The following is a guest post by Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., an urban strategist & co-founder of IoMob.net.
In January of this year, Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s Commissioner for Technology and Digital Innovation, announced the City’s plan to transform the government to open source software and open data. As the smart cities movement shifts from a technology-driven top-down approach to a more collaborative, co-creation approach, we will see more cities embrace organic and open, and decentralized software platforms.
Enter blockchain. While many are still grappling with why Bitcoin is worth as much as it is, or what the fuss is about blockchain tech, thousands of entrepreneurs, technologists and activists, are coming together around the world to rethink our economy towards one that allows for more sovereignty from the monopolistic models of web 1.0. Blockchain tech can allow for disruptive, decentralized and democratized approaches to life, especially, but not exclusively in cities.
A currently underexplored topic is what blockchain technology could do to the urban mobility landscape. Currently, urban mobility is dominated by a handful of global powerhouses, and local transit authorities. Use google maps to find your way around the city and you will mostly get Uber or public transit options. Yet the array of urban mobility is expanding rapidly with urban entrepreneurs entering to offer all kinds of new alternatives from peer-to-peer car and bike-sharing to electric scooter sharing, carpooling and more. In fact, a local startup in Barcelona called Sharemrkt, has documented that there are at least 51 shared mobility services operating in Barcelona. Hard to believe I know. I bet most readers are only aware of a few of these such as Avancar or maybe Donkey Republic.
Which leads me to the reason blockchain, and something at my Barcelona-based startup, IoMob, we refer to as the Internet of Mobility (IoM). IoM promises to decentralize urban mobility services. It can do this by offering what people in the blockchain community refer to as fat protocols. While web 1.0 offers a very thin layer of common code to permit global connectivity, blockchain protocols can contain much more, such as payment, identity and reputation. An open protocol, like those that the Ayuntamiento aspires for, allows cheap or almost free access to this base tech for any mobility provider, while enabling equal access to the network effects provided by any mobility provider connected to the protocol. So, any of those 51 shared mobility service providers (and more to come) could more quickly and cheaply launch their service by tapping into the open protocol, and more quickly reaching a broader user base by tapping into the open network of users.
A growing trend in pioneering cities around the globe is a concept called MaaS, Mobility as a Service. In a MaaS model, a mobility services aggregator reaches agreement with the local public transit authority and a handful (of usually large and deep-resourced) private mobility operators like taxi companies and perhaps a major carsharing service, to offer local residents access to all of these mobility services for a fixed monthly fee. MaaS is truly a revolutionary solution helping to improve the efficiency of mobility services while allowing local residents to keep to a monthly budget for mobility services. However, MaaS models are generally done with closed software models and a fixed group of mobility service providers.
With a blockchain-powered open protocol, IoM can allow for users to view any validated (i.e. legal) mobility service provider without having to know about them previously or to download their app. Instead, an open hub operator can show any user any mobility service provider (including the 51 shared operators in Barcelona) that could be a viable option for their journey. Furthermore, this open protocol could even allow fully decentralized and customized MaaS models. Say, for example, you live in Sant Cugat and travel to Barcelona to your coworking spot in Eixample every day. It is possible that you would benefit from having unlimited access to the Sant Cugat public transit bus network, the FGCC commuter train, Bicing and Donkey Republic for getting to meetings once in the City and 6 trips back and forth a month to El Prat in a taxi. A hub and payment provider could collaborate to offer you a drop-down menu of choices and monthly prices for each menu option you chose.
Such decentralized mobility options can also enable more resilience of urban mobility systems. Challenges to mobility access caused by things like taxi or metro strikes, peak use by tourists or visitors to the Mobile Word Congress, etc. can be mitigated by having a full array of alternative mobility options at your disposal. While decentralization to some people means anarchy and no need for government involvement, we at IoMob believe that these solutions discussed here will work based in collaboration and partnership with local governments. This is why we are reaching out to cities in the US, Europe and Latin America to gauge their readiness for the Internet of Mobility and of course we hope to count Barcelona as one of our early pilot cities.
About Boyd Cohen, the author:
Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., is an urban strategist focused on the areas of urban innovation, entrepreneurship, smart cities and urban mobility. He has published 3 books (Climate Capitalism, 2011; The Emergence of the Urban Entrepreneur, 2016; Post-capitalist Entrepreneurship, 2017). He is Deputy Director of Research at EADA Business School and a jointly appointed faculty at the Universitat de Vic. In 2017, he co-founded IoMob.net, a blockchain startup seeking to decentralize the mobility sector by providing an open protocol for the Internet of Mobility (IoM).