New Problems, New Solutions: The Rise of the Smart City

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By Ada Xiao, CSO of PlatON, a next-generation computing architecture that aims to facilitate secure, seamless, and open data sharing for the public good.

The world is changing, as are the cities we inhabit. As the number of global megacities continues to rise, the international trend of explosive urbanization is increasingly difficult to ignore. With the world’s urban population growing from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018 and continuing to rise, governments face mounting problems as a result, from urban efficiency to environmental sustainability.

These issues have forced urban planners to explore new models and technologies to yield new solutions – giving rise to a new generation of smart cities which enhance the performance, liveability, and cost-effectiveness of urban centers.

Tomorrow’s Cities, Today’s Technology

Smart cities will rely upon internet of things (IoT)-connected devices and appliances to provide automated and efficient public services. This web of interconnected devices will include everything from traffic lights to energy grids and could be used to do anything from train auto-driving systems to recording and monitoring electric vehicle batteries to manage ecological waste.

Already, our homes constitute a web of interconnected technologies, with more than 36% containing an IoT-connected appliance, such as Amazon’s Alexa, a smart thermostat, or smart television.

The proliferation of smart devices in our lives has only just begun, with Gartner estimating that by 2020 almost 9.7 billion IoT devices will make up the typical smart city – and that everything from healthcare to waste management will make use of efficient data tracking, providing seamless automated services for urban inhabitants.

Distributed ledger technologies (DLT), such as blockchain, meanwhile, have the potential to handle and optimize the wealth of data that our smart devices produce and receive, facilitating transactions between them.

Imagine, for example, an IoT-enabled trash can in a public park. The trash can sends a notification to the parks department once it is almost full and a garbageman is dispatched to empty it. The trash can sends another automated notification to the parks department once it is empty and the waste management company receives instant payment for its service.

DLT would allow this log of transactions to be shared between multiple parties: the parks department, the waste management company, and national boards in charge of processing public waste. The same blockchain could serve as a database for a range of public services, from healthcare to streetlamps, helping the city to coordinate services efficiently.

Smart Cities: Operationally Efficient, Energy Efficient

From facilitating reliable public transport systems to creating sustainable energy markets – smart cities will be more efficient than anything which has gone before them. We could soon see autonomous buses being informed by traffic sensors of traffic jams as they occur, automatically diverting their route to avoid delays for commuters before directing themselves to an available charging point, billing the transit authority in real time for their energy consumption.

Numerous countries are already pursuing smart city projects and adopting DLT to cut down on administrative inefficiencies. India, for example, launched its Smart Cities Mission in 2015, in the hope of developing 100 smart cities across the country. The government has stated that many smart city initiatives will be underpinned by blockchain technology.

Estonia, meanwhile, has used DLT since 2012 to tackle issues such as ID management and taxation – and offers the majority of government services online, 24/7. Government-led innovation has resulted in greater national efficiency and liveability, and the explosion of a vibrant startup sector accounting for almost 10% of the country’s GDP.

In addition to benefiting local economies, smart cities may also enable the creation of energy “exchanges” where houses trade electricity between themselves. Such a system would not only reduce the need for energy storage, with electricity being redirected locally to where it’s needed, but could also contribute to the popularity of renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, as homes would benefit directly from becoming producers of surplus energy.

In China, the country’s biggest automotive component manufacturer, Wanxiang, has pledged to invest $29 billion over the course of the next decade to support the development of Innova Smart City – using blockchain technology to form its technological backbone. Mirroring Wanxiang’s development of energy efficient applications and electric automobiles, the project will seek to ensure that sustainability lies at the heart of the cities of tomorrow.

Securing Smart Cities: Data Protection in an Interconnected World

As a result of the dangers associated with our increasing connectedness, 47% of IoT developers cite security as their primary concern. These concerns are not unreasonable. In 2018, researchers found 17 vulnerabilities within existing smart city systems which could have enabled hackers to wreak havoc on entire populations by setting off flood warning systems and changing traffic signals.

While smart cities are already a reality, the infrastructure necessary to support them still has some way to go: more needs to be done to ensure the privacy and security for every citizen, as we become invariably more interconnected.

Blockchain technology has profound potential to better secure data from potential attacks, while applied cryptography and distributed architectures can underpin systems which are inherently secure, without the risk of insider data leaks, mass surveillance, and fewer points of entry for would-be-hackers.

The implementation of privacy preserving computation (PPC) and Multi-Party Computation (MPC), meanwhile, would allow multiple parties to utilize data without revealing the input data itself or trusting a third party to handle the wealth of information stored within the system. While the world in which we live becomes more efficient as a result of data-driven technologies – individual privacy remains uncompromised.

While smart cities are certain to serve as the urban centers of the future, supporting millions of people, services, and businesses – they also herald in a renewed importance of data privacy and cybersecurity. In an increasingly interconnected world, smart cities can provide more efficient, environmentally sustainable, and cost-effective hubs than the sprawling metropoles of the past.

However, the appropriate infrastructure must be developed to protect the safety and privacy of every individual. This will ensure that emerging technologies improve our quality of life, not leave us less well-off than before.

About the Author

Ada is the Chief Strategy Officer of PlatON where she focuses on developing, communicating, and sustaining PlatON’s strategic initiatives. One of the first employees and the former Head of Business Development at Wanxiang Blockchain Laboratory, Ada also led all Asia Pacific-related blockchain investments and partnerships at Fenbushi Capital. Ada is a seasoned player in the global capital markets and asset management space, having previously worked for prominent investment banks and financial institutions in Hong Kong, including Goldman Sachs and UBS Global Asset Management. Ada obtained her MBA from Columbia Business School, and her Bachelor of Arts from Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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