Reinventing public services
There are other examples of governments experimenting with the blockchain – the Honduran government began recording land title records in partnership with blockchain-powered record verification and auditing infrastructure firm Factom – a project currently on pause – while some are saying that blockchain tech could kill off middlemen industries including energy companies and banks.
The latter is a classic example of an industry ripe for blockchain being left behind by tech-savvy governments. The UK government is considering using the blockchain to make international aid payments more secure, but banks aren't so keen.
"The metadata associated with a financial transaction lies in that used for tax calculations," says John Oswald, Business Design Director at design and innovation consultancy Fjord.
"That changes everything when it comes to the overheads of delivering tax, benefits and welfare," he adds, suggesting that blockchains for identity could be used to ensure that a simple change of address cascades to all government departments, not just the one you're talking to. "Blockchain could be one of those legendary technologies – like the internet – that turns into a way of reinventing the world," he observes.
While national governments are taking the lead on some tech issues, the real engines of innovation and experimentation are municipalities and big cities. The NYC Open Data Plan sees New York State make well over a thousand data sets from government agencies available to browse and download, while Chicago's UI Labs' CityWorks is encouraging the development an Internet of Things urban infrastructure.
Both are great examples of large-scale digital planning that the commercial world isn't going to work out on its own. Ditto the government-mandated switch to smart meters and the spread of IoT sensors, smart city technology and driverless cars, all of which will need safe critical infrastructure to ensure that all data can be trusted – and across national borders, too.
For all that, think blockchain, though having a secure and thoroughly innovative cloud would be handy, too – and we can thank US government agency NASA for taking that concept way beyond even international borders.
Build your own internet
Governments also have a huge role to play in standardising new technology, though rarely does that foster international standards. "That's bigger than most governments nowadays," says Oswald. "Open standards imply open internationally, and most government jurisdictions are by definition territorial, while the economy is international." He adds that open standards implies an element of government collaboration, and only on the European stage is there an infrastructure to make that happen.
A good example of that is Brazil. Spooked by the NSA/Snowden scandal, the Brazilian government is showing its tech-awareness by creating its own internet. The plan is to build data centres in Brazil, and hook up to Europe via a dedicated submarine cable, thereby circumventing the US completely.
"They don't want to be part of a US-led internet," says Oswald. "It's not happened and Dilma Rousseff is in trouble in Brazil for other reasons, but there are certainly rumblings about the way the internet is governed, and the open standards that the internet holds dear tend to be US-defined open standards, which is starting to prove controversial."
Whether Brazil succeeds or not, if nothing else it shows that the internet has become not just a utility, but critical national infrastructure that governments have a duty to protect – even from other governments. With blockchain on the horizon, the internet's biggest technological leap could turn out to be state-sponsored.
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Jamie is a freelance tech, travel and space journalist based in the UK. He’s been writing regularly for Techradar since it was launched in 2008 and also writes regularly for Forbes, The Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, Sky & Telescope and the Sky At Night magazine as well as other Future titles T3, Digital Camera World, All About Space and Space.com. He also edits two of his own websites, TravGear.com and WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com that reflect his obsession with travel gear and solar eclipse travel. He is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners (Springer, 2015),