The Future Is Now: Smart Cities on the Ethereum Blockchain
With the world’s population expected to balloon to over 9 billion people by 2050, and with more than half of the global population living in urban areas, cities face the daunting task of handling this growth. In an attempt to evolve with the changing world, city planners are turning to blockchain technology to solve the problems they currently face and address the concerns of tomorrow.
A smart city can be defined as an urban area where applied technology such as smart grids and smart meters enhance infrastructure for electricity, water supply, waste management, and other basic needs. The term is inclusive of ‘digital cities’ or ‘connected cities’ but the ‘smart’ in the name refers to technology that can be automated through the use of computer networks like Ethereum and the blockchain.
One of the ways blockchains supports smart cities is through the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT embeds sensors into the infrastructures of environments where people live. Companies like IBM are pioneering this movement to develop data-driven systems of transport, law enforcement, and energy use, to increase both efficiency and quality of life for citizens. An example of this sensor model is a mobile application that would display available parking spots in an area. In a smart city, a driver would pay a parking meter once and through the use of a smart contract, the meter would auto-refill by deducting funds from the driver’s bank account, without the need of a third-party intermediary. Ethereum-based Dapp Slock.it is already testing ways to eliminate the intermediaries between people and objects for a more P2P system.
The Slock.it website states:
“Our technology connects the blockchain to the physical world, effectively giving connected objects an identity, the ability to receive payments and the capability to enter complex agreements.”
Although IoT may only be one component of smart city design, it’s certainly a crucial component.
Data is seen as an integral part of any smart city or IoT deployment. The blockchain allows for data to be shared instantaneously between various networks and could be used to reroute smart busses during traffic jams. Besides providing information, blockchain applications could also gather data to improve citizen experiences such as Singapore’s Smart Nation program that aims to tap into citizen’s mobile phones during bus rides to measure riding conditions, which could indicate road maintenance requirements. Future enhancements of this technology would allow citizens to submit repair requests through a mobile app or other means (e.g., website). Once a threshold of requests is reached, the smart contract could deploy a response team to repair the damage.
One smart city that is relying heavily on data is Milton Keynes, England, founded in 1967 as a “new town.” According to CityMetric, since its foundation, Milton Keynes has grown to over 250,000 people with the most significant boom of 103 percent occurring between 1981 and 2013. With the pressure of such a rapid influx of population, the city’s leaders looked for a way to create sustainable growth that would also meet carbon reduction targets. Seeking a technological solution for these challenges, Milton Keynes introduced MK: Smart, a smart city initiative designed to meet environmental regulation and to increase the standard of living for the city’s growing population. MK: Smart is taking an IoT-based approach in areas of transportation, energy, and water management. Through a data hub, MK: Smart collects data from local and national open sources, key infrastructure networks, as well as crowdsourcing data from social media and mobile apps. In the future, the blockchain could radically enhance MK: Smart and other smart city initiatives that focus on IoT innovation by decentralizing this data, making it less vulnerable to centralized server issues such as crashes or hacking.
ASIA TAKES THE LEAD
Countries in Europe, Africa, and the Americas are taking great strides to become fully integrated smart cities with initiatives like MK: Smart. Although smart cities are a global phenomenon, it is the Asian continent that is becoming quite innovative with smart integration and design.
Singapore’s Smart Nation program was launched in 2014 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and, “aims to be the most extensive effort to collect data on daily living ever attempted in a city.” Cameras and sensors will collect data to measure pollution, crowd density, and even wind patterns influenced by skyscrapers. Through the collection of weather data, health organizations in the country could predict the possibility of spreading airborne diseases, based on the direction of airflow.
Other Smart Nation technologies being tested include cameras that detect people smoking in prohibited zones— which is useful for a city that is serious about policing smoking laws. Also, mandatory satellite-linked devices will be placed in all Singapore-registered vehicles, including those of private citizens, to charge tolls more precisely, based on precise distances driven.
With so many applications monitoring the actions of Singaporeans, there has been some debate against Smart Nation and the potential to become an oppressive ‘big brother’ state. Although currently a centralized system, the potential for Smart Nation to become decentralized on the blockchain is a probable outcome. In July of 2016, the island-country launched with IBM the Centre for Blockchain Innovation, a research initiative with an emphasis on finance and trading. With cryptocurrencies already trading in Singapore exchanges, (e.g., Ether (ETH) on the Gemini Exchange), and more Bitcoin vending machines popping up, blockchain shows no signs of slowing down.
China is also at the forefront of building smart cities and is a major proponent of the blockchain. The country hosted an annual blockchain week, which includes Ethereum’s Devcon2 in Shanghai, where developers showcased their latest creations in the blockchain and crypto spaces.
In September 2016, auto giant Wanxiang announced it would invest $30 billion for 83 million square feet of land in Hangzhou as part of their smart city initiative. The previous year, a subsidiary of Wanxiang purchased $500,000 worth of Ether (ETH), while Wanxiang launched Fenbushi Capital, a $50 million venture fund focused on blockchain technology.
Wanxiang, the owner of US electric car company Karma, is designing battery-powered cars that could be used by smart city citizens. One of the ways they aim to reduce consumer cost is to lease car batteries to customers and track them on the blockchain. Through data collection software, Wanxiang would monitor the state of batteries, track their lifespan from inception, and allow for the refurbishment and distribution of used batteries in order to reduce costs and battery disposal.
Another smart city on the radar is Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China. Already hailed as a technical marvel, Yinchuan has replaced traditional fare boxes on city buses with face recognition software. Rather than using a fiat currency card or token, a Yinchuan citizen’s face serves as their personal credit card. This already implemented software reduces passenger boarding times which can improve traffic in the city. If the blockchain technology were used with facial recognition programs, smart cities like Yinchuan and Singapore may be able to protect users’ data and provide accurate tracking and collection of funds. This trifecta of record keeping, financial accounting, and security makes blockchain ripe for smart city innovation.
A SMART NEW WORLD
The list of smart cities has grown exponentially within the last decade and will continue to increase as technologies like the blockchain and IoT improve. Smart city initiatives run the gambit in all parts of the world with various goals and concerns unique to the culture, geography, and infrastructure. Countries like Dubai and Estonia have launched government sponsored programs that research, build, and test smart city applications using blockchain. Although worlds apart, Dubai and Estonia share similar goals to increase the quality of life for citizens, while establishing their national identities as smart nations of the future.
Smart cities can radically shift the norm of city living and citizen experience. The range of the blockchain’s impact on smart cities spans across several domains of human experience and concern. The world of the future is shaping up to become a smart world where seamless integration of data through blockchain and IoT will fuel city life, hopefully for the better.