As research on smart cities garners increased attention and its status consolidates as one of the fanciest areas of research today, this paper makes a case for a cautious rethink of the very rationale and relevance of the debate. To this end, this paper looks at the smart cities debate from the perspectives of, on the one hand, citizens’ awareness of applications and solutions that are considered ‘smart’ and, on the other hand, their ability to use these applications and solutions. Drawing from a detailed analysis of the outcomes of a pilot international study, this paper showcases that even the most educated users of smart city services, i.e., those arguably most aware of and equipped with skills to use these services effectively, express very serious concerns regarding the utility, safety, accessibility and efficiency of those services. This suggests that more pragmatism needs to be included in smart cities research if its findings are to remain useful and relevant for all stakeholders involved. The discussion in this paper contributes to the smart cities debate in three ways. First, it adds empirical support to the thesis of ‘normative bias’ of smart cities research. Second, it suggests ways of bypassing it, thereby opening a debate on the preconditions of sustainable interdisciplinary smart cities research. Third, it points to new avenues of research.
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