The concept of Industry 4.0 is a process of transforming the current industry into the Smart Factory [1] model, through the application of ICT technologies to company procedures (production, services, management of energy resources, …) and to the logistics chain. A Smart Factory provides the ability to create very rapid or flexible management and decision-making processes, based on data collected in real time, even with respect to complex situations.

Thanks to the application of these processes to numerous contexts both at work and at home, a series of parallel worlds are being created, which are not perceptible to the eye, but are made up of relationships and forces with a significant impact on society and our daily lives. Continuing to explore the influence that the technologies for Industry 4.0 have in redefining the relationship between man and machine, a fundamental node to be analysed is therefore constituted by the relationship between the individual and the data.

Speaking of machines, the first image that comes to mind is that of operating machines, or devices that take advantage of the mechanical work provided by a driving machine to perform the operations required by industry and agriculture. But smaller machines are also all the appliances that help us to manage the housework.

Among the electric machines must also be added the computer that, unlike other devices created to expand the strength of man, was born to expand the skills of computing and memory. Consequently, considering the fact that with the advent of the Internet of Things and the Industrial Internet of Things, the functions of calculation, storage and exchange of data will be included in almost all types of objects, you can have a preliminary idea the importance that data collection and their use is taking on in society.

The interaction between man and data is mediated by intelligent objects that constitute a bridge between real (physical) and virtual (digital) dimensions and cover different levels of scale in relation to man: from the macroscale to the nanoscale, helping at the same time to maintain the contextualization and anchoring data to the sphere of meaning they belong to.

Although, as illustrated by the “Human-data interaction” scheme (image 1), in the digital world the spatial dimensions tend to flatten out in the pixel measurement unit and the temporal ones become more and more similar (thanks to the statistical analysis that allows to master data referring even to tens and hundreds of years), data must always be traced back to human conditions and to a real reference area to be used by man and be significant.

 The relationship between man and the data is also controversial because in relation to them the individual plays, sometimes also simultaneously, different roles: it can be the user who benefits from the collected data, but also the supplier more or less aware of the collection of them, he can create business through their sale or their indirect exploitation.

If the industry is embracing new technologies with interest, according to a functional logic with respect to efficiency requirements or in order to enter new markets, for a more in-depth analysis on the impacts of human-data interaction, it is necessary to expand the perspective of observation and analyse the reflections that researchers, artists and designers are doing on these issues.

 In particular, the main tool that they have chosen to use to reason about the data and the laws that regulate and hold together the virtual worlds they are giving life to, is visual research, that is the use of data visualization techniques and processes, in order to highlight new connections of meanings or to observe known phenomena according to new points of view.

Here is how Kim Albrecht, interviewed for Digicult, describes the concept of visual research: “There are different ways of creating knowledge and understanding the world. A lot of the humanities use texts as the base of their discoveries. Natural sciences use mathematics and numbers as the means of discovery. On the contrary I am finding new ways to understand the world through images. I am turning data and numbers into visuals to create knowledge and to understand the world. So the idea behind the term “visual research” is that we do not need to use numbers and mathematics or texts anymore, but we use visual and graphical elements to create knowledge.” [2]

This concept was introduced by the studies of Edward Tufte who in 1997 wrote: “Making decisions based on evidence requires the appropriate display of that evidence. Good displays of data help to reveal knwoledge relevant to understanding mechanism, process and dynamics, cause and effect.“[3]

 The Internet of Energy and the relationship with design, in the visual analysis of Maddalena Mometti

 A new dimension that is taking shape thanks to the generation and management of new types of data is the Internet of Energy, or the application of ICT technologies to transport, transmission or energy generation. One of its main applications is Smart Grids.

A Smart Grid “represents a network in which the flow of energy (for example electricity) and the information associated with it travel through the electric transmission lines, built on a large scale, integrated with other systems of interfaces and / or devices and aimed at guaranteeing network users and / or supply companies with advanced features.”

The dissemination of Smart Grids will therefore determine interesting changes in the way we perceive, think and interact with energy and consumption data. The fact that through the same power lines will also flow the information associated with energy, pushes to think about creating intelligent objects (Smart Things), which can process such data and communicate them to the final user and define new strategies for user-energy interaction.

 But which new relationships could be established with energy in the context of the Internet of Energy? It will be necessary to develop new cognitive metaphors to allow the user to understand the relationship between the data he is manipulating and the real effects on the management of his energy resources.

As Bill Tomlison states: “A large part of how people use technological systems is determined by the metaphoric framing through which we engage with those systems. Metaphors are a crucial part of how people think, helping us construct our understanding of the new world we inhabit.[…] We use metaphors to understand new objects, processes, ideas, and settings by relating them to phenomena that are already familiar.”[4]

The link between electricity and communication, since the creation of the first media such as the telegraph and the telephone has always been very tight. With the advent of the computer and the progressive digitization of the components, the relationships between these two networks have become symbiotic. For this reason, our current relationship with energy is very much affected by the cognitive metaphors we have learned in relating to computers and electronic devices.

Since the objects that will interact in a more meaningful and complete way with the intelligent network will be precisely the Smart Things, the history of human-computer interaction from the beginning until today (being the computer the first ancestor of intelligent objects) lends itself to a new level of reading. In fact, the maps and mental models, which the user has built in recent years using different electronic devices, can be the basis on which to work for energy management and the creation of new types of products and services.

 In order to understand how the user can relate to energy, it is interesting to recall the interaction models of the past, which have characterized the history of the electrosphere. [5] In the diagram “The history of the computer and the evolution of energy-user interaction” (image 4), the main stages of computer history are summarized, highlighting the changes in the way we interact with it and with energy.

It can be seen, therefore, that in the period in which the first computers were introduced, the aspect of energy consumption was not a topic on which attention was concentrated. The first phase of development of this product, in fact, was dedicated to the exploration and increase of the potential of the new object. It should however be noted that the computer was born as a work tool and the number of computers existing at the time was very small.

The problem of energy consumption begins to arise when the computer becomes a personal computer and then enters homes. This issue is felt the most by the user with the advent of laptops, for which battery life is a crucial element. The interest in the energy efficiency of electronic devices is further increased by the availability of internet mobile and wearable computing, around 2000, until the advent of Smart Grid in which we start talking about the Internet of Energy.

The important effect of the spread of Smart Grids, paradoxically, is pushing the design to work to focus the user’s attention on the concept of the materiality of energy. Nowadays we are immersed in electronic intelligence and for us the sharing of information on the Internet is a normal event, but it took some time to become familiar with this technology and the social and cultural implications it brought with it.

With the Smart Grids, we will also be immersed in the distribution of electricity and its associated data and, in the same way, it will be necessary to elaborate and understand what this may entail. At this time, more than ever, it becomes therefore significant to draw attention to the function of design, as well as to the practice of designing products for the new nascent context of the electrosphere; also as a discipline that provides the tools for a critical and conscious reading of the material world.

 In this regard, it is interesting to remember Anthony Dunne’s “Hertzian Tales” and his in-depth investigation of the need to enrich electronic devices with poetic content: “The origin of “Hertzian Tales” comes out of two places: first, a frustration with the limited role currently played by industrial designers (compared to those of engineers and marketers)  in the development of new electronic products; and, second, a belief that design, too, has much contributed as a form of social commentary, stimulating discussion and debate among designers, industry, and the public about the quality of our electronically mediated life. […]

I believe strongly in the potential of industrial design as applied art, or industrial art, to improve the quality of our relationship to the artificial environment, and industrial design’s potential, at the heart of consumer culture, to be subverted for more socially beneficial ends. In order to achieve this, research is needed into an expanded notion of design aesthetics that includes more poetic and metaphysical relationships with the artificial environment of technological artifacts.” [6]

With the spread of the Smart Grids, we assume an expansion of the communicative aspects of products and of the ICT components contained therein, and therefore there will be more material to work on the poetic-cultural components in product design. A viable design path is the revelation of the energy inherent in the environment, making it perceptible to the user’s senses.

You can think, for example, about the James Turrell’s Roden Crater of 1979. Its realization required an extremely accurate design of the architectural structure and of the performances of the environment itself. Turrell’s artistic career focuses more on perception and optics. But the fact that the Roden Crater uses sunlight, a renewable source of energy that is among the most widespread, is a very interesting suggestion.

Moreover throughout the structure sunlight is used as a source of illumination but also of unique visual suggestions, associating other meanings to energy or better, revealing the true nature of light: coming from a star. Another change that will result will be our energy-related rituals since energy exchanges can take place in a more flexible way and through a greater number of control objects: the Smart Things.

The design is invited to give life to new gestures. Consider how the simple act of connecting an electric plug to its socket has become part of our heritage of automatic gestures, but it is nothing more than an arbitrary association given by the standards currently shared. A noteworthy element of innovation introduced by Smart Grids, in the hypothesis of this research, is the possibility to relate the different actions linked to consumption of electricity through Smart Things, implementing an overlap between real and virtual world, local and global.

In fact, one could reasonably think of making intelligent objects sensitive to local weather data, by implementing functions for forecasting changes in consumption, but also by providing choice options or warning signals linked to unusual situations. For example, considering the energy consumption for lighting fixtures, the reduction in the hours of light and the lower intensity of this light on some winter days could be partly offset by reducing the usual shielding of the windows or storing in the previous days more energy at low cost or green energy (thus reducing our impact on the environment).

Another interesting element could be the possibility for a Smart Building and its intelligent devices, to be able to receive signals related to disasters (earthquakes, floods, the phenomenon of the tides in Venice, etc.) and to warn the user so that it can buy more energy or implement other survival strategies, such as recharging portable generators placed in the garage, if he should leave his home.

Thanks to Smart Grids, we are moving towards an energy management model very similar to the access of resources made available by the Internet. The possibility of identifying the source of the single energy package, that the user is buying, is real. By source, in this case, we mean both the data relating to the supplying company and above all the origin station and the technology with which it was produced, making it possible to distinguish between energy from renewable, non-renewable sources or private users endowed with small self-generation systems.

To encourage the user to perceive the new possibilities that will open considering energy management as the Internet, personal control of energy must be metaphorically associated with a flow of information that can be manipulated as if they were simple data.

In some cases, and with the appropriate technical limitations related to the transport of energy, the user will have to manage a sort of virtual energy disconnected from his physical counterpart (in this case the flow of electrons) in a similar way to what happened with the digitization of money through the mechanisms of credit cards. (It should not be forgotten, in fact, that credit cards are nothing more than Smart Cards and therefore they enter into the list of intelligent objects.)

This process of “virtualisation of energy” can take place both through the interface of intelligent objects, and through the preparation of personal energy accounts to online bank accounts. One hypothesis is that one can access these services through Energy Smart Cards or credit cards for the possession/purchase of energy.

Following this metaphor of the Internet of Energy, access to energy can take place in some cases as an energy download. You can also think about exchanging energy with other users, using it in different electronic devices (which are becoming the furniture or in any case all the objects that surround us).

These new opportunities, in the hypothesis of research, will produce a cultural revolution in the way of perceiving and considering energy, its own “immateriality” will be replaced by its perception as a non-visible, but digitally manipulable source, and there will be greater awareness of one’s personal consumption limit. Naturally the consumption management choices will be delegated to personal initiative, therefore, questions are raising in relation to the degree of freedom of choice to allow the user and / or the constraints to be set during the system design phase.


[1] – “A Smart Factory is a manufacturing solution that provides such flexible and adaptive production processes that will solve problems arising on a production facility with dynamic and rapidly changing boundary conditions in a world of increasing complexity. This special solution could on the one hand be related to automation, understood as a combination of software, hardware and/or mechanics, which should lead to optimization of manufacturing resulting in reduction of unnecessary labour and waste of resource. On the other hand, it could be seen in a perspective of collaboration between different industrial and nonindustrial partners, where the smartness comes from forming a dynamic organization.” A.A.V.V. 2013. The Smart Factory: Exploring Adaptive and Flexible Manufacturing Solutions. Procedia Engineering 69 ( 2014 ) 1184 – 1190

[2] – Skype Interview with Kim Albrecht by Maddalena Mometti on 6th November 2017

[3] – Edward Tufte. 1997. Introductions to Visual and statistical thinking: displays of evidence for making decisions.” Graphic Press. Cheshire, Connecticut

[4] – Tomlinson, Bill. 2010. Greening Through IT.Information Technology for environmental sustainability. Cambridge, MA, USA e Londra UK: MIT Press.

[5] – The term electrosphere was coined by Anthony Dunne (2005). Source: Anthony Dunne. 2005. Hertzian Tales. Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. Cambridge, MA, USA e Londra, UK: MIT Press, 2005.

[6] – Dunne, Anthony. 2005. Hertzian Tales. Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. Cambridge, MA, USA e Londra, UK: MIT Press, 2005.