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Smart Dust, AI and Blockchain — What Do These Mean for Cities?

  Published: 15 February 2018
  Theme: Smart Planning

The advent of the cloud-based Internet of Things (IoT) presents cities with the opportunity to better monitor and operate city facilities through the combination of sensors, actuators, networks, software and more.

Lower sensor and data storage costs, faster data transfer rates and continued advancements in computing speed are driving the rapid adoption of IoT in the planning, management and operation of the modern city. This includes using IOT technologies to:

  • Monitor environmental quality and alert authorities should dangers arise
  • Control, monitor and optimise critical infrastructure like power plants to ensure it operates efficiently and safely
  • Manage and optimise transportation networks to reduce congestion and waiting times
  • Provide more efficient public services and gather public feedbacks and sentiments


City power grids leverage IoT technology to control, monitor and optimize critical infrastructure such as the power grid.

Coupled with disruptive technologies — such as smart dust, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain — IoT can enhance the way urban planners plan and design cities, and improve the liveability of cities for residents.

Smart Dust — Revolutionising Environment Monitoring

Smart dust could revolutionise how cities monitor the natural and built environment: it can be deployed anywhere and everywhere, facilitating the monitoring and control of various environments by providing a continuous stream of accurate and real-time data.

Smart dust are nodes of multiple microelectromechanical systems, no more than a few millimetres wide, which can detect changes in light, position, acceleration, stress, pressure, humidity, sound and vibration. These disposable sensors transmit information wirelessly with autonomous power to a central computer or a cloud where data is compiled, analysed through algorithms and — if required — instructs corresponding devices to respond.

Ongoing research conducted by MIT’s Senseable City Lab1 in New York City provides an example of how smart dust might work in an urban setting. The project’s TrashTrack system uses small sensors to track the movement of different waste items through the waste management chain and identify the journey and destination of refuse. The goal is to allow city authorities to better manage refuse and encourage responsible waste disposal.


The TrashTrack tag, used to track refuse in New York City. (Image: Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

While TrashTrack currently uses regular sensors, the project could use micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) that are invisible to the human eye. At the time of writing, smart dust deployment in an urban setting remains in the prototype stage.

Artificial Intelligence — A Present-day Reality

“Combining machine-learning algorithms with very high-powered computation to do things that until recently could only be done by intelligent creatures — that’s AI,” explains Professor Isaac Ben-Israel of Tel Aviv University in Israel.

AI has developed rapidly over the past decade. Deep learning — an advanced form of machine learning that leverages big data analytics in real-time — is an important component of technology today. Combined with IoT, AI already features in a number of apps that are enabling city residents, businesses and authorities to predict decision or implementation outcomes and provide solutions quickly.

One such app is Waze, a navigation app developed in Israel. “The app immediately recognises where you are; you then enter a destination and it tells you the fastest way to get there,” says the professor. Waze leverages real-time information on traffic flows that are sourced from the web and users, as well as news events that might impact the journey. Furthermore, the app is global, which means it can be used anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

AI could be used to control traffic light systems during periods of congestion. In this instance, sensors monitoring road networks communicate with one another to influence traffic flows. This concept can also be applied to energy provision, where instead of cities having to manually transfer electricity from one district to another due to power failure or a generation shortfall, AI will autonomously conduct this transfer.

While these forms of AI appear somewhat simplistic, their impact on cities are noteworthy. Furthermore, the influence of AI on urban environments will significantly increase over time in areas such as autonomous vehicles and building management, where machines drive operations autonomously, predicts the professor.

Blockchain — For Security and Data Sharing

With large data sets and analytics, cities must ensure data sharing and transparency in a secure manner among multiple stakeholders. Blockchain is a tool that enables peer-to-peer transmissions without the need for an intermediary or centralised node.

Blockchains comprise of a number of core features: they have an administrator and a network of users; a framework; assets; transactions; apps; and user interfaces.

The combination of four characteristics sets blockchain apart from rival technologies:

  • Ownership: Users have complete transparency over where the assets originated, and how it has changed hands over time 

  • Consensus: For a transaction to go ahead, it must be verified by all network users

  • Tamper-proof: Blockchain uses cryptography and digital signatures to prove authenticity and identity, making it secure and immutable

  • A single, shared record: The technology is the sole record for transactions, without duplicated ledgers

Blockchain can thus be used to encourage selective data sharing and analytics in a city without a centralised IT infrastructure; allow for more secure, automatic and remote city systems management by multiple parties; and even support the growth of an on-demand sharing economy.

In China, Walmart is using blockchain to monitor pork supply chains and overcome shipping delays and tracking errors, resulting in a more efficient supply chain where bottlenecks are spotted quickly. In cities, the private and public sector can work together to ensure that supply chains across all of a city’s needs — whether the provision of food, energy, water and other resources — are well-tracked and optimised for added efficiencies. Urban planners can in turn better manage downstream urban space planning by considering, in detail, freight movement and its impact on road capacity.

Impact on Cities

The above technologies, coupled with IoT, present opportunities for city planning and operations to be faster, easier to use, more efficient and more secure than present-day legacy systems.

While some of these new technologies have been tested in pilot programmes — and with others having been rolled out in non-urban settings — the capabilities of these new technologies are seemingly endless. More research on the feasibility, capability, and implementation of these disruptive technologies in cities could change city planning and civic operations and optimise liveability of urban spaces in the long term.