Oct 28 2016 Posted: 19:30 IST
This one day workshop, funded by the Irish Research Council New Foundations scheme and co-organised by NUI Galway School of Law, FEASTA, and Cultivate, explored the possible future applications of blockchain technology in the development and coherence of sustainable communities. Videos from the event are available on YouTube.

What exactly is the likely nature of blockchain disruption? Will it be isolated in the #fintech community or will it reach into the “real” economy? How does the trustless mindset behind cryptocurrencies map on to the essentially trustful aspirations of sustainable communities? Will explicit transparent contract conditions assist community development and coherence or act as a barrier? How can we build bridges and meaningful relationships between the tech and sustainability communities? Will the emergence of new institutional structures have a deep effect on society? This workshop sought to explore all of these questions, and more. The morning presentations provided a series of differing perspectives on these themes – of currency design, community activism, technology limitations, social factors and the design of new institutions. The afternoon discussions were aimed at solidifying a shared understanding from the morning sessions, and mapping out key future research questions.

The day was introduced by Dr Rónán Kennedy of the School of Law, NUI Galway, who is leading the Cloughpenny Project to create a blockchain-based local currency for the Cloughjordan ecovillage. The keynote speaker was Professor Joshua Fairfield of Washington & Lee University School of Law. He explained that for him, what was most interesting about blockchain was not the potential for automation but for co-ordination. However, if blockchain removes the need for trust, it may be damaging to communities in the long term, as face-to-face interactions remain essential to human co-existence. He asked if a a dis-intermediated community is a contradiction in terms.

Professor Peadar Kirby of University of Limerick and Cloughjordan eco-village placed the discussion in a wider context of debates on sustainability and queried why technology is so often touted as a solution to challenges such as climate change. He highlighted the extent to which the actions that are taken fit into the dominant socio-economic paradigm and vision of ‘progress’, treating these challenges as techno-scientific rather than addressing issues of consumption, globalisation, and carbon-intensity. He presented an alternative vision of communities such as Cloughjordan eco-village as a local ecosystem of innovation with a vibrant but low-energy community life.

Dr Graham Barnes of Feasta discussed the long history of responses to monetary dysfunction, both before the advent of blockchain technology and afterwards, focusing particularly on schemes of mutual credit. He highlighted how Bitcoin is probably not a good tool for this and may prove ultimately unsuccessful but has opened up a space for discussion. He put forward a framework of questions which could be considered when designing an alternative currency, such as the extent to which the scheme is permissionless, distributed, immutable, anonymous, trustless, and algorithmic.

Dr Rónán Kennedy spoke about his experiences with the Cloughpenny project. This was originally to be based on Ethereum, but the failure of the Distributed Autonomous Organisation required some re-thinking, including re-orienting towards the Colu.com suite. However, the underlying tools proved difficult to use, even for those with technical skills. He concluded with some reflections drawing on the writings of Robert Herian, asking if blockchain is really as revolutionary as it is presented or simply another iteration in neo-liberal economic models.

Dr Gar Hynes of Hewlett Packard Enterprise gave a very practical presentation on the realities of blockchain technology highlighting how slow and energy-intensive it can be in day-to-day use, and outlined a set of circumstances that should be true to ensure that it is an appropriate tool.

At lunchtime, participants enjoyed a brief tour of the eco-village and the afternoon was spent in group work and discussions, using the IdeaWriting method, to generate potential research projects for the application of blockchain for sustainable communities. The day was closed by reflections from Dr Paolo Dini of the London School of Economics, who presented a sociological understanding of monetary theory. He discussed the day’s presentations, highlighting recurrent themes such as trust, consumerism, the need for alternative means of exchange, the slow pace of social change, and the cost involved in blockchain. He also drew on Richard Douthwaite’s work on money and sustainability to discuss where alternative ideas might work, focusing on the positive experience of the Sardex project.

Dr Rónán Kennedy

Law

Follow @ronanmkennedy

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