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Adoption of Smart Solutions : the hidden power of emotions

Psychological factors as a lever for action in your Smart projects?

How do certain psychological factors influence the development of the skills necessary for the acceptance of so-called "Smart" solutions? This is the question that researchers from the Smart City Institute (SCI) and the Unity Lab at the University of Edinburgh propose to answer (Gerli et al., 2022) by examining the adoption processes of sustainable and smart solutions in Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

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Through a spotlight on the agriculture and Smart Farming sector, this study proposes conclusions on the adoption of Smart solutions in general and in a territorial context in particular. In the following article, Jessica Clement, SCI researcher and co-author of this study, discusses the objectives and main findings of the analysis, and proposes some ideas for facilitating the adoption of these types of solutions in the context of Smart City initiatives.

Solutions Smart : what are we talking about ?

Before diving into the heart of this study, we need to clarify what we mean by "Smart solutions". In the context of this research, Smart solutions are considered as a way to stimulate economic development of territories while supporting their climate objectives. They are therefore innovative practices or systems that leverage technology to address challenges facing society. 
In practice, such solutions have been recognized by various sectors and territories as tools to improve energy efficiency, optimize production processes, reduce waste, or eliminate polluting activities, among others. Because of their promise in this context, Smart solutions have been cited as essential in public policies such as the European Green Deal, which envisions a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050.

* The European Green Deal relies on several policy packages to achieve a carbon neutral future by 2050. To provide examples of Smart Solutions in some of these packages, we have “smart mobility”, low-carbon technologies, and renewable energy technologies. More information 

Are digital skills the only barrier?

However, despite the efforts of public actors to encourage the adoption of these solutions by individuals and businesses, barriers to their use persist. This is often related to digital skills, which are unevenly distributed between and within countries. 

For example, in Europe, nearly 80% of individuals in Finland and the Netherlands have basic or higher digital skills, while in Romania the figure is below 30%.

In Belgium, there is also a disparity depending on the region being observed. In Flanders, 63% of residents have basic or higher digital skills, while the figure is 58% in Wallonia (and 61% in Brussels). The differences related to income are even more significant, since only 37% of the residents belonging to the "lowest income" bracket have basic or higher skills, while this rate is 78% for the "highest income" bracket*. 

Policymakers, both at the national and regional levels, have therefore begun to focus on developing the digital skills needed for users to adopt Smart solutions. As a result, various frameworks and programs have been developed for digital skills training and capacity building, focusing on areas such as information and data literacy, communication and collaboration via digital tools, digital content creation, security, and technical problem solving. 

However, while recognizing the role of digital skills in the adoption of Smart solutions, we at the Smart City Institute - and in partnership with researchers at the University of Edinburgh's Unity Lab - noted that there are gaps in the assumption that skills development, or the acquisition of digital or technological skills, automatically translates into the adoption and use of Smart solutions. 

We therefore embarked on an exploratory study to understand the barriers to the use of Smart solutions, but also to identify the key factors that play a role in the use, or not, of these solutions.

* The lowest income bracket corresponds to households in the bottom income quartile, while the highest income bracket corresponds to households in the top income quartile. Source : STATBEL.

Smart Farming at the heart of our study

Why Smart Farming ?

To discover the potential factors that affect the decision to use or not smart solutions, we approached the question by looking at the agricultural sector, focusing mainly on Smart Farming. This field combines traditional agriculture with digital and technical solutions to optimize the profitability and efficiency of farms.

We chose this sector for two reasons. First, it offers a wide range of Smart solutions, including devices and applications that enable the acquisition, analysis, and use of agricultural data (e.g., automated feeding systems for intensive agriculture, satellite monitoring applications (Balafoutis et al., 2017). Second, Smart Farming is also increasingly being considered by policy makers. This is the case in Wallonia, where a project specifically dedicated to the topic is integrated into Digital Wallonia, the Region's digital strategy.

In each of the three countries studied - Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom - we interviewed farmers, knowledge providers, and equipment providers active in two specific types of farms: livestock and crop farms. We chose this approach to study the subject through different and varied perspectives. In total, we talked to 29 players in the sector.

The results observed can however lead to broader reflections concerning the management of the sustainable and smart transition of our territories. Let us now discover what our study shows. 

Tha main observations

  1. Psychological factors at work
    Although specialized skills are required to use Smart solutions, our study reveals that they are not the most influential factor. Rather, we have identified the key role of psychological factors - beliefs, attitudes, and emotions - in the adoption, or not, of Smart solutions. 
    In this study, we specifically introduce a new concept: "the attitude to learning". This characteristic reflects:
    -  Curiosity and risk-taking at the individual level 
    -  and, for an organization, the combination of individual attitudes of its members, as well as the organizational culture to be open to new ideas and knowledge.
    Our interviews suggest that it is this factor that triggers the process underlying the adoption of Smart solutions. This was particularly evident in cases where farmers demonstrated a strong motivation to experiment with Smart Farming technologies. Overcoming the fear of technology, or technophobia, is therefore essential to support the use of Smart solutions.
  2. The essential role of exchanges within the ecosystem
    Our study also revealed that the attitude to learning is facilitated by, among other things, peer-to-peer learning and collaboration between different types of organizations (e.g., collaborations between farmers and technology providers). Trade and agricultural shows thus emerged as particularly appropriate opportunities for farmers to learn about Smart Farming solutions because they allow for direct experience and/or interaction with exhibitors and other attendees at these events.
    Formal sources of information and education are therefore crucial, but informal sources, such as word of mouth and peer observation, can build trust and ultimately adoption of smart solutions. 
  3. Narrative as a link between technology and the farmer
    Finally, to foster a personal understanding of the reasons for using technology, the study highlighted the importance of developing stories or narratives around the use and utility of Smart solutions. These narratives create images around the use of the technologies, placing their benefits in a context that the farmer will better understand. For example, a narrative can be created around the time-saving benefits of certain technologies, demonstrating how a farmer can spend more time growing their business or with their family. This approach can foster a greater willingness to learn, potentially increasing the adoption and use of Smart solutions in different contexts.

Schema -  Integration facteurs pyschologiques et competences - TAM

Figure : Integrating psychological factors and skills into the TAM (Technology Acceptance Model), Gerli et al., 2022 

What conclusions for our territories and their Smart City transition?

When technologies are not used as an end in themselves, but as facilitators to achieve sustainability goals, Smart solutions represent allies in the Smart City transition of territories. In the context of global efforts to combat climate change and support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they may even be a priority for governments at all territorial levels.

But how can we finally apply the findings of our study to the context of territories to support their sustainable and smart transition efforts?

Trust : its key role in combating technophobia

First, studies have shown that technophobia aggravates the digital divide between users and non-users of Smart solutions (Beştepe & Yildirim, 2022). Therefore, we suggest that local or regional policymakers should focus on reducing the fears surrounding the use of Smart solutions. In particular, our study suggests improving trust between actors, as it can mitigate these negative emotions. This can include actions to address the security and privacy concerns surrounding the use of Smart solutions, as well as improving transparency around the use of these solutions.

Fostering peer-to-peer collaboration and learning

Next, we identified a new factor called the attitude to learning, that can support the processes underlying the development of skills for the adoption of Smart solutions and their subsequent use. To encourage this type of attitude across territories, local and regional governments can leverage peer-to-peer learning. 

Within the framework of Smart City/Smart Territory approaches, "Living Labs", composed of different types of organizations (public, private, non-profit), as well as individual citizens, could represent an avenue for reflection. Indeed, these labs aim to promote inclusive collaborative ecosystems by involving users of Smart solutions from the beginning of the innovation process (Nguyen et al., 2022). They also allow citizens to work together on common projects.

Developing narratives with local context in mind

Finally, we have also seen through our work the importance of narrative and stories around the acceptance of Smart City strategies. Our research at SCI has shown that governments consider their local contexts in the way they interpret the Smart City concept. In Wallonia, for example, the Smart City has been described as a way to move from the old manufacturing economy to a new innovative economy characterized by knowledge and progress. It is from this perspective that the Smart City concept is explained and, in particular, shared with companies, citizens, or other stakeholders who contribute to the Smart City dynamic.

We have only commented on a few solutions that may be appropriate in the context of Smart Cities or Smart Territories. However, these examples show that considering the psychological factors that can block the use of Smart solutions is above all a question of management and the organization of sustainable and smart territories. Therefore, our study calls for alternative approaches to policy formulation that take into account the links between psychological factors and skills development in the adoption of Smart solutions.

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