Taking the Blockchain Route To Decentralizing Smart Cities

Image credit: iStockphoto/sutlafk

The smart city concept constantly evolves as science and technology advance. For most cities, it will not be possible to achieve a state of perfection soon. But a few are taking great strides in the right direction and are closer to their stated goals. While many crucial pillars act as a framework for a smart city, I believe that every city should focus on at least two: smart healthcare and sustainability.

Of the two, healthcare remains complicated due to many reasons. The main reason is that people often overlook one critical factor: freedom of choice. While technological advances increased average life expectancy to over 80 years, only a handful enjoy living beyond that age without suffering.

Healthy living and healthcare advancement also appear to have no correlation. People can choose to eat excessive sugar, alcohol, or any other food knowing that the progress in the healthcare system can help them when they fall sick.

Yet, one cannot simply take the freedom of choice away from people. So, the only other option is incentivizing them to make the right choice.

Cryptocurrencies are a good way of incentivizing people to take the right actions. This is because cryptocurrencies act as a medium of transaction, and blockchain as a technology can make this happen.

Blockchains ensure that the data remains immutable and, in a way, guarantee that data remains tamper-free. It is essentially an immutable and decentralized database of records distributed worldwide by a network of nodes facilitating peer-to-peer transactions securely and in a verifiable way.

The data (or transactions) are digitally signed, encrypted, timestamped, and structured as a series of blocks appended next to each other. A new transaction results in a new block. A consensus algorithm appends the new block to the existing blockchain. Essentially, it gives users complete control over his or her data and associated permissions without a central authority.

In the case of healthcare incentives, the source of the data can be anything ranging from gym membership and activities, fitness trackers, medical test records, public transport usage, or food consumption data via QR codes. The data will be under the user's control and visible within an app. Thus, it will eventually be a secure and auditable one-stop shop for all personal data.

Many research organizations and insurance providers will be keen to obtain this data as it will accurately represent the local population. In addition, machine learning methods can derive meaningful information from the data to further add value to the smart initiatives.

More collaboration needed

Although this use case might seem exciting, it requires considerable collaboration, effort, and specific frameworks.

Providing a cryptocurrency associated with the blockchain for incentivizing healthier choices can offer a simpler reward-based alternative. Choices like eating salads, visiting a gym every day, taking public transport, or ridesharing can be considered healthy choices. More people will do the same when they see others receiving tokens for working out or taking public transportation.

Authorities can consider the following non-exhaustive list of activities for rewarding people:

  • Signing up for a membership at a gym, swiping their gym membership card in and out each time, doing a workout for a specific duration.
  • Eating healthy food from restaurants that would provide a QR code based on the health index of the order.
  • Purchasing healthier food and items from grocery stores.
  • Using a food delivery app and providing QR codes when ordering healthy food.
  • Using fitness trackers and smartwatches to record the number of steps or workouts.
  • Taking public transport instead of private vehicles.
  • Using a rental bicycle or e-scooter for traveling instead of private transport.
  • Sharing a cab or ridesharing instead of using individual cabs.

Benefits for the city or government include:

  • People start making healthier choices, resulting in citywide health improvement. 
  • Since the patient's data is on the blockchain, all hospitals and doctors can access relevant data and avoid conducting repetitive tests.
  • Insurance providers can access data that can help them to streamline insurance offerings.
  • Reduces the use of fossil fuels and hence reduction in pollution.
  • In the long run, all these reasons could improve the happiness index of the citizens.

Mitigating blockchain limitations

Using blockchain may be highly beneficial, but it has its limitations. Since blockchain is distributed across nodes, storing and distributing a large amount of data within the blockchain is not feasible, it can also be expensive.

One way to mitigate this would be to store the data in centralized cloud storage and store a representation of the data on the blockchain. Any modification of the data results in rejection of the transaction.

Another way, and probably a much more sensible way, would be to use an InterPlanetary File System (IPFS). IPFS is a peer-to-peer, high throughput, low latency data distribution system. It can complement public blockchain systems and act as a data store, making the storage costs manageable compared to storing the data on the blockchain. For example, Ethereum blockchain data can be made natively accessible via IPFS using InterPlanetary Linked Data (IPLD). 

The idea of using blockchain as a reliable way to let people control their data and incentivize them to make healthy and environment-friendly choices can encourage a change in the right direction. Eventually, more pillars that form the framework of a smart city can be tailored to work with this concept to make administration genuinely decentralized.

The idea of using a public blockchain may not be attractive for a city or government program. So, they can use private blockchains instead.

Whatever the approach, a city-wide initiative can soon evolve into a nationwide program, and a national token can help drive popular digital initiatives.

Satish Balakrishnan is a cloud solution architect covering the Asia Pacific region and has worked for consulting companies and startups. He is the author of the book "Terraforming the Cloud" remains passionate about the cloud, blockchain, DevSecOps, and healthtech.

Image credit: iStockphoto/sutlafk