Rights to the blockchain city

Exploring the social, political, and environmental impact of distributed ledgers

A series of three or four online live casts around digital ledger design, aimed at a professional audience, each lasting 1-1,5 hours. See https://dezwijger.nl/programma/european-school-of-urban-game-design for an impression.

Governments and venture capitalists alike are investing in blockchain technologies, hoping for example to create robust governance systems or to streamline operations. While many blockchains will remain quite invisible to their end-users, many expect that they will be embedded in fundamental public and private systems such as taxation and ID management, and various everyday transportational and transactional processes.

What will these new technological systems mean for how people live together in cities? This online event series brings together researchers, technologists, designers, and artists to explore the social, political, and environmental impact of blockchain technology. Asking important questions about power, access, and transparency throughout, the events each feature a specific perspective:

  1. The uses of disorder in the blockchain city searches for the human in the machine, featuring designers and researchers that explores the (im)possibilities of human messiness in optimizing blockchain governance systems.
  2. Values in the blockchain city looks at proposals from researchers, artists and technologists for blockchains designed with solidarity and fairness as core principles.
  3. Urban commons in the blockchain city grounds the series with real world examples of blockchain projects focussing on sustainable development and the commons.

We propose an Online event series hosted by Pakhuis de Zwijger, organized by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and the BotClub event series of Het Nieuwe Instituut in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh. This series of events is part of Circulate, an applied research project focussing on design processes for blockchains for the circular economy.

1. The use of disorder in the blockchain city (10 Feb 2021, 6:30-7:30pm CET)

Blockchain technology is often described as a distributed logbook, a tool for administration across networks of peers that can keep track of all kinds of transactions and resources. As such, it is often seen as simply a way to make bookkeeping more efficient or transparent. However, new functionalities of the blockchain called ‘smart contracts’ make automated, algorithmic decision-making possible, meaning that this narrow and a-political understanding is no longer sufficient. Blockchains can now do much more than ‘keep track’. Smart contracts turn them into systems of governance, with various kinds of rules and rights hard-coded in their design.

As more and more blockchain projects engage in urban systems such as (local) governments, commons communities, and social enterpreneurship, it is becoming clear that they have much greater consequences and influence social systems in fundamental ways. Blockchain is a technology that presents a veneer of order, but human nature is not neatly categorisable in algorithmic logics. What will urban blockchain governance systems mean for the messy and creative human nature that persists underneath? What might life be like among all these blockchains?

2. Values in the blockchain city (17 Feb 2021, 6:30-7:30pm CET)

The smart city imagined the city as a patchwork of platforms and services to be used by it’s inhabitants and visitors as customers. When blockchain is added to the mix, should we instead imagine the city as a licence, continuously updated and different for each individual? If algorithmic ‘smart’ contracts become the arbiters of rights and distributors of fees and degrees of access, blockchains need to be investigated for the values they support. Will a blockchain city be a fair city? Could urban blockchains be used to create common resources, like housing? Perhaps blockchains could be designed that support an alternative economic model, one that puts ecological concerns and solidarity central. What if smart contracts were made to strive for equality among inhabitants? Or are blockchains inextricably tied to capitalist logics and will they always quantify and ultimately economize everything they touch? Who has a say in the design of these complex technological systems? What are the possibilities for opening up the design of urban systems to grassroots organizers?

3. Urban commons in the blockchain city (24 Feb 2021, 6:30-7:30pm CET)

Urban commons, such as community gardens and shared neighbourhood spaces, have become more and more popular in recent years, perhaps as a response to the ongoing privitization of public space that many cities are experiencing. But do commons stand a chance against the power of the market? What is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, the inevitability of ‘freeloaders’ that take more than their share and disrupt the ecosystem, seems to be lurking around the corner all too often. Could blockchain and its capacity to keep minute records of who used or contributed what be a useful tool to make systems of commoning stronger?

Around the world, people are exploring the capacities of distributed ledgers such as blockchains to support social and environmental ‘good’ through processes of commoning. In this session, we hear from several pilots and prototypes that take resources such as housing and energy out of the market, instead pooling them among a community of users. Blockchains are then put in place in order to make sure that the resource doesn’t run out or is coopted by only a few users.

But blockchains exist in many shapes and sizes, and design choices can have far-reaching consequences. What kind of behavior should be rewarded and how? Which parts of community-life should be logged in the system, and what should remain outside of it in the interest of privacy? What happens to things that don’t fit the mold and will not be represented on the blockchain? How can the community intervene when the algorithm misinterprets a situation? These questions will form a red thread through the conversation, in which we uncover some opportunities and pitfalls of real world ‘blockchain-for-good’ applications.