How to Understand the Smart City: A Critical Realist Approach to Urban Technology Acceptance

By its very definition, the smart city is an inherently technological phenomenon. Simply put, despite difference in context, all smart city projects share one common attribute — the utilisation of technology in the pursuit of increased efficiency and sustainability. The practice of which has created a US$1.56 Trillion industry. A more detailed definition, one which is widely accepted within academic circles to be the most accurate, comes from the University of Milan’s Andrea Caragliu, who states that a city is smart when “investments in human and social capital and traditional ICT infrastructure fuel a sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with wise management of natural resources”. For a city to attain these end goals, through the use of urban technologies, a transformation into smartness is required to take place — for example here is a link to a case study of my home city of Cambridge (U.K) concerning how the city’s transportation network is transitioning into becoming smart. However, a smart city transformation occurs under a cloak of relative invisibility.

Example of a smart lamppost and its potential applications — source: World Economic Forum
  1. There is an overly hierarchical tendency within the model. It was initially developed for managers to ascertain whether workers would utilise and accept new technologies and practices in their place of work — a city is not organised in the same way as a place of employment.
  2. Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, technology acceptance solely analyses technologies in which people come into contact with. This is an obvious feature of the model and is seldom an issue, but, as I have explained above, the smart city is practically invisible to those who engage with it, yet it remains controversial and the model cannot encapsulate this phenomenon.
Technology Acceptance Model 3
The critical realist iceberg
A basic diagram demonstrating the use of critical realism in understanding the smart city.
The empirically observable, proposed reality of Toronto’s flawed Sidewalk Labs project. Note how it is impossible to see in this image that this was first and foremost a smart city project.

I am a PhD researcher from Loughborough University and this is my page where I write about how we live within our urban world. I hope you enjoy reading it!