Bodystorming the BlockChain

In April Design Informatics was invited to develop a Lab of Labs for Martyn de Waals Design And The City programme in Amsterdam. Taking place over 48 hours, the workshops were intended to expose ‘contemporary design methodologies, and their relationship with living labs and smart cities’. The team (Larissa Pschetz, Dave Murray-Rust, Hadi Mehrpouya and myself) decided to focus on the development of a platform that would complement the Block Exchange workshop but allowed people to experience characteristics of the blockchain, and allow them to develop working iterations of the platform. The simple premise was, that whilst Blockchain and the functions of Bitcoin remain abstract for many people, developing a platform that would allow physical engagement would actualise characteristics of the technology, as well as lead to critical applications for social / urban contexts.

In its own words, “Design & The City explored citizen-centered design approaches for the smart city. Central themes were the role of design(ers) to create opportunities and practices for citizens, (social) entrepreneurs and policy makers towards more liveable, sustainable and sociable urban futures.” Following the two days of the five Lab of Labs that ran in parallel, Design & The City evolved into a one day conference, and a one day series of 13 short workshops. The Lab of Labs was located along the Amsterdam Knowledge Mile that runs from the Amstelplein to the Nieuwmarkt. The mile represents Amsterdam’s digital economic initiative involving “universities of applied sciences, citizens, municipality, organisations and companies to form an applied research ecosystem to develop, test and display smart solutions for metropolitan challenges in the area.” In this way the social / economic context in which the lab was located was intended to stimulate ideas and reflections within each Lab of Labs. Given a space within the Student Hotel, previously home to the editorial offices of some of the country’s most important newspapers, Block Chain City established an aim of engaging participants in location based software platforms for value transactions using Bitcoin.

Knowledge Mile

Workshop proposition
This was the original proposition to attract participants to the workshop:

What is the problem space we will address?
Participants to this charrette will explore design approaches for alternative ways of representing, communicating or conceptualizing economic values in everyday transactions. We address the impending opportunities that new digital economic models have for the parsing, exchange and representation of value within urban contexts. By sketching complex economic cycles, we will question how they expose power, exert control and offer incentives that distort the balance of the urban landscape.
Participants to this charrette will conduct design-based research to understand the affordances of money if it were to become software. After on-site explorations, we will generate, sketch and critically discuss possible scenarios teasing out different ways of conceptualizing value, such as transport companies being able to charge customers only if their train/bus arrives at a GPS location on time, or City Councils using micro payments as incentives for pedestrians who cross roads properly.

Structure and participants
We attracted only 6 people. Making a small and beautifully formed workshop, and these ultimately split into 2 groups of 3 people.

Day 1: The structure of day 1 of the Lab was very simple, consisting of an introductory talk followed by the Block Exchange workshop intended to dismantle cultural expectations between the representation of value, and the values that currency can potentially represent if we consider the role of a distributed ledger. Following a conversation over lunch regarding what the Lego activity had revealed, we introduced the beta version of the software that would become the starting point for participants to redirect its purpose. Aware that designing applications that use a new representation of value (Bitcoin) is rather challenging, our unfinished software would provide participants with a head-start toward designing critical applications based upon insights from the Block Exchange workshop. Introducing the software meant going outside and experiencing its functionality, following this participants spent the remainder of the afternoon coming up with new applications of the software, and at the end of the day the two teams Skyped with Hadi (software engineer who remained in Edinburgh) to negotiate how the software should be adapted overnight, ready for testing on the second day.

Day 2: Whilst Hadi continued to develop the two iterations of the platform on the morning of the second day, the two team were asked to develop very short explanatory videos that introduced, contextualized and demonstrated the new applications. By early afternoon the teams were able to test and refine the software with Hadi remaining online to trouble shoot bugs. The teams presented both movies during a short presentation and summary of the BlockChain City Lab during an evening event that reflected on all five of the Labs.

Block Exchange: Moving from material representations of value to social
I’ve blogged on the Block Exchange workshop in a previous post, so I won’t dwell on its methods and value. But of particular interest since developing the workshop for its inaugural event in February 2015, the team have begun documenting the final list of subjects that participants value and ultimately want to trade. What has been very interesting has been the order of the things as they move from first ideas as people leave commodities behind toward more radical subjects. Remember, the critical step between phases 2 and 3 of the Block Exchange workshop involves the facilitators taking away the material commodities and suggesting to participants that they are now free to trade any ‘thing’ that they desire. Asking participants to write down what they want to trade on to a flipchart has become part of the final phase of the workshop and the order of things has revealed the realisation that people can actually trade anything that they want. The BlockChain City workshop was no different and actually gave a very strong progression from an artefact as the value proposition, through services and finally toward social and civic initiatives. This progression away from material commodities in which value is personal and singular, toward social and civic models that usurp a temporary personal value with shared cooperative values.

Geocoins: Bodystorming the BlockChain
A key stage in scaffolding the participants’ ability to design new social economic experiences was the development of a piece of software called ‘GeoCoin’ that served as an introduction to what programmable currencies could offer in a technical sense, but also allow participants to test them in an urban context to support the development of their own ideas. ‘GeoCoin’ was a mobile application run from a web browser that used location information to pinpoint the participant within a map of Nieuwmarkt area of Amsterdam. Using the Bitcoin client Electrum, we were able to associate geofences (GPS locations) with transactional functions. On the map the participant was also able to see three types of icon: small bags of money scattered across the area, red hot spots, and green hot spots. In the corner of the bottom left corner of the screen two numerical amounts appeared preceded by the terms: Confirmed and Unconfirmed. Without further information, participants were asked to leave the workshop studio and venture out in to the surrounding area to discover what the three icons and the numerical values would do as they approached them.

Browser screen shot (with location on) of the GeoCoins software featuring bags of coins, and red and green GPS hotspots.

Once outside, it became relatively clear to people that the small bags of money would disappear when a participant’s location correlated with the GPS coordinates of an icon, and within moments the Unconfirmed number would increase on their screen. On returning to the studio participants described their interpretations of how the red and green hot spots worked, and why Unconfirmed and Confirmed numbers fluctuated. Many had guessed that we had used a digital currency such as Bitcoin and distributed fractions of them across the landscape. Less easy to understand, because there was no instant feedback from the icons (unlike the bags of money that disappeared as you walked over them), the group began to realise that if their location corresponded with the GPS coordinates of a red hotspot then their Unconfirmed numbers would decrease, and that if they stood on a green hotspot their Unconfirmed numbers would increase.

Gerd Kortuem running to pick up a bag of Bitcoin (before I did!).

Whilst these elements were relatively easy to understand, the question of why numbers across the Unconfirmed and Confirmed lines fluctuated was less comprehensible. The difference in the two variables was explained as being the time it took for the blockchain to ratify a transaction within a block. At this point the value of experiencing the time between Unconfirmed and Confirmed transactions began to expose some of the characteristics of a currency that requires confirmation through an entire digital network. Body storming the type of transactions that a programmable currency such as Bitcoin offers was an important step in supporting participants towards the design of their own derivations of the software, and based upon the results, the ability to perform economic software within an urban landscape informed both the conceptual development of ideas but also the representations of their work.

Following their forays into the local area surrounding the student hotel, the six participants formed two groups of three people, and began developing responses to both the Block Exchange Lego workshop and their experiences of the GeoCoin software. The two ideas that emerged corresponded to the ideas and values evoked during the Block Exchange workshop: Civic Blocks and HandFastr.

Civic Blocks
Dorota Kamrowska-Zaluska
Hanna Obracht-Prondzynska
Eileen Wagner

Civic Blocks transposed the value of a fraction of a Bitcoin into a vote for how a City Council should spend a proportion of its budget. The team suggested that a City Council could convert a proportion of its capital resource budget into Bitcoin, perhaps 10%. Using the unique capabilities of Bitcoins to divide them into fractions, 10% of the budget would be distributed to all citizens of a city that are eligible to vote. Citizens are then invited to spend their vote / coins by dropping them at locations generated by fellow residents including proposals for spending council monies on Schools, parks and roads, or they can choose to generate their own spending project by creating a new geofence and naming it with their own cause. With the GPS coordinates, name of the project and the value of accumulated coins / votes inscribed in to the Blockchain, Council monies are locked into particular projects. Through the technical support of Hadi, the team were able to design a fully working prototype that allowed workshop attendees to spend their votes on social projects in the local area (Fig 3.). The team also produced a short video explaining the principles of the platform:

Screen shot taken from smart phone displaying the Civic Blocks software in use. The position of the user is denoted by the red marker who is spending their vote/coins on a bicycle rack project.

Corina Angheloiu
Max Dovey
James Stewart

The second group became very interested in the potential for the Blockchain to record smart contracts that could reconfigure social pledges and transform spending powers. Adopting marriage as a social contract, the team designed a mechanism to support social economic bonds in the form of temporary mobile agreements using smart phones.

“Marriage, with all its connotations, can be whittled down to one of the oldest forms of contract that binds two people from two families to create financial security. Arranged marriages, short term fixed marriages or visa weddings all utilize the contract to secure wealth, security or freedom between different parties. We adapted the practical and functional aspects of marriage into the Geocoin platform to enable impromptu financial commitments between people in public space.” Max Dovey.

Through negotiation with Hadi, a platform was developed that placed geofences in the vicinity of the workshop that when consenting participants agreed to ‘get married’, the software would transfer Bitcoins that were previously held in separate wallets, into a conjoined wallet. So long as the partners (can be any number) remained married, they could only spend the currency when they were in the same GPS location. The team also produced a short video to introduce the platform:

The Handfastr video developed by participants to describe how their prototype software allows people to form temporary smart contracts for shared banking and spending.

Max and Corina both blogged on their experiences from the workshop and how they arrived at HandFastr:

Max’s post: Temporary Marriages in a Blockchain City
Corina’s post: Lab of labs: Blockchain City

The project is part of the larger project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council grant After Money: If you change the representation of value, does it change the values that you can represent? Thanks to Martijn de Waal and Gabriele Ferri fir the invitation to Design and the City, all workshop participants, Nazli Cila for documenting, and team members Larissa Pschetz, Dave Murray-Rust, and Hadi Mehrpouya.

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