The city of Dubai has unveiled new strategic partnerships as part of its bid to become the world's first "blockchain-powered government".
At a press conference at Emirates Towers Hotel today, Smart Dubai, the city's innovation arm, announced that IBM has officially joined as its "blockchain strategic partner", while Brooklyn-based ethereum startup ConsenSys, in turn, will be its blockchain city advisor.
As part of the unveiling, Smart Dubai revealed how it intends to oversee the migration of Dubai's government processes to blockchain systems, a move that will find agencies as diverse as Dubai Tourism, the Dubai Health Authority and the Dubai Police leveraging the technology as part of a city-wide push to modernize and digitize by 2020.
In interview, Zeina El Kaissi, head of business development at Smart Dubai, discussed the strategy for the ambitious plan, comparing its complexity to "driving a car and building the car at the same time".
Still, El Kaissi is optimistic Dubai's government agencies could leverage operational blockchain pilots by next year, though she stressed the emphasis of the trials is the benefits this would bring to city residents.
El Kaissi told CoinDesk:
"If we can address 10 to 15 experiences, not small services, and transform them via blockchain over the next two to three years, that would be huge."
Also notable about the project is the governance and support Smart Dubai will provide to participating startups and blockchain service providers.
Whereas startups have often struggled to operate in the face of confusing and still-opaque global regulation, Smart Dubai revealed it will help shape details like the legal deliverables and cost assumptions of those participating as part of the program.
Given this support, El Kaissi expressed a confidence that pilots could be running hundreds of thousands of transactions by next year. She cited Dubai's small market size and willingness to embrace innovation as key enablers that could set it apart from other jurisdictions.
"There's no bureaucracy. We meet and we move," she continued.
The announcement follows a period of heavy activity for Dubai's blockchain ecosystem, which last week played host to a tech conference on the topic. There, leaders from government agencies and major banks discussed the state of the ecosystem, unveiled new proofs-of-concept and detailed roadmaps for new trials and tests.
At the event, Smart Dubai also revealed a go-forward strategy that will divide its plan of action over this year and next.
In the first phase, taking place from March to April of this year, the city's government intends to analyze challenges and determine issues that currently make life difficult for citizens. (Smart Dubai's overall mandate is to use technology to help make the city the "happiest" on earth).
Here, the government will provide hands-on guidance and support.
"We'll design the architecture and the business case, and define the expected impact financially on the city and on the time and number of steps for users," El Kaissi explained.
From there, Smart Dubai said it will work on scoping request for proposals (RFPs) for its blockchain startup partners, with the first pilots expected to launched in August. Beginning in 2018, Smart Dubai envisions the launch of a blockchain-as-a-service (BaaS) platform that would enable startups to deliver services more effectively across the city.
The full migration would then seek to be completed by 2020, a vision first detailed by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, last October.
Yet, the announcement also places Dubai's work in a larger, global context.
As competition heats up for blockchain infrastructure, many startups and incumbents have been embracing a 'multi-blockchain business model, one that finds them leveraging a mix of protocols to deliver services.
In this way, El Kaissi said the announcement of both IBM and ConsenSys as partners shows that Dubai intends to stay "open minded" about the technology and its various designs.
For example, while IBM routinely builds on its Fabric distributed ledger, overseen by the Linux-led Hyperledger group, ConsenSys is working on a private implementation based on the ethereum blockchain.
Here, El Kaissi stated that Dubai intends to be vendor neutral, noting the "technicalities" of both offerings.
"There are going to be different types of use cases."
Image via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk