Can cities use blockchain to promote transparency in music?

The LinkNYC wifi hubs in action. Image: Getty.

Back in December 2014, without much fanfare, hundreds of standalone machines appeared on the streets of New York City, offering a number of free services for residents and tourists. These included accessing free WiFi, making a phone call, looking up directions and finding out important numbers, all accessed through a touchscreen that looks like a cross between a light post and a bikeshare-scheme stand.

The objective behind the LinkNYC screens was to provide free information to all New Yorkers and visitors, regardless of where one was or how much money they had. Accessible, available to everyone, transparent and helpful, the machines have assisted with mobility, access to information, communication and, importantly, civic engagement.

Last year, Estonia launched an e-residency business programme, aimed at recruiting entrepreneurs to register their company in the country and subsequently pay Estonian taxes on their profits. The program does not require business owners to move to Estonia: all filing and requisite paperwork is done online. The residency offer does, however, come with a number of tax incentives across R&D and recruitment to entice those lured digitally to explore opening up a bricks and mortar office.

The program has been especially popular with British businesses worried about Brexit and access to the EU. Using new technologies and methods, another often painstaking process – setting up a business – has been simplified for ease of access, much like finding a free and fast WiFi signal in NYC.

Both these examples use what the sector calls ‘smart’ technologies to improve people’s engagement with civic society. A smart city is one that develops an infrastructure of communication technology to give people access to information and resources in a way that’s almost effortless for the user.

In New York, it is the simple pain of getting around or finding WiFi. In Estonia, it is competing in the global market for entrepreneurs, their ideas and money. Across our cities and towns, more of these new technologies are being beta-tested, incubated and refined. This should engender improvements, especially in one of the most challenging issues in civics and cities today: making everything available to everyone in as fair and transparent a way as possible.

Both examples of successful, smart city technologies are built to foster transparency in a continuously moving organism in an even more complex ecosystem. There are other sectors that can benefit from this way of thinking. Take, for example, our sector and obsession: music. If we open up ideas, solutions and data for everyone, then – hopefully – everyone benefits. For music, transparency is in the eye of the beholder. The way that music is bought, sold and transferred could be rethought if we explore its challenges as a smart cities problem.

With music, the problem is not one with which the majority of the public is concerned: it is negotiated and debated behind closed doors. On the streets, the war against piracy in the mid-2000s is now assuaged. Most people have migrated to streaming services, such as Spotify and YouTube. The problem is, there’s no standard rate in which each song is paid per stream. Each service is different, and within each service, the rate depends on how much one’s track is being streamed at one given time, in one given place.

Behind this, there’s a century-old industry of collection societies, publishers and royalty administrators, moving bits and bytes across the globe in an effort to capture each penny, take a small percentage and then pass the remainder on to the creators.

The system is creaking under the requirement, in the streaming era, to keep track not only of each purchase but of every single listen. While listeners access tracks at the swipe of a touchscreen, payments to creators are slow – and in some areas opaque. Licensing information is not always easily accessible. Most problematically of all, there is not one single database of music copyright: there are several, none of them complete, and occasionally they actually disagree.


In NYC, before LinkNYC appeared, WiFi was more difficult to access in public. To those British businesspeople and entrepreneurs concerned with Brexit, access to the single market was more difficult without Estonia’s e-residency program. With music, the snags lie beneath the surface and that is where transparent systems can create change. Customers may not care or know how much each stream or download provides an artist, but artists and their representatives do. While solutions exist, the organism is not yet benefitting as a whole. The music sector, if treated as a city, is not as open as it should be. Smart cities technologies, ones adapted to impact traffic, banking, housing and healthcare, could be part of the solution, helping to provide a pathway to transparency.

Let’s build a roadmap of a song, from earbud to artist’s bank account. Once streamed, there could very well be five middlemen or women in the process. There can even be more if the chain crosses national borders, for instance if your song is played in Indonesia and you live and work in Boston. These intermediaries include publishing companies, rights administrators, royalty companies, collection societies, record labels, management companies and other entities.

Liken this to the process one goes through to open a bar in New York or stage a music festival in Poland. Both require multiple permissions and permits from different departments, each with their own schedules, objectives and requirements. Navigating the process requires as much work as realizing the art that initiated the process.

Lower barriers to entry, sometimes seen as empowering artists, have also resulted in an increasing number of musicians having to do it all – the flipside of being able to ‘do it yourself’. Without a label or manager, business decisions, from the day-to-day to the strategic, jostle for time with writing and recording. This is the city equivalent of having to grow, tend to and harvest all of one’s vegetables just to be able to eat. It’s having to build the bus before you drive yourself to work.

Looked at as a Smart Cities problem, new solutions present themselves. If a music value chain considered itself 100 per cent transparent, the song roadmap would be available for all to see at the start and end of the road. This could be done through blockchain technology, the notion of a distributed ledger, recording ‘blocks’ of transactions in an immutable ‘chain’.

First conceived to support the digital currency bitcoin, the underlying technology is increasingly being seen as having the potential to disrupt not only financial services but a whole range of sectors from healthcare to the diamond trade – part of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. The potential for transforming the music industries is considerable. If income for each track, and for all parties, was to be recorded on a distributed ledger, for instance, then everyone in New York City could stream music from a LinkNYC machine, and rest assured those behind the content were being paid fairly for their work.

The solution here, however, is not only with the music industry. What if a city declared a goal to declare itself 100 per cent music transparent? Let’s unpack this.

Using blockchain technology within a national server, a file could be tagged with a blockchain marker. Once uploaded, this would trigger an instantaneous recognition of the song’s performance and, consequently, a payment into that artist’s wallet, as determined by a predetermined ‘smart contract’ – or programmable transaction, executed automatically, via the blockchain, when certain conditions are met. If the country or city would prohibit the uploading of songs without the relevant file marker, new songs would be tracked and payments would be deposited and allocated in real time, dramatically simplifying what is often a four or five step process.

The music industry is already doing this, albeit slowly. But cities aren’t along for the ride. We need a LinkNYC for music, or an e-residency for copyright. A number of collection societies – the ‘music police’ that license restaurants, cafes, shops and other establishments to play music while monitoring TV and radio – have invested in blockchain technology, working with global players including IBM on developing new architecture. Meanwhile, Spotify recently acquired the blockchain start-up Mediachain.

The LinkNYC program and the Estonian e-business residency removed barriers, created transparency and opened up their product, or service, to everyone. We can do the same with music. Maybe Tallinn and New York City can be the first ever music transparent cities, where every nanosecond of music that makes all our lives better in the places we live was paid for in real time to the rightful owners of each track. It’s just smart.

Dr. Shain Shapiro is founder & CEO of Sound Diplomacy. Marcus O’Dair is a programme Leader at Middlesex University.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.