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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

In our third prize winning essay, Rhian Lewis explores how decentralised technology can not only help global tech organisations, but also support the growth of local initiatives, such as community-owned pubs, shops and cafés. In this way, Lewis argues that decentralised digital organisations can craft a future where individuals can decide the shape of their own communities and build the lives they want, centred around vibrant high streets where everyone feels a sense of ownership and pride.

What do blockchains have to do with boarded-up shops on Britain’s high streets? When we talk about decentralisation, it is usually in the context of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or enterprise software designed to improve shipping supply chains or audits. These are seemingly abstract topics related to economics or business processes, remote from the practical concerns most people have about their everyday lives.

Yet decentralisation can also be political. The UK is one of the most centralised of Western economies in terms of the proportion of public expenditure controlled by central government. However, there is much to be said for allowing local communities to build ways of living that are specific to their circumstances, rather than suffering the one-size-fits-all consequences of decisions made by remote government departments – or indeed by large corporations who open faceless chain stores and then close them down once they are unprofitable.

We need an imaginative new approach to our high streets. Rather than trying and failing to stem the tide of online shopping, we should be bold and be prepared to repurpose bricks-and-mortar assets as mixed-use spaces for living, working and community socialising – and this is where initiatives such as community-owned pubs, shops and cafés can provide an answer. This essay sets out how decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) can replace the existing business models used by community pubs, shops and cafés, and offer advantages that induce more people to start their own social enterprises.

Communities coming together to run enterprises for themselves is not a new idea. The Co-op supermarket in Britain started in 1844 as a cooperative society to allow local people in Rochdale to group together to buy food in bulk which could be shared by the rest of the community. While community shops are growing in number, community pubs are proliferating even faster. By September 2019, there were 120 community pubs in Britain, many of them registered through the Asset of Community Value scheme. These pubs play an important role in the communities they serve: they 'foster social relationships among residents, strengthening the level of cohesion in villages and positively contributing to communal well-being’.