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.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.