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.

Continue reading Game Room: Blockchain Meets Virtual Reality

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

Understand the Blockchain in Two Minutes

You’ve heard of bitcoin. It’s a form of digital cash you can send to anyone, even a complete stranger. You may not have heard about bitcoin’s digital ledger, called the blockchain, tracks and validates bitcoin transactions. Blockchain technology has enormous potential beyond bitcoin to automate every type of online transaction that requires a degree of trust. In this short video, produced by Institute for the Future, Olivia Olson (the voice of Marceline the Vampire Queen in Adventure Time) explains how blockchain technology can be used to launch companies that are entirely run by algorithms, make self-driving cars safer, help people manage and protect their online identities, and track the billions of devices on the Internet of Things.

Own Your Achievements: Three Ways Blockchain Tech is Disrupting Education

Last week, more than 2000 people played IFTF’s most recent Foresight Engine game, Learning Is Earning 2026, following a keynote by game designer Jane McGonigal at SXSWedu. The starting point for the game was a scenario about a blockchain-based educational system called The Ledger, which uses edublocks to certify learning from all kinds of activities:

Players contributed nearly 9,000 ideas about how to deploy The Ledger. But how real is this scenario?

Blockchain technology is, indeed, setting foundations for transformational opportunities in education. At its core, blockchains are a way to organize and copy records, using software run on personal computers. Open systems like those behind the online currency Bitcoin allow anyone to post records or issue certifications. The result? Educational institutions or any learning group can issue certifications like edublocks, tying them to the organization and allowing the receiver to use them, alongside other certifications, in a personal learning portfolio.

Here are some recent advances in blockchain technology that are setting the stage for this future:

  • Projects like Tierion allow users to store all kinds of documents and data through blockchain networks for the long-term. These documents can be referenced later and cannot be changed after the fact, increasing our ability to use them for employment or new educational opportunities.
  • Colored Coins are digital tokens that are tied to the Bitcoin currency. They can be used to represent anything, from physical assets to badges of lesson completion. Restrictions on how these can be issued and used may form the basis for a “wallet” of educational tokens, where anyone can prove their achievements simply by using tokens. This approach has the additional benefit of allowing someone to prove their worthiness for a project or group without necessarily using a government-issued identity.
  • Smart contracts, managed by the Ethereum blockchain platform, enable complex financial or organizational functions without a single person involved. In the world of education, such a system allows developers to create a system where a portion of one’s income could be automatically passed on to an educational investor, without a payment company in the middle, on terms that the two parties define.

These educational affordances of the blockchain are just early hints of what’s possible, but we’re seeing the beginnings of a future where trusted records and data allow us to take control of our achievements, treat them as assets, and share in our success with those who wish to support us.