The network always wins? There’s a coin for that

(Dutch version of this post here).

Blockchain here, blockchain there, blockchain everywhere. While 2017 was going to be the year of the Enterprise Blockchain, the focus is currently on coins and ICOs. But do we get the real underlying value and function of some of those crypto-coins?

The most common question after my talks and workshop is: “where can I buy bitcoin or ether?”. The goldrush to benefit from this market is very real. Even the bigger hedgefunds are starting to invest part of their portfolios in crypto-coins. Coins as investment and trading commodity? Check.


One of the main drivers of this FOMO-feeling are the ICOs. Rather than raise investment in the traditional way, more start-ups or scale-ups choose the path of creating their own coin, their own token and offer that up for sale. Already now, there are 5 or 10 times as many cryptocoins than there are national currencies. And every day somewhere somehow another 5, 10 or more projects are launched, each with their own coin. You’re totally into dental care and want to buy Dentacoin? There’s an ICO for that. So, coins as fundraiser for companies? Check.

But VCs and other investment companies look at it. They try to study and assess the market value of companies that do an ICO. Do we jump? Do we stay? But what do they use to make a judgement? EBITDA and other smart models don’t work very well. So they’re looking at new ways to measure the value of these companies. But are these companies? Or are they economies, communities, networks?

The extra cow

Allow me to put out a little thought here. Can a coin also be a the glue that keeps a bunch of people together? Can it be a common, economic motivation, without central authorities (shareholders, governments,…) having to define the rules? According to the theory, it feels to me it might be worth looking at.

In the 60s, the academic world was tempted to state that the individual motivation was priority. Ecologist Garrett Hardin, in the essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, tells the story of a group of farmers who collectively maintain a piece of land for letting their cows graze. Everybody knew there was a maximum amount of cows allowed on the field. The grass was finite. Nevertheless, there was a farmer who snuck in an extra cow. He got the benefit in the short term, but for the collectiv the long-term consequences were negative. Conclusion: attempts at managing common resources were doomed to fail. One needed (centrally designed) rules and regulations for that.

On the other side, there’s someone like Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobelprize Economy in 2009 for her work around economic governance and the commons. She studied agrarian communities who managed to organise themselves without external control. She distilled a bunch of conditions. If people were to stick to these rules, they would have a bigger chance to reach consensus in an independent way. They would keep valuing the common importance of the (finite) resources higher, over personal gain.

Those conditions evolve around participation in the creation of the rules, conflict resolution, monitoring,… She didn’t define the ideal content of the rules, but just stated that the conditions need to be met. And if a group manages to clearly agree on those 8 to 10 points, that community reaches a form of self-governance that has a big chance of success.

Now, that works in smaller communities. But at scale, that’s obviously not easy. People don’t know each other. They don’t trust each other. Building or maintaining digital platforms is expensive. Etc etc.

Blockchain to the rescue?

At least, blockchain has a few parallels that stuck in my mind.

First, blockchains can be used to design scalable alternatives for governance criteria like trust, identity, clear agreements (smart contracts), conflict resolution, etc

But what struck me most is the parallel with Ostroms idea around common incentive, i.e. the scarce and finite resource. So, if such an organisational model can work for grass or water, can blockchain offer a digital, scalable alternative? Can a crypto-coin be a common incentive, unique and with a finite amount ever to be created? Can the coin be a driver of niche-economies, niche value systems? Question mark.

Interface of the Swarm City P2P app

Is this a model that can help make P2P transactions effectively more P2P? Blockchain projects that take this route are looking at new ways of organisational design. No more shares, no more dividends, just tokens. They’re not really companies, but communities, where founders, investors, users are all stakeholders, i.e. holding a stake. Just recently, Joseph Poon, one of the core developers of Ethereum, summed it up in a talk:

Payments are the foundational layer, to create financial incentives around computation, but I want to be able to literally have a social media platform like Reddit on the blockchain. No one really owns it, it’s the token holders that are incentivised to continue the operation.

Little thought closed

That’s it. In times of ICO FOMO, this potential function of cryptocoins, and the impact it may have sociologically, seems to get little attention.

And that’s why projects like SwarmCity and District0x trigger my interest. That’s why I’m looking at things like Basic Attention Token, Resonate, DataBrokerDAO even. That’s why I look at a big existing company like the chat-app Kik, where they’re changing tack and distrubuted their own token on 12 September. That’s why I sometimes think: if Facebook would be invented now, wouldn’t Zuck choose for an ICO, so he could re-distribute the the value of the network with the parties that create that value?

Innovation speaker Peter Hinssen often says: “The network always wins”, but will we also notice that in our coin-wallet?

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