how the clay and your body relate to each other.

There are ways of knowing and doing which are fundamental to local ecosystems, ways we do thing here that are rooted in the lay of the land, the history and culture of the place and its people. Places are where innovation eco-systems exist, bringing together people, ideas and institutions”, knowing a place is tacit knowledge, harnessing the potential of the global and the local, the digital and tacit is a negotiation between the top down and the grass roots. These are things which aren’t innately legible to the internet but crucial factors in how our glorious semi-automated future will land, root, grow and be experienced in this place, by these people.

Knowing Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 and the utility of IoT depends on 4 principles; Interoperability – between people, machines and sensors, Information transparency – the ability to know the context for any data-point, Technical assistance —humans assisting robots, robots assisting humans and Decentralized decision-making — the ability of cyber-physical systems to make simple decisions on their own and act autonomously. These 4 principles alone won’t enable radical innovation, good jobs and wellbeing, they need to integrate with places, people and ways of knowing that are already embedded and autonomous, interoperable and augmented.

Humans have been augmenting our work and play for a long time – tools extend the capability of the body, infrastructure extends the capability of the collective. Places and people evolve as we combine these in new ways, each innovation piggy-backing on prior knowledge and ways of doing. Making the tacit and hyperlocal ways of knowing and doing legible is not just about making ourselves visible to the system and an inevitable future, it’s about making the system legible and understandable to us, making our future malleable and adaptable to places and to people. Learning to craft our future ecosystem together.

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. How our future ecosystem evolves will be an embodied interaction, dependant on our ability to experiment, develop knowhow and build on past excellence and the long memory of places.  Place and tacit knowledge are not optional overlays to an inevitable future, they are fundamental to learning to see as an ecosystem.

©️ Hannah Stewart 2018

1 The UK’s Industrial Strategy – GOV.UK. (2018). Retrieved 27 April 2018, from

2 Gershenfeld, N., Gershenfeld, A., & Cutcher-Gershenfeld, J. (2017). Designing reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

3 Jones, A. (2017). Did the Government set out a place-based industrial strategy? – Centre for CitiesCentre for Cities. Retrieved 27 April 2018, from

4 Marr, B. (2016). What Everyone Must Know About Industry Retrieved 27 April 2018, from

5 Miner, W. (2011). When We BuildVimeo. Retrieved 27 April 2018, from