The Future of Smart Cities and Blockchain Technology
Looking back on our imaginative thoughts on what the world would be like by 2020, we might be a little disappointed. There certainly aren’t flying cars yet, nor can we time travel. We’re still struggling with our profound impact on the environment even though many technologies to help solve our problems have existed for decades.
But we certainly shouldn’t be all doom and gloom. Whether it is completely obvious to us or not, technology has made some remarkably profound gains in our lifetimes. We went from large computers that took up entire garages to having supercomputers readily available in our pockets and cheap enough for the masses. And our technologies are steadily changing the lives of people all over the world for the better.
Though not everything we imagined has come to pass yet, some things are getting close. For instance, the thought of living in a smart city that can anticipate what it needs to continue running smoothly is quickly becoming a reality in our world — things like self-emptying garbage cans and streets that effectively move traffic along. Believe it or not, with the help of blockchain technology, our cities are likely to transition to a smarter system in our lifetimes!
What is Blockchain?
Though blockchain technology has been around for quite a while, it hasn’t really taken off broadly until recently, and many of us still don’t have an excellent grasp on what it actually is. Many people wonder what blockchain even is.
In its most basic form, blockchain is a different type of database, one where individual pieces of data are saved in pieces called blocks. Blocks join together to create chains of data. What makes blockchain uniquely secure and advantageous is that as blocks are added, they are given a timestamp, creating a timeline of events that can be incredibly difficult to change through hacking. This is because if one block is changed, the connecting blocks also have to be changed, and so on.
Data isn’t just added to blocks randomly either. Instead, it has to be verified by a decentralised network before being added — to hack something like this you’d have to have access to at least 51% of all computers on that network. Transactions are transparent and easily traceable as well as highly secure. Thanks to these security features and more, the technology is growing in use at a rapid rate.
In future smart cities, this decentralisation is most likely to be controlled by the user generating the data. In most cases, this would be the citizens of these cities. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya’s Victor Garcia Font told Tech Xplore "The key to decentralised management is that it's the generator of the data (very often the citizen) who controls them and can store them and decide who to disclose them to."
Garcia Font has designed SocialBlock, a data architecture that is user-centric and aimed at giving control of data storage and application management to the users rather than large data and server farms. The larger the centralised storage, the greater the risk for security issues.
But how does this apply to smarter cities? Broadly, in about a million different ways.
For instance, blockchain data is already being used in London to coordinate traffic lights based on traffic needs during rush hour. Magnetometer and inductive loop data at traffic lights (the block transaction) are fed to a network of supercomputers that quickly verify and determine needs (adding information to the chain). These supercomputers then respond in kind by coordinating lights turning red and green as needed to maximise flow across the city.
These types of smart technologies are being implemented in a variety of ways all over the place. For instance, street lights being monitored for damage; waste bins sending signals that they’re full; countries introducing a new kind of ID that allows them to use blockchain for government data management including protecting social security, property rights, health data, and even voter information. This can make life in the city easier by limiting the number of cards and forms of identification one has to carry. Both Georgia and Sweden have created blockchains that identify individual landowners. Because these records are stored in a blockchain, they are immutable and transparent.
The blockchain even has the potential to contribute to safety systems in buildings of the future. Three researchers from Abu Dhabi University proposed in 2019 that Ethereum smart contracts could be used in the coordination and monitoring of the interactions among service providers, IoT, and end-users in smart buildings.
When a failure occurs within the device, an internal sensor which indicates the failure generates a request for service on the blockchain. This transaction informs the service provider about the nature of the failure, identifying the specific device. The service provider can respond to the service request in a timely manner. Upon completion, the sensor reading indicates the completion of the maintenance/repair work carried out and can release payment to the service provider on the blockchain.
This smart contract can also automate payment processes between client and vendor, decreasing interaction but increasing security.
Decentralised data controlled by a blockchain also has the potential to, ironically, connect the citizens of smart cities and improve both infrastructure and environmental health. One example points to the possibility of blockchain tech providing access to solar panel data among citizens. This would allow citizens to freely share surplus power among households if they so choose and in turn, enhance incentivisation to convert to renewable energies for those who aren’t part of this smart grid. The increased use of renewable energies only adds to the health of the community. Cyclically, that data can be shared with the community’s leaders to foster more public health programmes.
With all this decentralised environmental data being collected, it’s hoped that all of these interconnected, secure data will help societies to become more efficient and possibly even more environmentally friendly. Smarter homes and buildings will be able to identify where energy use is the least efficient or where repairs need to be made quickly and effectively. If they don’t want to share their excess energy with neighbours, they can sell the excess electricity to an energy provider without an intermediary power company.
Cities themselves are not the only thing that is likely to be involved in a transition to a smarter system. Vehicles and transportation are also quickly becoming targets for change as well. Today mobile apps and sensors are already at work within vehicles to help connect with other devices for entertainment, maintenance, and safety improvements.
The technology behind self-driving cars is rapidly evolving, and the possibility of seeing them out on the road is increasing — they could even become mainstream in the next two or three decades. From a smart city perspective, this is just one more way to optimise. Smart, self-driving cars can be funnelled in such a way that maximises safe and efficient transportation through a city and gets everyone where they want to go.
Blockchain can also be used to support the increased use of alternative transportation such as bicycle rentals. These kiosks are notorious for their security flaws, but they are popular means of transportation, especially among tourists or locals looking to get home after a social event. A blockchain ledger supporting these types of self-service providers could secure financial transactions much better than contemporary mobile apps. According to a study by two Australian researchers, such a blockchain transaction could look like:
Let A and B be two entities in a blockchain-based parking system and A is paying parking fee to B, the parking authority. This transaction is represented online as a block including information such as block number, proof of work, previous block, and transaction records and this block is broadcast to every entity in the network. The other entities verify the block and if more than 50% of the entities approve the block then the transaction is conﬁrmed and added to the chain. After that, the fee is transferred from entity A to authority B’s account.
Thus, the transaction has been performed securely because both entities have agreed that it has, and the blockchain is what allowed for this agreement.
Thoughts of smart cities becoming the dominant way of life seem pretty futuristic, but they are starting to be a reality for us. Blockchain technologies have paved the way for safer, more secure, and efficient means of operating and managing data and the government and city functions associated with it. It’s a brave new world out there.
About the author:
Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college, he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics, but technology topics are his favourite. When he isn't writing, you can find him travelling, hiking, or gaming. You can follow him on Twitter.
The above references an opinion and is for informational purposes only. Do not take this as
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Last updated: 11/12/2020