Blockchains may be most commonly associated with cryptocurrency and other innovations often thought to be flashy or novel, but a growing number of municipalities are embracing projects that use the technology for more basic needs.
Austin, Texas, piloted a blockchain platform that safely stored identifying documents of people experiencing homelessness, allowing local service providers to easily access that information. Chicago’s Cook County and South Burlington, Vermont, have each tested blockchains used for housing property records.
Reminiscent of online editing software such as Google Docs, a blockchain is a decentralized network that allows multiple users to access the same information at the same time. One key difference, however, is that the technology behind such a network creates a permanent record of the data whose history cannot be deleted or altered.
“Cities utilizing NFTs and cryptocurrency is definitely something that has value in exploring,” said Brooks Rainwater, a senior executive at the National League of Cities and director of the organization’s Center for City Solutions. “But truthfully, I think the underlying technology with blockchain is probably going to be much more useful for most cities as they’re thinking about how this type of technology can really drive record-keeping and other storage solutions they might have.”
Among those cities harnessing the technology is Reno, Nevada, which in early June announced plans to launch what’s described as a first-of-its-kind blockchain record-keeping system, dubbed the “Biggest Little Blockchain,” in an effort to increase transparency and accountability.
BlockApps, a New York-based blockchain software company, is building Reno’s system free of charge given its interest in the project, according to BlockApps Vice President of Sales Jeff Powell. It’s the company’s first time working with a municipality.
Reno’s Register of Historic Places, a list administered by the city’s Development Services Department, will be the first record system to use the technology, according to the city. Initially, only information related to changes that have been made to these buildings will be available on the blockchain, according to Nic Ciccone, project lead and community liaison in Reno’s city manager’s office. But Reno hopes to expand the system to encompass other city records, such as maintenance work, permitting, and licensing, according to the city press release.
“Record-keeping is one of the great uses of blockchain technology,” Ciccone said. “I’m really proud of our city for going forward with this endeavor … This really brings blockchain back to what it originally is, and that’s just a ledger. And so that’s what we are using it for, for its intended purpose.”
Such a system could improve the efficiencies of the approval process for modifications to historic buildings, as each entity involved in that process will be able to access the same database at the same time. Ciccone also touted the blockchain’s immutability as a way for Reno to be increasingly transparent and accountable to its residents. Not only will anyone be able to view information about modifications to historic buildings through an online portal, they will also know that the data is as accurate and complete as possible.
Many cities, including Reno, have experimented with the more well-known blockchain uses. Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve has suggested selling a non-fungible token on the blockchain in an effort to save a local 50-foot sculpture of a humpback whale made of steel and stained glass, called “Space Whale.”
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and New York City Mayor Eric Adams have both said they’d accept paychecks in bitcoin. Meanwhile, Williston, North Dakota, is home to a digital currency machine at its international airport that accepts cryptocurrency as payment for city utility bills.
Reno’s latest blockchain effort and other similar initiatives, however, typically use private blockchains and are therefore not subject to the volatility that is common on the public cryptocurrency and NFT networks, according to Powell. They also do not use the large amount of computing power required of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, meaning their environmental strain is lower.
City-led blockchain initiatives could also attract technology companies and talent, and tech-savvy residents. “If a city in its government’s practices is interested in cutting-edge technology … that’s going to be appealing to businesses and individuals setting up shop there,” Powell said.
Rainwater also expressed optimism about the future role of blockchain in city government and beyond: “The record-keeping application of blockchain will be incredibly useful in the public sector as well as the private sector for many years to come.”