Could blockchain power the next smart city?

Blockchain is being used to bring a smart city on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to life. How will its use benefit business? And what are the potential pitfalls?


Singaporean blockchain firm PLMP Fintech seems to think that blockchain can power the next smart city. Creatanium Blockchain Smart City on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is an agricultural and industrial cooperation project within the One Belt One Road initiative and it is going to be driven by PLMP Fintech’s blockchain technology. The vision is an ecosystem of B2B, B2C, and C2C e-transactions powered by Creatanium blockchain, drawing together a network of SMEs from all over Southeast Asia. PLMP Fintech is banking on the benefits of blockchain tech for smart cities.

Mark Beer OBE, commercial partner at Keystone Law says that much has been made of China’s blockchain dominance since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced strong support for blockchain technology in November 2019.

Since then, he explains, China’s Red Date Technology has developed a platform to house and unify blockchain projects, with a view to integrating 100 public networks within a year, and the world’s most valuable unicorn, Ant Group, part of the Alibaba Group and valued at USD200bn, has developed AntChain, one of the most active players in China’s blockchain circle.

Richard Baker, CEO of GeoSpock emphasises that the heart of a modern city is its digital infrastructure – in particular, the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors to track, monitor and manage everything from lifts and occupancy in high rise buildings to smart street lights, to traffic management and electric grid capacity.

“The ledger of a smart city will make operations across public sector agencies more open and shared,” he says. For example, it will be easier for transport authorities to share information with the revenue teams for vehicle licencing, insurance checks and taxis licencing. “Connectivity and collaboration between public sector agencies and commercial companies will become easier and more efficient, and standards of living will improve,” Baker adds.

However, like any great idea, Beer notes, the proof is in the pudding. “And in Cambodia, that is in the form of the Creatanium Blockchain Smart City. This isn’t something new, with Zhuhai, one of the seven economic zones on southeast China, developing end-to-end blockchain powered solutions to manage real estate transactions, and many Chinese cities establishing ‘Blockchain Industrial Parks’, many of which are sitting empty. However, Creatanium wants to establish and operate a city entirely off a single Blockchain platform,” Beer explains.

Green-field and brown-field technology

Rohit Gupta, VP and Head of Manufacturing, Logistics, Energy & Utilities, Europe at Cognizant, explains that, broadly, there are two types of smart city implementations happening around the world: green-field and brown-field.

Green-field implementations are where new cities are being built to demonstrate the concept of a smart city. The data platform is open for digital technology enthusiasts to use. He cites the example of the Nevada smart city project, being built by Blockchains LLC in the US. Brown-field implementations, on the other hand, are existing cities creating an Internet-of-Things based sensor foundation and making the data it produces available for public innovation. Examples include Bristol and Milton Keynes in the UK.

“The challenges faced by green-field and brown-field smart city implementations are starkly different and as a result, technology solutions are bound to be divergent,” he explains. “Some cities are focusing on implementing technology solutions for use cases in transportation and congestion management, while others are prioritising the likes of property/land management, citizen powered apps and open data hubs.”

Gupta says that, in the case of blockchain, there are numerous use cases in smart cities. These are primarily cases where a unique identity or immutable record needs to be ensured, for example personal identity and property/land management. Other use cases include those in which physical security, data and privacy concerns are prevalent, such as self-driving cars and utilities.

Starting up a smart city

Singaporean start-up PLMP Fintech, which was founded in 2017, announced in 2019 that it had entered into Cambodia’s “booming economy through networking, match-making, one-stop branch set-up solutions and the creation of a Smart City.” The Creatanium Blockchain Smart City in Cambodia is being touted as “history’s first mass adoption of a digital currency (CMB) for both B2B and B2C transactions”.

“We have a city, a population and the associated business activities: the ideal ground to implement our suite of blockchain solutions, ranging from property management through smart contracts to e-payments", Peter Lim, PLMP Fintech's strategist said in a press release. He added that the digital innovations would come later. "Even the best technology alone is not sufficient to bring a vision to reality: this is why so many such projects have failed to materialise out of the papers.”

In the case of Creatanium Blockchain Smart City, the use of blockchain means residents could see transparency and equitable distribution of resources, reduced congestion on roads and public transport, and better support for a vulnerable and aged population, Gupta adds. “The advantages for business include the ability to execute smart contracts, new business models and innovations, reduction in overall admin costs with payment intermediators and reduction in frauds, vandalism and debt management expenses.”

Beer adds that perhaps this will be the project that showcases the power of the blockchain to automate and integrate the operations of a city, and the community it serves. Part of China’s USD6 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, it will have access to China’s blockchain talent and resources and, if successful, will be the pioneer in the development of smart cities.

Creatanium, Beer says, might well be the proof of concept that blockchain enthusiasts have been waiting for, with the power to transform traditional municipal and state inefficiencies, and opacity, into an end-to-end and integrated platform that allows businesses and citizens to live, work and transact at pace and virtually: A community in which banking, real estate, licensing and contracting can be done collaboratively. “For citizens, this means buying a flat takes seconds not months, and for business, transacting is secure, and promises are enforceable,” he adds.

However, the use of blockchain in brown-field implementations is not without challenges. Gupta says that driving collaboration and agreement with existing stakeholders, politicians and bureaucrats is not an easy one. Regulation and policy engagement also need to work hand-in-hand with the implementation.

“We definitely see the value of blockchain in solving a number of use cases for a smart city but there still needs to be detailed design work to fully understand how blockchain might be used as the primary platform for delivering this at scale,” he says.

The power of AI

Jason Scales, MD of Hubb, a blockchain office on the Isle of Man, which assists companies in blockchain and digital to flourish, giving them access to a sandbox of services, believes that a 'smart city' cannot rely on blockchain technology alone.

“It has many applications to streamline how we and our cities function but it is by no means the be all and end all. The use of blockchain is still limiting. In order to have a truly 'smart city', I think we will need to see proper use of AI combined with blockchain uses,” Scales says.

Scales describes a scenario where a city has artificial intelligence that, for example, can identify the weather conditions and volume of traffic on a particular arterial road into a city centre and the time of day. Using historical data of typical volumes on that particular day at that time and the added factor of weather conditions, AI could use this to map out traffic flow requirements and, with use of blockchain technology, could also then control traffic management. This would then ease the flow of traffic along that arterial road.

“It's only one example, and testing of just this kind of technology is just something being considered for the Isle of Man,” he says, adding that traffic isn't a major problem on the Isle of Man and journey times are short, making it the perfect environment to test it.

“Blockchain alone cannot and will not power smart cities of the future, but a combination of 'new' technologies certainly will and I don't believe that we are far off from this,” he says.

Beer is cautious too, and notes that there is one ingredient missing from the plans, so far as one can see from the website: There is no mechanism to resolve disputes. “No Court of the Blockchain. No Oracle with the nodal authority to right the wrongs that will inevitably happen as code is developed and refined,” he says.

“This judicial authority, which has the confidence and trust of the Smart City community, with decisions that are transparent and enforceable on the Blockchain, will be a determining factor in Creatanium’s success or failure. For what good is a city without security? Creatanium offers hope for all of us that believe in a Blockchain enabled future, but without a Court of the Blockchain, it risks being the modern equivalent of Monty Python’s machine that goes Ping.”