Could blockchain be the operating system of the cities of the future?

Servers, of the sort which you might need for blockchain, maybe. Look this is quite hard to illustrate, okay? Image: Getty.

Many trends on the horizon offer opportunities that could transform our cities. From self-driving vehicles and the sharing economy through to cloud computing and blockchain technologies, each of these trends is quite significant on its own. But the convergence of their disruptive forces is what will create real value and drive innovations.

Take blockchain and the sharing economy as an example. Bringing these two forces together can potentially disrupt established companies like Uber and Airbnb. The success of these companies is largely due to their ability to make use of existing assets people owned, that had been paid for, but from which new value could be derived.

Effectively, these companies set up digital platforms that harnessed “excess capacity” and relied on other people to deliver the services.

The same applies to other so-called “sharing economy” companies that merely act as service aggregators and collect a cut off the top. In the process, they gather valuable data for further commercial gain.

But can this business model be challenged and enhanced for the benefit of those who are delivering the service and creating the real value? Can technology be used to bypass the third party and allow direct peer-to-peer collaboration within a distributed governance structure? What could a “peer-owned” and “peer-run” marketplace look like?

Blockchain technology could just be the answer.

What is different about blockchain?

You can think of blockchain as the second generation of the internet – a transformation from an internet of information to an internet of value.

Blockchain allows suppliers and consumers – even competitors – to share a decentralised digital ledger across a network of computers without the need for a central authority.

The assets that can be described on the blockchain can be financial, legal, physical or electronic. No single party has the power to tamper with the records – sophisticated algorithms keep everyone honest by ensuring data integrity and authentication of transactions.

Image: Zenobia Ahmed/The Conversation.

But the impacts of blockchain go well beyond financial services and transactions. Its real value is in establishing trust-based interactions and accelerating the transfer of governance from centralised institutions to distributed networks of peer-to-peer collaboration.

The impact can be profound: a centralised institution acting as intermediatory in a transaction of value is now at risk of being disrupted because the same service can be provided on the blockchain through peer-to-peer interaction.

Blockchain gives service providers a means to collaborate and derive a greater share of the value for themselves. Smart agents on a blockchain could do just about everything provided by a service aggregator.

The technology’s trust protocol allows autonomous associations to be formed and controlled by the same people who are creating the value. All revenues for services, minus overheads, would go to members, who also control the platform and make decisions. Trust is not established by third parties, but rather through an encrypted consensus enabled by smart coding.

The transformation has already begun

We already have examples of this technology in action.

Arcade City, a global community of peer-to-peer services, is planning to offer a ride-sharing service on the blockchain. To catch a ride, the user buys digital currency (known as tokens), creates an offer and commits funds for the ride. A driver claims the offer, matches the funds to signal their commitment to provide the service, and picks up the passenger. The blockchain releases the funds as soon as the user acknowledges completing the ride.

Arcade City has a city council, which will overlook the system for three years until it is fully decentralised and up and running.

The same concept of using distributed public record technology can be applied to a wide range of urban applications.

For example, an energy startup in Perth is looking to trial a peer-to-peer technology solution that would allow consumers to offer excess energy, available through their solar panels, on the blockchain. Clever code matches the suppliers with consumers without the need to go through the energy provider.


Still more questions than answers

The blockchain technology and ecosystem around it are evolving rapidly, and are probably raising more questions than answers. How do we establish a system of transparent governance to ensure the longevity of the blockchain? What about security, speed, cost and, more importantly, regulations?

As with other disruptive technologies, there will be winners and losers. If the technology is successfully managed for scalable growth, it could very well disrupt established norms and transform our societies. Large layers of data generated by consumers today, which are controlled by hubs, can become public. In a world driven by blockchain, consumers can monetise their own data to derive greater value.

By knowing when and how to take advantage of this technology, we have an opportunity to transform the digital platforms for tomorrow’s cities. The blockchain becomes the city’s operating system, invisible yet ubiquitous, improving citizens’ access to services, goods and economic opportunities.

Today, the technology is yet to mature. It remains to be seen if the expectations can live up to reality.

But, in many ways, this is quite reminiscent of the internet in the mid-1990s. Not many people would have predicted its significance back then. Had we understood the impacts of the internet 20 years ago, what could we have done differently to create more value?

That is where we stand today with blockchain. The power of this transformation will become more compelling as the hype settles down and we begin to unleash the possibilities.The Conversation

Hussein Dia is an associate professor at Swinburne University of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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