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Dubai Government Looks to Blockchain Amid 'Smart Cities' Drive

(@pete_rizzo_) | Published on March 23, 2016 at 13:26 GMT
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Autonomous construction workers, panoramic teaching environments, high-end spas with pharmaceutical capabilities – as envisioned by the Dubai government, all could be part of everyday life in so-called ‘smart cities’ by 2035.

Among the groups working toward this tomorrow today is the Museum of the Future, an ambitious project backed by the government of Dubai with the mandate to highlight how new tech breakthroughs are making these innovations possible. And if recent efforts progress as expected, bitcoin and blockchain could come to play a key role in driving the group’s work.

According to Museum of the Future Foundation chief operating officer Noah Raford, blockchain is now benefiting from a broader emphasis in Dubai and the UAE on how the delivery of government services could be revolutionized by new technologies.

Under the oversight of CEO Saif Al Aleeli, Museum of the Future recently unveiled the Global Blockchain Council (GBC), a 32-member initiative designed to test and accelerate blockchain tech that he described as one of the most ambitious private-public sector collaborations.

In an interview, he sought to stress the scale of the group, which includes participation from Smart Dubai Office and Dubai Smart Government, similar efforts designed to pursue strategies for smart government.

Raford told CoinDesk:

"Dubai has a massive investment in the smart city, to find out what does it take to run a 21st century government. There’s a larger story around this in the medium term, around just the digital transfer of assets. The potential is quite profound for [applications like] smart contracts. That’s where we see the longer-term impact."

Among the GBC’s goals, Raford said, is to build a series of case studies that look at how blockchain tech can be applied to different industries from real estate to remittances.

To date, one case study has already been completed by local bitcoin startup BitOasis and the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), a regional commodities marketplace technology provider, that focused on blockchain identity.

Working ahead

While Raford sees potential for the tech, he framed recent news from the GBC as the first baby steps toward what could come to be a more developed effort.

The group just completed its second meeting, and Raford noted that its emphasis remains mainly introductory.

"[The GBC] is about helping to educate the main stakeholders through private projects. I feel that digital currencies aren't futuristic, they're here right now, but that's not to say the council feels the same way," he said.

For example, he said some of the region’s largest payment processors and banks are on the council, and that they may view digital currencies as a potential threat to their business models.

Executives from the GBC, he said, will now meet quarterly, with individual working groups convening on a monthly basis to discuss subjects including regulation, pilot projects, conferences, workshops and other educational efforts.

He noted that the group has yet to set key performance indicators (KPIs) or other benchmarks by which to measure its efforts.

Perception challenges

Elsewhere, Raford acknowledged that the talks are influenced by the lack of awareness and misinformation surrounding the technology.

For example, Raford noted that the group is primarily focused on blockchains and distributed ledgers, at least in its outward branding, to alleviate concerns about know-your-customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering (AML).

Though he noted the digital currency may not be a direct part of its communications strategy, that does not mean [bitcoin] won't be discussed.

"We're not shying away from the bitcoin aspect of it," he said.

Raford noted that the GBC has its roots in work conducted by the bitcoin community, adding that his own interest was sparked around the launch of auroracoin, which served as an interesting case study in how digital currencies could be disseminated in local jurisdictions.

At the time, Raford said he reached out to start discussions about the technology, but that these were ultimately shelved due to a lack of interest.

It wasn’t until one year later, he said, when future Bitcoin Foundation executive director Bruce Fenton would host the Dubai Bitcoin Conference, that he was compelled to seek out how the government may be able to support blockchain tech.

Raford noted that he was particularly interested in the non-financial applications that were beginning to emerge around the technology, noting that it "wasn’t just financial assets" being discussed by the industry anymore.

"It shocked me how much the idea had evolved," he recalled.

Jumpstarting development

Ultimately, Raford voiced his optimism that the GBC would kickstart innovation in the region, even if it rendered the organization's future involvement unnecessary.

When asked about his long-term goals, he emphasized that the Museum of the Future is mainly focused on supporting initiatives and raising awareness.

"Hopefully in five years [the GBC] will be out of business and [the technology] just goes forward," he said.

Still, he remains optimistic about what could be accomplished by the group given that he said Dubai has the advantage of moving fast in such explorations.

"From a business model perspective, regulatory and social, all the people are exploring this from their different mandates," he said. "Over time we hope Dubai and the UAE can become one of the leading regulatory examples in the region."

He concluded:

"We have heavy hitters in the room."

Images via Museum of the Future

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