A new operating system for our society

Halfway through the largest blockchain hackathon ever organized, it is slowly getting clear that the five tracks are not some random topics for which sponsors happened to be available. There is actually some logic to it, especially when you look at it in terms of ‘ecosystem’ or ‘the next operating system of our society’.

Let’s start with Identity. Identity is a prerequisite for most things blockchain. As soon as you move beyond cryptocurrencies towards use cases where a token on a blockchain represents something in the real world, it becomes extremely important to have reliable ways of knowing who is who and what is what, without having to fall back on a central authority. (Because otherwise, you know, why bother using a blockchain.) We don’t realize this every day, but identity as we know it is largely government-issued. From birth certificate to passport to social security number, you use government-issued credentials to prove who you are.

Reinventing government is about how government services become more efficient through use of blockchain technology, but also, much more important, about the role of government in a horizontal, networked and often borderless society. About setting (open) standards, about providing new forms of infrastructure (protocol layers, for instance) and about regulation and legislation.

(International) trade is the prototypical use case for blockchain applications. Making payments to untrusted and even unknown counterparties without using the expensive services of banks and law firms is exactly what bitcoin made possible. Blockchains are part of the infrastructure of trust that enable trade and entrepreneurship. As one of the jedi’s said, blockchains are for our time what maritime law was for the seventeenth century. (And the pioneer of maritime law was, of course, the Dutchman Hugo Grotius.)

Energy and pensions are two sectors that are changing extremely fast from vertical organizational structures to much more horizontal and networked forms. Both sectors are in need of an infrastructure to accommodate this transition.

Ideally, maybe we wouldn’t address all these topics simultaneously — and certainly not in one weekend. We would start with Identity, and only when we had figured that out we would move on to the role of government. And so on. On the other hand, only by tackling concrete use cases in fields like energy and pensions, we learn what kind of standards, protocols and regulations are actually needed.

Maybe, in 1 or 2 or 5 years time, one of the teams in this Hackathon will be seen as the new Hugo Grotius. But also, most of this weekend’s efforts will very likely prove to be fruitless and even pointless in retrospect. On the innovative edge, where most of the times you’re not even sure what exactly it is that you’re looking for, that is the only way to move forward.And not unlike in bitcoin’s Proof of Work, all participants contribute to the robustness of the results, not only the winners.

You can follow the Dutch Blockchain Hackathon here and on Twitter. Some video footage can be found here.