Publication: Expanding Industry 4.0: Social science approaches to studies of technology change

Foster, C. & Hoolohan, C. 2019. Expanding Industry 4.0: Social Science Approaches to Studies of Technology Change. Paper presented at: Post-Automation? Exploring Democratic Alternatives to Industry 4.0, Brighton, UK, Sep.

Conference paper (open access)


The term Industry 4.0 comes with a specific history and set of assumptions. Its emergence, linked to industrial production, and its preoccupation with engineering-led change has led to critique for its narrow techno-economic and top-down perspective on change.

As scholars exploring the processes of innovation within sustainability and development, we concur with these critiques. However, we position Industry 4.0 as an emergent phenomenon and argue that before we move on to the notion of post-automation, we need first to examine the concept of Industry 4.0 more carefully. Firstly, by highlighting the foundations of this term, its weaknesses and limitations to the scope of interest we are afforded greater analytical clarity to support onward research. Secondly, as Industry 4.0 remains unfinished and we propose there is yet potential for pluralist and radical variations of Industry 4.0 to emerge. We therefore ask what it might take to realise these opportunities.

In this paper, we draw on social science literature, particularly using theories of innovation, social practices, development and sustainability transitions to explore Industry 4.0. These literatures, which have been less well connected to Industry 4.0 in the past, are used to provide improved theoretical and analytical understanding. We particularly focus on three key aspects: definitions, methods, and outcomes as expanded below:

Definitions: What’s in a name? The terminology of Industry 4.0, and the circumstances under which the concept emerged are core to the way that the term is used. Examining this history alongside theories of technology change lead to us reflecting on frameworks of technological driven reorderings of the economy, and what these mean related to the configuration of contemporary economies.

Methods: Predicting or automating?Methods employed within Industry 4.0 studies have particularly focussed on two areas. Instrumental, engineering-led enquiries designed to facilitate automation and digitisation, and near-future studies of the impact of these innovations, extrapolating forward from today. As methods are performative, we challenge what research on Industry 4.0 is (and is not) enabling. Specifically we look to the literature on workplace democracy, participatory methods, co-production and scenario planning that can provide potential improved approaches to exploring Industry 4.0.

Outcomes: Sustainability and justice – Industry 4.0 technologies and business models are often positioned as leading to better societies, however social science research has increasingly highlighted the potential downsides. We draw on literatures from the fields of sustainability, justice and sustainable development to critically examine the complex and contradictory outcomes that could emerge.

By exploring contemporary social science theory and practice in these areas we provide better foundational understanding and broadly about implication around technological change and society. In all these three areas, our goal is to move away from abstracted and future looking thinking grounded in narrow ideas of automation, to highlight more reflective, democratic, and grounded approaches to Industry 4.0