This weekend was a legendary one. For me, and I think for the other 399 and more people in the Big Building in Groningen too. It was the World’s biggest blockchain hackathon and the first one I witnessed. More than 50 multidisciplinary teams and 100 coaches - Jedi’s - got together to build a new operational system for our society.
The Hackaton, what's it all about?
There were 5 different tracks: identity, future of pensions, international trade & entrepreneurship, reinventing government and energy. Team members who knew or didn’t know each other before this weekend had 45 hours to come up with a working application based on existing blockchain protocols (Bitcoin, Ethereum, Hyperledger). The winning team of each track would present their idea to a jury of experts on Sunday. This all happened in a neon-lit concrete building (Stars Wars-like) with little sleep, red eyes, a lot of redbull and coffee, but most of all an amazing can-do vibe throughout the whole weekend. The force was definitely with us.
What to expect from a hackathon? I don’t know about you, but I had in mind a bunch of geeky dudes, not very well socially skilled, talking in binary codes. A bit of a generalised (and superficial) idea, I admit, but that was what I kinda had in mind. When I was asked to join as on of the coaches I was excited at first, but at the same time I had my doubts about what I could contribute. Anyone here has seen the “Beauty and the Nerd” ? Right. That comes close to what I imagined. A bit clueless about what is the blockchain, I was there to help the teams with..........what exactly?
Day 1: An enlightened discovery
So on the first day I had planned to be the fly on the wall. I was hiding myself in the lounge area, reading my way through it before engaging with any of the teams. We communicated through Slack, so I would be notified of anything important. I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t the only one not entirely understanding this blockchain enigma. With a group of 4 Jedi’s we gathered around one of Deloitte’s experts, Jacob Boersma, and he gave us a private lecture (thank you for enlightening us!). Although it still remains a deeply technological story, I can now grasp how it enables trust in p2p transactions and how blocks of data are formed and validated by the community. I can understand basic blockchain terminology like nodes, wallets, mining, proof of work, proof of stake, slash, public and private blockchain and the different blockchains like Bitcoin, Ethereum and IBM’s hyperledger. I’m not going to explain it all here, but fascinating stuff you should read up on if you want to understand the back-end of our future society.
After that moment of enlightenment, I felt somewhat ready to walk through the big neon-lit hall filled with tables, laptops and tech-wizkids. At the reinventing government track a lot of the teams were rethinking our current voting system. Something in line with the idea of liquid democracy and p2p politics; a new field we should integrate in our shareNL ecosystem of the collaborative economy. One of my focus areas in the months to come.
Other teams focussed on freelance workers and the challenges this ever growing group (>1000.000 in the Netherlands today!) is facing. For example how they could save money, get insurance and build up their pension in a more flexible way by connecting invoice software to a pension fund, life insurance, etc. Every time you’d send out an invoice, you could program the percentage you’d want to go to the selected funds. Great idea! I’d use it, if the funds would also micro-invest in local community projects; an idea another team was working on.
Another idea that caught my attention - as a social innovation enthusiast - was a new “household booklet”: an income management system for people receiving social welfare allowances. Since their income flow is so fragmented - they depend on different institutions, each paying (back) in different batches - the team was building a buffer-system where all that money is stored and distributed to the people more gradually. Personally, I think this system would also be useful for freelancers who have a very uncertain income flow.
By that time, I had absorbed and given as much as I was physically and mentally capable of. I decided to let it all sink in at the Airbnb rented cabin in the woods; nowhere better to reflect than next to an open fire place.
Day 2: Stress and Confusion
The next day the vibe was different; stress. It went from world changing ideas and inspiration to concretisation. Some teams got blocked in the technology they wanted to develop, others in the story they wanted to tell. Big dreams to change the world and now it got real. And there was only going to be one winner per track.
Now you could see the advantage of multidisciplinary teams. I was actually surprised to see that not all participants were techies, as a had imagined. I met a musician, a manager, a teacher and a couple who was just enthusiastic to participate with some basic tech skills. And that makes sense. It's not only about coding; you need an idea to develop into a prototype, you need a citizen's or user's perspective, a manager to guide the team, someone who knows the field you’re working in, a communications specialist, etc. So for the non-techies: take your chances the next time you see a hackathon of your interest passing by! I highly recommended it. It gives a totally different perspective on the doom scenarios of our future we hear so much. It’s the opposite actually. Yes we can, we try, we fail, we experiment, we learn, we adapt, we try again.
Ok, getting sidetracked here.
So day two: stress and confusion. What all made sense to me the day before, became one blur of ongoing information loaded with more questions than answers. In that storm, the best thing I could do is focus on what I’m familiar with through my work at shareNL - the sharing economy. Through Slack I came across a team called Help Out; an open-source distributed timebanking application. Possibly a great tool for community platforms or WeHelpen to measure their impact in hours helped, or to simply track the hours helped of the global community. Interesting. Should all our help be tracked in hours? Will time become our new currency in a world where we won’t be making money anymore through good old-fashioned labor? Why did Timebanking as we know it didn’t really take off by now? A lot to think about.
I continued my quest and came across a team working on b2b off-grid energy sharing, using solar panels and cars for it's provision. This concept had a lot of similarities with WeDriveSolar; only this time build on the blockchain. Come to think of it, they should join forces. And talking about “force”, I had little strength in me left - the storm had worn me out. I left the building and made my way through the “Grunningse straten”, back to the woods.
DAY 3: The final revelation
At 11.00 sharp Sunday morning all teams had to take their fingers of the keyboards and the time tracker stopped. GAME OVER. Time to present their impact canvasses and a working demo to the judges. Coaches handed over balloons, judges distributed 250 euro-tokens in the form of frisbees. The team who collected most of them would win their track. Tired but vibrating on nervousness and excitement they started pitching at their tables. There was a overall sense of relief, joy and exhilaration.
There were some great ideas I discovered during those last memorable moments. To cite a few; Music2Nation who won nine frisbees(!) with a revolutionary idea, cutting out the middleman in the music industry. Every artist can present her/himself directly on the platform to their fans. They on their turn would decide upon the artist's popularity by reviews and co-invest in the artist through micro-payments via the blockchain.
Another one was PossessLess, an idea of p2p renting of assets via blockchain. Next to the owner, also the asset collects a percentage of the fee. In this way the asset is saving 'money' itself, for example for its maintenance. Maybe the next level of Peerby or SnappCar?
You can find more ideas, and the winning teams on the website of the Dutch Blockchain Hackathon.
So what's next...
What inspired me the most about this weekend? To me it demonstrated how intertwined the blockchain and the sharing economy are. In this micro-environment, I've experienced a sense of what could potentially be the next level of the sharing economy: a blockchain-enabled, true peer-to-peer paradigm of abundance. And what really gave me chills up my spine, is the fact that we are truly challenged to fundamentally rethink the way we look at value and growth. We are entering a world where we can give self-generated solar kilowatts as a present at our friend's housewarming party with karma as the new currency, as one of the winning teams presented.
Or not? Will the blockchain live up to its promise of an efficient and transparent distribution of power and wealth? Or will this technology eventually be institutionalized and centralized to benefit a few?
Want to join me in this 'thought trail' and share your ideas? Come to our meetup on the 2nd of March at Pakhuis De Zwijger. There will be blockchain experts, some of the teams from the hackathon, an inspiring case with a new business model, and a movement of fair short term rentals. The event is free upon registration.
See you there!