It’s Governance, Stupid! A School for the Study of Decentralized Governance Models

31 JANUARY 2020 – I am writing this on my return from the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. 

Exactly a week ago I was at the George Soros dinner there together with gathered media and Soros Foundation beneficiaries and staff.  

At the dinner, Soros announced USD 1 billion for a new “Open Society University Network” (OSUN) and we all got a copy of his latest book as a freebee.

At 89, Soros remains dedicated to his lifelong cause for Open Societies. He called OSUN’s efforts to combat authoritarian governments “the most important project of my life” and hopes to ”see it realized whilst I am still around”.

Open Societies have been close to my heart since I, like Soros, came in contact with Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies” during my London School of Economics days.

Karl Popper’s two volume first edition “The Open Society and its Enemies” published in 1945 by Routledge in London.

A New Software for Open Societies

In his book, Popper identified the dangers to Open Societies, which need trust, sound governance and citizen participation to grow and stay robust. 

Today however, many perceive our democracies as fragile and in decline.

But anybody who takes a closer look will see that most of our disagreements in liberal democracies are about the means, not the goals: there is broad consensus about the desirability of most outcomes e.g. accessible healthcare, quality affordable schooling, avoiding climate distasters, etc. However we can’t seem to agree on how best to get there.

Our thesis is that we’re simply lacking the tools. We’re not using available technologies to innovate in governance: we’re not writing governance software or releasing new versions of an “Operating System” for our democracies.  Voting is still largely paper-based, elections are held only every 4 or 5 years, and there are no citizens’ Apps that enable wider participation in decision making.

We need a toolbox to solve problems of coordination in society, including some “ragequit” function for those who don’t subscribe to the broad consensus and want to escape the “tyranny of democracy”.

Our Application to the Soros Foundation

Following the Soros dinner, I was encouraged to apply for a grant from the Open Society Foundation. 

Today, we sent in a proposal making the case for a grant to study and develop new governance models that may help solve coordination problems in Open Societies.

In our application, we highlighted Distributed Ledger Technology (“DLT”, commonly known as blockchains) – which ideologically grew out of a movement against increased centralization of economic and political power – as the key enabling technology for a new Operating System for Open Societies.

We argued that blockchains, by ensuring uncensored, self-authenticated transactions on a decentralized open ledger, hold the promise of an unprecedented level of citizen participation as the basis for such OS.

Finally, we quoted some daring recent ideas e.g. how “quadratic voting” using blockchains could change how we vote and participate in decisions.

Peripatetic Approach

As a first step, a lot more study needs done on the design and feasibility of such new governance models.  Our proposal is therefore in essence an application to fund a small-scale study centre.  

Our idea is for such School to commence as a small institute with visiting scholars from around the world, including members of the DLT community and teaching staff from across academic disciplines.

The setup would suit a peripatetic approach in which knowledge is transferred informally within a communal setting. In the spirit of the open software movement, all technology development is to be open source, and contributions to its code repository could be made from anywhere by anybody.

Beyond research, the key deliverable of the Center would be an open-source toolkit of ready-to-use applications to help countries implement new governance and voting protocols that increase citizen participation.

We believe that developing such toolkit could help solve coordination problems across a wide spectrum of organizations, from private companies to the polis of a country and even the governance of supranational – and some day interplanetary! – organizations. 

Finally, we proposed Vancouver as a possible location for the School since Canada is arguably the world’s strongest liberal democracy.

Waiting for George’s call

We’re now waiting for George’s call and working some backchannels.  

Irrespective of a Soros Foundation grant, we plan to accelerate fundraising and are building a website under the Otonomos Foundation.

We’re also seeking to attract voluntary staff and have been looking at possible sites and Universities that can host the School.  

We cannot let this cause die of neglect: technology presently increasingly provides the tools for surveillance, which in turn leads to a compounding of power in the hands of the few.  It is in our hands to build the freedom tools that guarantee censorship-resistant, “trust-less” participation for each of us as shareholders in our collective future.


Chopin in Dubai: Or How to Go from Defying to Defining

Last week, I was invited to speak at the Alternative Asset Management Summit in Dubai to talk about crypto assets as a new asset class in investing.

On the flight from London, I was captivated by “Chopin’s Piano” by Paul Kildea which I had recently picked up at a Vancouver bookstore and saved for the long journey.

Chopin’s music not only defied the conventions of the Classics, but defined Romantic music for decades to come.  Hae looked back and forward at the same time, standing on the shoulders of the greats who came before him (Bach in particular, whose Welltempered Clavier was the only score Chopin carried with him on a desolate trip to Mallorca in 1838-39 where he composed the wondrous Preludes on a ramshackle local piano) but also defied them, in a playful dialectic of respect and provocation of past masters, setting his music free from conventions and in doing so, defining a future sound through the sheer gift of his unbounded imagination.

Chopin and Beethoven: They could never have walked together, but talked a lot in music.

His travel companion and femme terrible George Sand watched him compose, a touching snapshot of a frail, diminutive and sickly Chopin forcefully willing his music into the world, iterating his way to aesthetic perfection: 

It was a train of efforts, waverings, frustrated stabs at recapturing certain details of the theme that he had heard; what he had conceived as a unity he now over-analyzed in his desire to get it down, and his chagrin at not being able to rediscover it whole and clear plunged him into a sort of despair. He withdrew into his room for days, weeping, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, playing measure a hundred times over, changing it each time, then writing it out and erasing it as many times, and beginning all over again on the morrow with painstaking and desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on a page, only to hark back to what he had first roughed out.

George Sand

Anybody who writes or codes will recognize Chopin’s creative agony Sand describes!

His struggle speaks to the universal theme of how our imagination collides with real-world constraints, the perpetual tension between freedom and form that when resolved, as in Bach’s music, Cicero’s speeches or elegant math, results in true greatness.

Imagination first defies form and form subsequently defies imagination in some perpetual dance we call progress.

At a more mundane level, when asked at the Dubai conference how crypto and blockchain would change the world, I answered that “the thing with the future is that we cannot imagine it”, commenting how blockchain is the “rebel child of capitalism” but that we simply lacked the imagination to know what’s around the corner.

We do know however that those who, like Chopin, willed their imagination into the world are the ones who go from defying the existing paradigm to defining the next one.

Blockchains on Planes

The Air Canada flight into San Francisco had a documentary on blockchain I hadn’t come across before, produced by Alex Winter.

It’s not a bad film, and even if it was, it’s great to see this on a plane ride. Joe Lubin appears but Vitalik doesn’t, he probably declined.

Approaching San Francisco there’s a detectable film of thin smoke from the wildfires just north in Sonoma County hanging over Golden Gate Bridge, but the sky in the Bay Area is as glorious as always.

I am skipping tomorrow’s and Friday’s Blockchain conference: too much shilling on stage. Even Libra has got a slot.

Bay Area

Long immigration queues yesterday at SFO didn’t allow me to make it to meetings in Mountain View so I charmed the United Airlines lady into changing my ticket and stayed overnight in Mountain View.

Feels like I made full circle back where I left things a couple of years ago when I hatched the idea for Otonomos but didn’t have the funds to bring the family here. Instead we chose Asia and I feel all the richer for it in many ways.

Despite having all the high-tech names within a couple of miles radius from here, the Bay Area can feel very quaint. Retail is stuck in the past and visiting a bank with their 70s fit-out is so retro it’s modish again. 

The golden sun though makes one forgive all of the Peninsula’s shortcomings, only the Côte d’Azur and Lisbon rivals this place for the sheer translucency of its blue sky. Waking up here with this California sky every day of the year induces optimism. Whatever rivals there may be, Silicon Valley will continue to dominate because of its mindset and because they made building and scaling a business a true craft. 

It’s been nice to walk Castro Street and have a cuppa at Red Rock, buy a book at Books Inc and eat a taco further up the street. People seemed relaxed, content and comfortable, and not all young.  Coupa Cafe hasn’t changed and it seems neither has Sand Hill Road’s business model!

Ten Dollar Cohiba in Panama

Typing this on morning flight to San Francisco from Panama.

Yesterday was all work had a ceviche brought up to the room for lunch and only got ready around dinner time.

Walked the Casco Antiguo to get a bite and found a $10 Cohiba in some local version of a 7-11 run by Chinese.

I first thought it would be a fake cigar but it smoked well. I enjoyed it with a stiff Negroni at the rooftop bar of the Casacasco opposite the hotel, a place that seems popular for corporate outings.

I amused myself reading tweets about Facebook’s hearings in DC on its planned Libra currency and retweeted a Hayek clip in which he urges not to leave issuance of money in the hands of Governments. 

I don’t think he had Libra in mind as an alternative, a corporate currency issued by surveillance capitalists. 

Bitcoin may have been closer to his idea of a private currency and the trustless technology behind it. 

BTC came through relatively unscathed from the congressional hearings. Lawmakers seem to prefer a decentralised currency they can’t control over a “ZuckBuck”.

The Bitcoin price stuck at around USD 9,400 didn’t seem to benefit much from this regularly reprieve. 

The crypto community should be careful what it wishes for if it wants more regulatory attention to BTC. 

It could be made illegal or killed by a thousand knives. Few talk about the role of Internet Service Providers, they could be made (probably already are) instruments of surveillance and tools to restrict access.  

Blockchain may not be as unstoppable as they seem if their hardware backbone is targeted. Will Governments let them flourish as a freedom tool or use them as instruments for repression?

Meet Capitalism’s Rebel Child

As I write this first blog from the heart of Silicon Valley, a race is on between new protocols that use distributed processing power to execute programmed tasks, from transferring money to governing companies.

These decentralised protocols will enable anybody with access to a computer and the internet to participate in an economy that will succeed capitalism as the prevailing paradigm.

Participalism is the system in which decentralised computing power allows all of us to invest, borrow, contribute, shop, manufacture, vote, donate, spend and earn without the need for a central authority.

This blog wants to document the new technologies, from Bitcoin and other digital currencies or protocols like Ethereum, to distributed manufacturing and smart contracts, that will shape Participalism as the new narrative for humanity.

Los Altos, 1 July 2014

El Participalista