The advent of Bitcoin in 2009 showed how blockchain technology could be used to build a completely decentralised cash system – not merely ‘digital cash’, but a system that does not rely upon banks and other intermediaries. A decade on, there has been a digital ‘Cambrian explosion’ of innovative ventures trying to do what Bitcoin did for money – that is, provide resilient, secure and transparent decentralised systems that can function largely autonomously – in just about every other area of our lives from how we fall in love to how we pay our taxes. While uptake of these technologies has taken longer than some expected, advocates believe that we are approaching a turning point as they gain traction and acceptance in more industries and as more organisations – such as DAOstack, Colony and Aragon – provide tools which make it simpler for others; in much the same way as ebay, amazon and etsy made it easier for anyone to set up an online shop.
The essays in this collection were written amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, remote working was primarily an optional benefit for affluent workers in the ‘knowledge economy’. However, the crisis has triggered an immense shift towards remote work in all sectors, forcing every organisation to think about whether people really need to be geographically close in order to work together effectively. It has been suggested by many that this shift in working habits will endure beyond the current crisis. This, we believe, will result in more people asking questions about what organisations are really for, what it can mean to work for one and how we should structure them in the future. Thus questions of decentralisation, and the governance structures and technologies which best enable this, are more relevant than ever.
This collection also builds on Nesta’s work over the last few years in the related fields of collective intelligence, crowdfunding, the peer-to-peer or sharing economy and digital democracy – and how innovations in these areas can help us overcome some of the world’s most pressing societal challenges.
We have also examined how, in the private sector, organisational innovation has been enabled by these technologies: the advantage of Airbnb and Uber, for example, is that they replaced asset-laden organisations with much looser networks featuring distributed asset ownership (although the networks themselves are still centralised, with the company at the core). The essays in this volume describe what happens if we go a step further – that is, if we have both distributed assets and a distributed network which facilitates a market without the burden of central coordination.
Despite the possible benefits, however, the public image of blockchain and related decentralised technology remains tainted by the large number of fraudulent sales of cryptocurrencies and other digital tokens (also known at ICOs). Similarly, many policymakers are still focused on the negative aspects, such as the risk of money laundering. One of the purposes of this collection, therefore, is to highlight some of the potential positive impacts of decentralisation – including greater resilience, increased transparency and democracy, reduced transaction costs and vastly more new opportunities for value creation.