Industrial ecology is a concept that is known worldwide; however, its dissemination and implementation is not an easy process. Industrial routines are embedded in unsustainable practices that are difficult to change. The complexity and uncertainties of new concepts are often approached with ignorance and misperceptions. Nevertheless, the integration of economic, environmental and social dimensions in industrial activities is increasingly perceived as a necessary condition for a sustainable society. This paper reflects upon the relevance of theories of capabilities, embeddedness and transformation for providing guidance in understanding the practical experiences of industrial symbiosis, processes and results in the Rotterdam Harbour and Industry Complex. The conclusion is that, despite sustainability learning processes leading to radical applications of waste heat in regional housing areas and a seafood farm, the elaboration of sustainability approaches is still dominantly techno-centred. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.