Blockchain applications in urban governence

Cities are very complex systems. They are communities of people, flows of money,  and allocation of physical land. They are in perpetual movement. Local governance is a critical element in these systems. Many aspects of cities are begging for reform; local governance (City Hall) is one of them.

There are exciting experiments in local governance today. The Urban Hackathon and City Governance 2.0 movements have helped open up city data, integrate new technologies into city operations, and involve citizens in urban decision-making in new ways. Apps are letting citizens interact with their local governments in more persistent, light-touch ways.

But there are bolder experiments and more disruptive technologies on the horizon. Blockchains and distributed ledgers have tremendous potential for improving city government.

  • Transparent record keeping and public archives
  • Fraud-free voting
  • Distributed, tamper-free registries
  • Smart contract administration
  • Grant distribution and tracking
  • Distributed decision-making

Overall, there are several levels of integration between blockchain technology and municipal governance beyond digital currency and finance systems.

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How the Blockchain Can Fix Medicaid

Blockchain is best known as the distributed ledger technology underlying the digital crypto-currency Bitcoin. But can it also help fix Medicaid? That’s the surprising application outlined by IFTF’s Blockchain Futures Laboratory in a new white paper that was a winning submission in the US Department of Health and Human Services’ “Use of Blockchain in Health IT and Health-related Research Challenge.”

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) selected the winning papers based on their “proposed solutions or recommendations for market viability; creativity; ability to inform and foster transformative change; and potential to support a number of national health and health information objectives, including advancing the flow of health information for where and when it is needed most.” IFTF is in esteemed company, including winning submissions from MIT, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, UC San Diego, and the Mayo Clinic.

“While many know about Blockchain technology’s uses for digital currency purposes, the challenge submissions show its exciting potential for new, innovative uses in health care,” said Vindell Washington, M.D., M.H.C.M., national coordinator for health IT.

IFTF is one of a handful of organizations invited to present in Washington DC at the “Use of Blockchain for Healthcare and Research” workshop co-hosted by ONC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on September 26-27.

In the winning paper, IFTF researchers Kathi Vian, Alexander Voto, and Katherine Haynes-Sanstad introduce a strategy for creating smart health profiles that could provide easy access to health services while protecting privacy and security of individual health, financial, and citizenship information. They suggest that a smart health profile could alleviate the specific problem of churning in the Medicaid program—that is, the constant exit and reentry of beneficiaries as a result of eligibility changes. And that’s just its first application.

“As a sophisticated tool in the blockchain toolkit, the smart health profile can also prepare health IT and health research to take advantage of emerging artificial intelligence systems and may eventually lead to entirely new models of health care delivery,” they write.

IFTF’s research on blockchain and health embodies our efforts to focus conversation and action on “urgent futures,” developments and opportunities with such extraordinary potential for changing the human landscape that we must pursue them, for to ignore them would be at our own peril.

IFTF’s award-winning white paper is available for download here: “A Blockchain Profile for Medicaid Applicants and Recipients” (PDF)

To read all of the winning white papers, visit: “ONC announces Blockchain challenge winners

And for more on IFTF’s blockchain research, please visit the Blockchain Futures Laboratory blog.

The Humanist Potential of Distributed Energy

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For all the excitement surrounding blockchain technology, one of its greatest potentials is the ability to craft distributed, custom value flows. In a blockchain-enabled world, peer-to-peer exchanges and microtransactions flourish. Strenuous accounting routines are made trivial by blockchain’s ability to track the history of unique digital assets.

The related applications for finance and payment infrastructure are clear; however, more radical changes occur when users are able to define value flows that are decoupled from traditional monetary exchange. With an application-based blockchain such as Ethereum, users can specify (and reliably keep track of) transactions and equity through the use of customized smart contracts.

Let’s take energy infrastructure as a primary example.

Traditionally, the means of energy production and distribution are centralized by service providers, which provide quality control and ease of use. However, in the face of growing public interest in renewable and resilient energy sources, preexistent infrastructure is inflexible and resistant to change.

Microgrids are one solution that provide resilience in the face of extreme weather events that might disrupt a region’s primary energy grid. If the main grid is shut down by flooding, a distributed energy resource (DER) can provide electricity to essential community buildings on the microgrid such as hospitals, grocery stores, and schools. As an energy solution, microgrids predate blockchain technology. However, blockchain technology expands the potential of microgrids so that energy production and distribution can be customized and hyperlocalized.

Transactive Grid is a partnership between LO3 Energy and Consensys, which is developing a peer-to-peer renewable energy network in the Park Slope and Gowanus neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Making use of the Ethereum blockchain, smart meters, and a bidirectional grid, energy production and usage is reliably tracked; and solar energy can be securely bought and sold between neighbors. Transactive Grid hopes to develop an interface that would allow users to specify their energy preferences.

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Herein lies the power of blockchain-enabled distributed energy. Individuals and collectives can design energy exchanges that prioritize sustainability, community development, or philanthropy over profit. For example, an energy producer can specify that 50% of their surplus solar energy is sold to the highest bidder on the block and the other 50% goes to low-income community members. Of course, this process is automated by an Ethereum smart contract, which handles optimization and individual transactions.

In the words of Lawrence Orsini, principal and founder at LO3 Energy, the technology is less profit-driven and more “a representation of how much I care. How much do I care about the local community? How much do I care about the economy? How much do I care about the environment? So you make those choices and in the back end, the fuel mix is lined up to represent those choices” (APPA).

At its core, blockchain is a backend technology that is inherently transparent, secure, and can be configured to operate at a large scale with incredibly low transaction fees. Moving away from a single, established record keeper provides greater flexibility and clarity, and it allows users to interact on their own terms. In the case of Transactive Grid, energy service is transformed from an abstract logistical process into a human one. Energy and wealth are circulated within the community.

Although Transactive Grid is still in its early stages, their grand vision is not so far off. A proof-of-concept has been implemented on a small-scale; five homes equipped with solar panels have been configured to sell their surplus energy to other homes on the Brooklyn Microgrid. Transactive Grid is also partnering with the city of Brooklyn and its residents, as well as established services like EPA and ConEdison.

Images courtesy of Nick Normal via Flickr and John Lilic via Slideshare

Fred Wilson on the blockchain: “If they’re not laughing at you, you aren’t working on the right thing”

Fred Wilson has an impressive track record when it comes to investing in Internet based businesses. His portfolio includes Twitter, Tumblr, Etsy, Zynga, and Kickstarter. Union Square Ventures, the venture capital account he co-founded in 2003, manages over a half-billion dollars, with most of the investments in disruptive web and mobile companies.

Continue reading Fred Wilson on the blockchain: “If they’re not laughing at you, you aren’t working on the right thing”

Game Room: Blockchain Meets Virtual Reality

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In 2010, IFTF’s Ten-Year Forecast suggested that the future is a high-resolution game:

Never before has humanity been able to encounter the future in such detail, to measure the forces of change at such vast scales, and to fill in the details with such fine grain. As we play this game, we find ourselves in ever more layered and nuanced futures that often look distinctly different across geographies, across cultures, and even across the various identities each of us claims.

More than a fragmented marketplace or a contentious body politic, this future looks like a massively branching game environment where you can win without ever discovering half of the possible pathways—but you can lose by mistaking a clear line of sight for the whole story.

As we try to grasp the future of blockchain and other distributed computing technologies, we have to start here, with this high-resolution gamescape where there is no single blockchain future. Rather, we face an ecosystem of futures as complex as the global superorganism that we are actually becoming. We mustn’t forget that as blockchain technology unfolds into financial, legal, environmental, and biological realities, it will blend with other high-resolution technologies to change every assumption we have about what’s possible in the economy, in human society, and even the biological world.

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Amazon is Just Walmart on Digital Drugs: Douglas Rushkoff on a Sustainable Economy

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In December 2013, a group of protestors in Oakland, California attacked a private Google shuttle bus that was taking Google employees from their Bay Area homes to their offices at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, 40 miles south. The protestors smashed one of the bus’s windows and blocked the bus from moving forward, holding up a banner that read “FUCK OFF GOOGLE.”

Continue reading Amazon is Just Walmart on Digital Drugs: Douglas Rushkoff on a Sustainable Economy