Towards a Digital CBD

With Darcy Allen and Jason Potts

The COVID-19 pandemic is both a public health crisis, and a digital technology accelerant. Pre-pandemic, our economic and social activities were done predominantly in cities. We connected and we innovated in these centralised locations.

But then a global pandemic struck. We were forced to shop, study and socialise in a distributed way online. This shock had an immediate impact on our cities, with visceral images of closed businesses and silent streets.

Even after COVID-19 dissipates, the widespread digital adoption that the pandemic brought about means that we are not snapping back to pre-pandemic life.

The world we are entering is hybrid. It is both analogue and digital, existing in both regions and cities. Understanding the transition is critical because cities are one of our truly great inventions. They enable us to trade, to collaborate, and to innovate. In other words, cities aggregate economic activity.

The Digital CBD project is a large-scale research project that asks: what happens when that activity suddenly disaggregates? What happens to the city and its suburbs? What happens to the businesses that have clustered around the CBD? What infrastructure do we need for a hybrid digital city? What policy changes will be needed to enable firms and citizens to adapt?

Forced digital adoption

This global pandemic happened at a critical time. Many economies were already transitioning from an industrial to a digital economy. Communications technologies had touched almost every business. Digital platforms were commonly used to engage socially and commercially. But the use of these technologies was not yet at the core of our businesses, it sat on the sidelines. We were only on the cusp of a digital economy.

Then COVID-19 forced deep, coordinated, multi-sector and rapid adoption of digital technologies. The coordination failures and regulatory barriers that had previously held us back were wiped away. We swapped meeting rooms for conference calls, cash for credit cards, pens-and-paper for digital signatures. There had been a desire for these changes for a long time.

These changes make even more frontier technologies suddenly come into view. Blockchains, artificial intelligence, smart contracts, the internet of things and cybersecurity technologies are now more viable because of this base-level digital adoption.

Importantly, this suite of new technologies doesn’t just augment and improve the productivity of existing organisations, they make new organisational forms possible. It changes the structure of the economy itself.

Discovering our digital CBD

Post-pandemic, parts of our life and work will return to past practices. Some offices will reopen, requiring staff to return to rebuild morale and culture. And those people will also flood back into CBD shops, bars and restaurants. They will, as all flourishing cities encourage, meet and innovate.

But of course some businesses will relish their new-found productivity benefits – and some workers will guard the lifestyle benefits of working from home. Many firms will never fully reopen their offices and will brag about their remote-work dynamic culture.

The potential implications for cities, however, are more complex. Cities will fundamentally have different patterns of specialisation and trade than a pre-pandemic economy. Those new patterns are enabled by a suite of decentralised technologies, including blockchains and smart contracts, that were already disrupting how we organise our society.

We can now organise economic activity in new ways. CBDs have historically housed large, hierarchical industrial-era companies. As we have written elsewhere, decentralised infrastructure enables new types of organisational forms to emerge. Blockchains industrialise trust and shift economic activities towards decentralised networks.

How do these new types of industrial organisation change the way that we work, and the location of physical infrastructure? What are the policy changes necessary to enable these new organisations to flourish in particular jurisdictions?

Economies and cities are fundamentally networks of supply chains, and that infrastructure is turning digital too. The pandemic has accelerated the transition to digital trade infrastructure that provides more trusted and granulated information about goods as they move. How can we ensure that these digital supply chains are resilient to future shocks? What opportunity is there for regions to become a digital trade hub?

Another impact of digital technology is that labour markets just became more global. The acquisition of talented labour is no longer bounded by physical distance. Our collaborations are structured around timezones, rather than geography.

Labour market dynamism presents unique opportunities, but will also require secure infrastructure both to validate credentials and to facilitate ongoing productivity. How can Melbourne, a world-class cluster of universities, place itself for this new environment?

A research and a policy problem

Building a digital CBD is fundamentally an entrepreneurial problem—a problem of discovering what these new digital ways of coordinating and collaborating look like. Our Digital CBD research program contributes to this challenge with insights from economics, law, political science, finance, accounting and more. We aim to use this interdisciplinary research base to make policy recommendations that help our digital CBD to flourish.

Building a grammar of blockchain governance

With Darcy Allen, Sinclair Davidson, Trent MacDonald and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

Blockchains are institutional technologies made of rules (e.g. consensus mechanisms, issuance schedules). Different rule combinations are entrepreneurially created to achieve some objectives (e.g. security, composability). But the design of blockchains, like all institutions, must occur under ongoing uncertainty. Perhaps a protocol bug is discovered, a dapp is hacked, treasury is stolen, or transaction volumes surge because of digital collectible cats. What then? Blockchain communities evolve and adapt. They must change their rules (e.g. protocol security upgrades, rolling back the chain) and make other collective decisions (e.g. changing parameters such as interest rates, voting for validators, or allocating treasury funds).

Blockchain governance mechanisms exist to aid decentralised evolution. Governance mechanisms include online forums, informal polls, formal improvement processes, and on-chain voting mechanisms. Each of these individual mechanisms — let alone their interactions — are poorly understood. They are often described through sometimes-useful but imperfect analogies to other institutional systems with deeper histories (e.g. representative democracy). This is not a robust way to design the decentralised digital economy. It is necessary to develop a shared language, and understanding, of blockchain governance. That is, a grammar of rules that can describe the entire possible scope of blockchain governance rules, and their relationships, in an analytically consistent way.

A starting point for the development of this shared language and understanding is a methodology and rule classification system developed by 2009 economics Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom to study other complex, nested institutional systems. We propose an empirical project that seeks conceptual clarity in blockchain governance rules and how they interact. We call this project Ostrom-Complete Governance.

The common approach to blockchain governance design has been highly experimental — relying very much on trial and error. This is a feature, not a bug. Blockchains are not only ecosystems that require governance, but the technology itself can open new ways to make group decisions. While being in need of governance, blockchain technology can also disrupt governance. Through lower costs of institutional entrepreneurship, blockchains enable rapid testing of new types of governance — such as quadratic voting, commitment voting and conviction voting — that were previously too costly to implement at scale. We aren’t just trying to govern fast-paced decentralised technology ecosystems, we are using that same technology for its own governance.

This experimental design challenge has been compounded by an ethos and commitment to decentralisation. That decentralisation suggests the need for a wide range of stakeholders with different decision rights and inputs into collective choices. The lifecycle of a blockchain exacerbates this problem: through bootstrapping a blockchain ecosystem can see a rapidly shifting stakeholder group with different incentives and desires. Different blockchain governance mechanisms are variously effective in different stages of blockchain development. Blockchains, and their governance, begin relatively centralised (with small teams of developers), but projects commonly attempt to credibly commit to rule changes towards a system of decentralised governance.

Many of these governance experiments and efforts have been developed through analogy or reference to existing organisational forms. We have sought to explain and design this curious new technology by looking at institutional forms we know well, such as representative democracy or corporate governance. Scholars have looked to existing familiar literature such as corporate governance, information technology governance, information governance, and of course political constitutional governance. But blockchains are not easily categorised as nation states, commons, clubs, or firms. They are a new institutional species that has features of each of these well-known institutional forms.

An analogising approach might be effective to design the very first experiments in blockchain governance. But as the industry matures, a new and more effective and robust approach is necessary. We now have vast empirical data of blockchain governance. We have hundreds, if not thousands, of blockchain governance mechanisms, and some evidence of their outcomes and effects. These are the empirical foundations for a deeper understanding of blockchain governance — one that embraces the institutional diversity of blockchain ecosystems, and dissects its parts using a rigorous and consistent methodology.

Embracing blockchain institutional diversity

Our understanding of blockchain governance should not flatten or obscure away from its complexity. Blockchains are polycentric systems, with many overlapping and nested centres of decision making. Even with equally-weighted one-token-one-vote blockchain systems, those systems are nested within other processes, such as a github proposal process and the subsequent execution of upgrades. It is a mistake to flatten these nested layers, or to assume some layers are static.

Economics Nobel LaureateElinorOstrom and her colleagues studied thousands of complex polycentric systems of community governance. Their focus was on understanding how groups come together to collectively manage shared resources (e.g. fisheries and irrigation systems) through systems of rules. This research program has since studied a wide range of commons including cultureknowledge and innovation. This research has been somewhat popular for blockchain entrepreneurs, in particular through using the succinct design principles (e.g. ‘clearly defined boundaries’ and ‘graduated sanctions’) of robust commons to inform blockchain design. Commons’ design principles can help us to analyse blockchain governance — including whether blockchains are “Ostrom-Compliant” or at least to find some points of reference to begin our search for better designs.

But beginning with the commons design principles has some limitations. It means we are once again beginning blockchain governance design by analogy (that blockchains are commons), rather than understanding blockchains as a novel institutional form. In some key respects blockchains resemble commons — perhaps we can understand, for instance, the security of the network as a common pool resource — but they also have features of states, firms, and clubs. We should therefore not expect that the design principles developed for common pool resources and common property regimes are directly transferable to blockchain governance.

Beginning with Ostrom’s design principles begins with the output of that research program, rather than applying the underlying methodology that led to that output. The principles were discovered as a meta-analysis of the study of thousands of different institutional rule systems. A deep blockchain-specific understanding must emerge from empirical analysis of existing systems.

We propose that while Ostrom’s design principles may not be applicable, a less-appreciated underlying methodology developed in her research is. In her empirical journey, Ostrom and colleagues at the Bloomington School developed a detailed methodological approach and rule classification system. While that system was developed to dissect the institutional complexity of the commons, it can also be used to study and achieve conceptual clarity in blockchain governance.

The Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework and the corresponding rule classification system, is an effective method for deep observation and classification of blockchain governance. Utilising this approach we can understand blockchains as a series of different nested and related ‘action arenas’ (e.g. consensus process, a protocol upgrade, a DAO vote) where different actors engage, coordinate and compete under sets of rules. Each of these different action arenas have different participants (e.g. token holders), different positions (e.g. delegated node), and different incentives (e.g. to be slashed), which are constrained and enabled by rules.

Once we have identified the action arenas of a blockchain we can start to dissect the rules of that action arena. Ostrom’s 2005 book, Understanding Institutional Diversity, provides a detailed classification of rules classification that we can use for blockchain governance, including:

  • position rules on what different positions participants can hold in a given governance choice (e.g. governance token holder, core developer, founder, investor)
  • boundary rules on how participants can or cannot take part in governance (e.g. staked tokens required to vote, transaction fees, delegated rights)
  • choice rules on the different options available to different positions (e.g. proposing an upgrade, voting yes or no, delegating or selling votes)
  • aggregation rules on how inputs to governance are aggregated into a collective choice (e.g. one-token-one-vote, quadratic voting, weighting for different classes of nodes).

These rules matter because they change the way that participants interact (e.g. how or whether they vote) and therefore change the patterns that emerge from repeated governance processes (e.g. low voter turnout, voting deadlocks, wild token fluctuations). There have been somestudies that have utilised the broad IAD framework and commons research insights to blockchain governance, but there has been no deep empirical analysis of the rule systems of blockchains using the underlying classification system.

The opportunity

Today the key constraint in advancing blockchain governance is the lack of a standard language of rules with which to describe and map governance. Today in blockchain whitepapers these necessary rules are described in a vast array of different formats, with different underlying meanings. That hinders our capacity to compare and analyse blockchain governance systems, but can be remedied through applying and adopting the same foundational grammar. Developing a blockchain governance grammar is fundamentally an empirical exercise of observing and classifying blockchain ecosystems as they are, rather than imposing external design rules onto them. This approach doesn’t rely on analogy to other institutions, and is robust to new blockchain ecosystem-specific language and new experimental governance structures.

Rather than broadly describing classes of blockchain governance (e.g., proof-of-work versus proof-of-stake versus delegated-proof-of-stake) our approach begins with a common set of rules. All consensus processes have sets of boundary rules (who can propose a block? how is the block-proposer selected?), choice rules (what decisions do block-proposers make, such as the ordering of transactions?), incentives (what is the cost of proposing a bad block? what is the reward for proposing a block), and so on. For voting structures, we can also examine boundary rules (who can vote?), position rules (how can a voter get a governance token?) choice rules (can voters delegate? who can they delegate to?) and aggregation rules (are vote weights symmetrical? is there a quorum?).

We can begin to map and compare different blockchain governance systems utilising this common language. All blockchain governance has this underlying language, even if today that grammar isn’t explicitly discussed. The output of this exercise is not simply a series of detailed case studies of blockchain governance, it is detailed case studies in a consistent grammar. That grammar — an Ostrom-Complete Grammar — enables us to define and describe any possible blockchain governance structure. This can ultimately be leveraged to build new complete governance toolkits, as the basis for simulations, and to design and describe blockchain governance innovations.

An economic theory of blockchain foundations

With Jason Potts, Darcy WE Allen, Sinclair Davidson and Trent MacDonald

Abstract: Blockchain (or crypto) foundations are nonprofit organizations that supply public goods to a crypto-economy. The standard theory of crypto foundations is that they are like governments with respect to a national or regional economy, i.e. raising a public treasury and allocating resources to blockchain specific capital works, education, R&D, etc., to benefit the community and develop the ecosystem. We propose an alternative theory of what foundations do, namely that the treasury they manage is a moat to raise the cost of exit or forking because the benefit of the fund is only available to those who stay with the chain. Furthermore, building and maintaining a large treasury is a costly signal that only a high quality chain could afford to do (Spence 1973). We review these two models of the economic function of a blockchain foundation – (1) as a private government supplying local public goods, and (2) as a moat to raise the opportunity costs of exit. We outline the empirical predictions each theory makes, and examine the implications for optimal foundation design. We conclude that foundations should be funded by a pre-mine of tokens, and work best when large, visible, transparent, rigorously managed, and with a low burn rate.

Available at SSRN.

Tracer: Perpetual Swaps

With Ryan Garner, Lachlan Webb, Jason Potts and Sinclair Davidson

Abstract: To date no platform offers permissionless market deployment of perpetual swaps. Existing offerings require governance approval and/or developer support to deploy new markets. Herein we propose a generalised perpetual swap protocol that avoids all third party requirements. The Tracer Perpetual Swap system is a Factory compatible template that offers customised market deployment without permissions. The smart contracts contain mechanisms that allow markets to operate at significantly lower cost to participants. We have designed a riskless liquidation mechanism via a slippage reimbursement receipt, rendering the act of liquidation risk-free and the cost to liquidated traders competitively inexpensive. As a result, users can trade at higher leverage and open positions with minuscule investment sizes. The Tracer Perpetual Swap is a piece of financial infrastructure that can be accessed by anybody with an internet connection. Using this infrastructure, any graphical user interface, financial institution or individual can access global market exposure in the decentralised economy.

Available at the Tracer website and in PDF here.

Tracer: Peer-to-Peer Finance

With Ryan Garner, Lachlan Webb, Jason Potts and Sinclair Davidson

Abstract: In this paper we introduce Tracer: peer-to-peer financial infrastructure for the decentralised economy. Tracer lowers the costs of participating in financial markets, using blockchain technology to enforce property rights and settle financial contracts without the need for a trusted
third party. Tracer’s Factory smart contract hosts an ecosystem of standardised financial contracts. The Tracer DAO can install proposed contract templates into the Factory, which can be accessed and deployed by anyone with a connection to the Internet. Once deployed, a contract is permissionless and not subject to DAO governance unless specified. A Reputation System allows users to identify financial risk and assess under-collateralised financial opportunities. Oracle financing is introduced as a novel model that incentivises the discovery and standardisation of new data for use in decentralised financial contracts. Tracer’s financial infrastructure stands to be the backbone of a secure, global financial network and provides strong foundations for future financial innovation.

Available at the Tracer website and in PDF here.

The Hart asset at the heart of your organisation

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: What assets does a firm need to hold to develop a profitable business model? A ‘Hart asset’ is an asset that a firm cannot strategically afford a rival firm to own or control due to the risk of hold up, and therefore must be held within the firm, and upon which a profitable business model can be built. We tie the Hart asset to the problem of complementarities in profitable innovation, and conclude with an example Hart asset in digital platforms.

Available in PDF and at SSRN

The Cryptoeconomics of Cities, Data and Space

With Darcy W E Allen, Kiersten Jowett, Mikayla Novak, and Jason Potts. Published in in Cosmos + Taxis, Volume 8, Issue 8 + 9, 2020

Abstract: We explore the connection between new decentralised data infrastructure and the spatial organisation of cities. Recent advances in digital technologies for data generation, storage and coordination (e.g. blockchain-based supply chains and proof-of-location services) enables more granulated, decentralised and tradeable data about city life. We propose that this new digital infrastructure for information in cities shifts the organisation and planning of city life downwards and opens new opportunities for entrepreneurial discovery. Compared to centralised governance of smart cities, crypto-cities are more emergent orderings. This paper introduces this research agenda on the boundaries of spatial economics, the economics of cities, information economics, institutional economics and technological change.

Available at Cosmos + Taxis and in PDF here. Preprint available at SSRN. (Previously titled ‘Spatial Institutional Cryptoeconomics’)

What we think we know about defi

This essay follows an RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub workshop on defi. Contributions by Darcy WE Allen, Chris Berg, Sinclair Davidson, Oleksii Konashevych, Aaron M Lane, Vijay Mohan, Elizabeth Morton, Kelsie Nabben, Marta Poblet, Jason Potts, and Ellie Rennie. Originally a Medium post.

The financial sector exists solely to smooth economic activity and trade. It is the network of organisations, markets, rules, and services that move capital around the global economy so it can be deployed to the most profitable use.

It has evolved as modern capitalism has evolved, spreading with the development of property rights and open markets. It has grown as firms and trade networks became globalised, and supercharged as the global economy became digitised.

Decentralised finance (defi) is trying to do all that. But just since 2019, and entirely on the internet.

Any business faces the question of “how do I get customers to pay for my product?” Similarly consumers ask the question, “Where and how can I pay for the goods and services I want to buy?” For the decentralised digital economy, defi answers this question. Defi provides the “inside” money necessary to facilitate transactions.

But what in traditional, centralised finance looks like banks, stock exchanges, insurance companies, regulations, payments systems, money printers, identity services, contracts, compliance, and dispute resolution systems — in defi it’s all compressed into code.

From a business perspective trade needs to occur in a trusted and safe environment. For the decentralised digital economy, that environment is blockchains and the dapps built on top.

And as we can see, defi doesn’t just finance individual trades or firms — it finances the trading environment, in the same way that taxes finance regulators and inflation finances central banks. If blockchain is economic infrastructure, defi is the funding system that develops, maintains and secures it.

These are heavy, important words for something that looks like a game. The cryptocurrency and blockchain space has always looked a little game-y, not least with its memes and “in-jokes”. The rise of defi has also had its own cartoonified vibe and it has been somewhat surreal to see millions of dollars of value pass through tokens called ‘YAMs’ and ‘SUSHI’.

Games are serious things though. A culture of gaming provides a point around which all participants can coordinate activity and experimentation — what we’re seeing in defi is the creation of a massive multiplayer online innovation system. The “rules” of this game are minimal, there are no umpires, and very little recourse, where the goal is the creation and maintenance of decentralised financial products, and willing players can choose (if and) to what extent they participate.

Because there is real value at stake, the cost of a loss is high. Much defi is tested in production and the losses from scams, unethical behaviour, or poor and inadequately audited coding are frequent.

On the other side, participation in the game of defi is remarkably open. There are few barriers to entry except a small amount of capital that players are willing to place at risk. Once fiat has been converted into cryptocurrency, the limit on participation in decentralised finance isn’t regulatory or institutional — it is around knowledge. (Knowledge is a non-trivial barrier, excluding people who could be described as naive investors. This is important for regulatory purposes.)

This is starkly different from the centralised financial system, where non-professional participants have to typically go through layers of gatekeepers to experiment with financial products.

The basic economics of defi

The purpose of defi is to ensure the supply of an ‘inside money’ — that is, stablecoins — within decentralised digital platforms and to provide tools to manage finance risks.

In the first instance defi is about consumer finance. It answers basic usability questions in the blockchain space: How do users of the platform pay native fees? Which digital money is deployed as a medium of exchange or unit of account on the platform?

In the second instance defi concerns itself with the operation of consensus mechanisms — particularly proof of stake mechanisms and their variants. The problem here is how to capture financial trust in a staking coin and then how to use that trust to generate “trust” on a blockchain. Blockchains need mechanisms to value and reward these tokens. Given the (potential) volatile nature of these tokens, risk management instruments must exist in order to efficiently allocate the underlying risk of the trading platform.

As we see it, the million yam question is whether the use of these risk management tools undermine trust in the platform itself. It is here that governance is important.

Which governance functions should attach to staking tokens and when should those functions be deployed? Should they be automated or should voting mechanisms be used? If so, which voting mechanisms and what level of consensus is appropriate for decision making.

Finally defi addresses the existence of stablecoin and staking tokens from an investor perspective. Again there are some significant questions here that the defi space has barely touched. How do these instruments and assets fit into existing investment strategies? How will the tax function respond? How much of existing portfolio theory and asset pricing applies to these instruments and assets?

Of course, we already have a complex and highly evolved centralised financial system that can provide much of the services that are being built from the ground up in defi. So why bother with defi?

The most obvious reason is that the blockchain space has a philosophical interest in decentralisation as a value in and of itself. But decentralisation addresses real world problems.

First, centralised systems can have human-centric cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The Canadian exchange QuadrigaCX lost everything when the only person with access to the cryptographic keys to the exchange died (lawyers representing account holders have requested that the body be exhumed to prove his death). Decentralised algorithmic systems have their own vulnerabilities (need we mention yams again?) but they are of a different character and unlike human nature they can be improved.

Second, centralised systems are exposed to regulation — for better or worse. For example, one of the arguments for UniSwap is that it is more decentralised than EtherDelta. EtherDelta was vulnerable to both hackers (its order book website was hacked) and regulators (its designer was sued by SEC).

Third, digital business models need digital instruments that can both complement and substitute for existing products. Chain validation instruments and the associated risk management tools presently do NOT have real world equivalent products.

Fourth and finally, the ability to digitise, fractionalise, and monetise currently illiquid real-world assets will require a suite of instruments and digital institutions. Defi is the beginning of that process.

In this sense, the defi movement is building a set of financial products and services that look superficially familiar to the traditional financial system using a vastly different institutional framework — that is, with decentralisation as a priority and without the layers of regulation and legislation that shape centralised traditional finance.

Imagine trying to replicate the functional lifeforms of a carbon-based biochemical system in a silicon based biochemical system. No matter how hard you tried — they’d look very different.

Defi has to build in some institutions that mimic or replicate the economic function provided by central banks, government-provided identity tech, and contract enforcement through police, lawyers and judges. It is the financial sector + the institutions that the traditional finance sector relies on. So, initially, it’s going to look more expensive, relative to “finance”. But the social cost of the traditional finance sector is much larger — a full institutional accounting for finance would have to include those courts and regulations and policymakers and central banks that it relies on.

Thus defi and centralised finance look very different in practice. Consider exchanges. Traditional financial markets can either operate as organised exchanges (such as the New York Stock Exchange) or as over-the-counter (OTC peer-to-peer) markets. The characteristics of those types of market are set out below.

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Defi exchanges represent an attempt to combine the characteristics of both organised exchanges and over-the-counter markets. In the very instance, of course, they are decentralised markets governed by private rules and not (necessarily) public regulation. They aim to be peer-to-peer markets (including peer-to-algorithm markets in the case of AMM).

But at the same time they aim to be anonymous (in this context meaning that privacy is maintained), transparent, highly liquid, and with less counterparty risk than a traditional OTC market.

Where is defi going?

Traditional finance has been developing for thousands of years. Along with secure private property rights and the rule of law, it is one of the basic technologies of capitalism. But of those three, traditional finance has the worst reputation. It has come to be associated with city bros and the “Wolf of Wall Street”, and the Global Financial Crisis. Luigi Zingales has influentially argued that the traditional finance system has outgrown the value it adds to society, in part because of the opportunities of political rent seeking.

This makes defi particularly interesting.  Defi is for machines. Not people. It represents the automation of financial services.

A century ago agriculture dominated the labour force. The heavy labour needs of farming are one of the reasons we were poor back then. As we added machines to agriculture — as we let machines do the farming — we reduced the need to use valuable human resources. Defi offers the same thing for finance. Automation reduces labour inputs.

Automation of course has been increasingly common in financial systems since at least the 1990s. But it could only go so far. A lot of the reason that finance (and many sectors, including government and management) resisted technological change and capital investment, was at the bottom, there had to be a human layer of trust. Now that we can automate trust through blockchains, we can move automation more deeply into the financial system.

Of course, this is in the future. Right now defi is building airplanes in 1902 and tractors in 1920. They’re hilariously bad and horses are still better. But that’s how innovation works. We’re observing the creation of the base tools for entrepreneurs to create value. Value-adding automated financial products and services comes next.

What we’ve learned from working with Agoric

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

Since 2017 we (along with our colleague Joe Clark) have been working with Agoric, an innovative and exciting smart contract team, who are about to launch a token economy model we helped design.

At the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub we’ve long been thinking about how blockchain can drive markets deeper into firms, resolving the electronic markets hypothesis and giving us new opportunities for outsourcing corporate vertical integration.

What we’ve discovered from working with the Agoric team is the possibilities of driving markets down into machines. Mark Miller’s groundbreaking work with Eric Drexler explored how property rights and market exchange can be used within computational systems. Agoric starts economics where we start economics — with the institutional framework that secures property rights.

This has been one of the most intellectually stimulating collaborations of each of our careers, and has shaped much of how we think about the economics of frontier technologies.

We first met the Agoric team through Bill Tulloh at the Crypto Economics Security Conference at Blockchain @ Berkeley in 2017, just as we were forming the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub. CESC was the first serious attempt we were aware of to bring the blockchain industry and social science together — such as our disciplines of economics and political economy.

In the presentation to CESC, we applied some of Oliver Williamson’s thinking to understand the economic properties of tokens and cryptocurrencies.

Bill — who had thought along similar lines — came over to chat during a break. We met again at the 2018 Consensus Conference in New York. Bill introduced us to Mark Miller. What started out as a quick chat to say hello over breakfast turned into a long discussion about Friedrich Hayek, Don Lavoie, and market processes in computer science. Through Bill and Mark we then met Kate Sills and Dean Tribble.

It is true that economic thinking is everywhere in the blockchain and cryptocurrency community. There’s a lot of lay reasoning about Austrian economics, monetary policy, central banks, and inflation. These ideas have brought a lot of people into the cryptocurrency space. Some of the thinking that brought them here is good economics (we’re very passionate about how Austrian economics can inform the blockchain industry ourselves — see here and our colleague Darcy Allen here) but unfortunately a lot of it is not-so-good economics. Many developers have self-taught economics, many have intuited economics from first principles, and we have observed a combination of brilliant insight, economic fallacy, and knowledge gaps.

Developers, however, tend to be very good at game theory; if only because unlike our colleagues in academia, the blockchain community is testing the assumptions of game theory and applying it in the real world for business models with real value at stake. Reality can be bracing. Only invest what you can afford to completely lose. This is still a highly experimental industry.

But economics has much, much more to contribute to our understanding of the blockchain economy than just Hayekian monetary theory and textbook game theory. Our friends at Agoric know this — they already had an economist in their team. They know and understand that it isn’t enough to have good code — to succeed, you need to have economically coherent code.

To that end, we have developed a new field of economics: institutional cryptoeconomics. In this field, we apply the transaction cost economics of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson to explore blockchain as an economic institution competing with and complementing the schema of firms, markets, states, clubs and the commons.

The economic foundation of our institutional cryptoeconomics is broad and solid. In addition to economics Nobel laureates like Hayek, Ronald Coase, and Oliver Williamson, we have also incorporated the work of other laureates such as Herbert Simon, Douglass North, Elinor Ostrom, and Jean Tirole into our blockchain research. Then we’’ve drawn on should-have-been-laureates such as Joseph Schumpeter, William Baumol, Armen Alchian, and Harold Demsetz are included. Economists such as Andrei Shleifer and Israel Kirzner could still win a Nobel.

Merton Miller — himself an economics laureate — once argued that there was nothing more practical than good theory. Our experience working with Agoric has convinced us of the value of very good theory. We have had plenty of help — actual practitioners trying to solve immediate real-world problems are hard task masters. Ideas cannot remain half-baked — they must be fully explained and articulated. Working with Agoric has been an intellectually intense, extended interactive academic seminar where ideas are taken from vague hunch to ‘how can this be implemented’ and back again. From whiteboard to business model.

As academics we have learned which ideas, models and tools are of immediate use and value in the blockchain world. There have been some surprises here. Whoever would have thought that edgeworth boxes would have a practical real world application? Or indifference curves? But here we are. When building an entire economic ecosystem — the Agoric economy — we have had to draw upon the full breadth of our economic training. We suspect that having an economics team on board will become an industry standard in the years to come.

We have benefited as educators too. Of course, explaining complex ideas to highly intelligent laypeople is a large part of our day job. The stakes, however, are much higher. The Agoric team aren’t seeking information to pass a class test. They are seeking information to pass a market test — that the market will grade. As another favorite economist of ours Ludwig von Mises explained, consumers are hard task masters.

Our own students particularly have benefited from our Agoric experience. We now have a deeper understanding of industry needs and thought in the blockchain space. We know which ideas interest them and which don’t. The Agoric team questioned us closely on some topics. Our students will know how to answer those questions.

It also turns out that financial engineering is far more important than we thought it would be when we first started working on blockchain economics. The work with Agoric has coincided with the defi boom — a richly anarchic and innovative movement within the blockchain space. As a consequence, the blockchain for business degree programs that we have launched at RMIT have huge dollops of finance in them.

We share with Agoric a vision of the future where technology leads to an improvement in human flourishing and an enhancement of our capacity to lead full lives.

In a new book published by the American Institute for Economic Research we’ve argued that blockchain and other frontier technologies offer us the tools to actively take back liberties we may have lost.

With Agoric, it is incredibly exciting to be able to actually build the economy of the future that we’ve been studying.

How to understand the credentialing industry

With Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

Let’s take a birds’ eye view of the Australian economy. What do we produce? In order: iron ore, coal, and credentials.

Tertiary education is Australia’s third-largest export industry. And Australia is the third-largest education exporter in the world, behind the US and UK.

The world’s skilled labour markets are dependent upon proof of identity, experience and skills, including education qualifications, trade certification and occupational licensing. The smooth operation of these markets relies on the technical infrastructure that supports those credentials: a continually updated, reliable, trusted and efficient public registry of qualifications and skills.

We call this intersection of the education sector and access points into global labour markets the credentialing industry.

We’re university academics, but the credentialing industry encompasses much more than universities. In fact, it’s about more than just education. A surprisingly large fraction of the economy supplies and deliver credential services.

  • High school education and equivalencies (completion certification)
  • University credentials (course credits, graduate certificates, diplomas, bachelors degrees, higher degrees)
  • Vocational education credentials and trade certifications (hairdressing, electrician, builder, etc.)
  • Industry and professional association based qualifications (e.g. accounting [CPA, ACA], law [the Bar], finance [FINSIA], etc.)
  • Proficiency qualifications (languages, driving, etc.)
  • Occupational licenses (surgeons, pilots, dentists, teaching, etc.)

Credentials prove skills and qualities, and trusted claims of skills and capabilities are an input into contracts and jobs. They are an institutional token that carries trusted information that facilitates transactions in almost every labour market, many service markets, and all professional markets in an economy.

As the economy becomes more complex, the workforce will need to be more highly skilled and globally oriented. This means that credentials will be a more important output (from the credentialing industry) and input (into labour markets).

Credentials are a key institution in a modern economy. The more complex and developed the economy, the more it depends on efficient and effective credential infrastructure and production.

These certifications benefit consumers, facilitating trust in professional and trade services, and employers, facilitating trusted information about skills and capabilities. The more complex the economy, the more important and valuable are credentials.

But what exactly is a credential? Credentials are a type of institutional technology that is produced by the education sector, by professional and trade associations, and by government, often jointly.

So from a public policy perspective, it can be hard to tell where the rules that govern the credential come from — are they from government regulation, or the private imposition of standards by a professional association. Richard Wagner calls these sorts of intermingling public/private rules entangled political economy.

From a technology perspective, a credential is a bundle of:

  • Identity (who does it attach to)
  • Registry (what is the content of claims made)
  • Assessment and evaluation (how have they been verified, and by whom)
  • Storage, maintenance and recall (an effective transactional database)

A credential has institutional and technical properties:

  • Trust and transparency
  • Security and auditability
  • Transactional value in use

A credential is essentially an entry in a ledger. But centralized credential technology has limitations in all of the above dimensions. Blockchain technology presents an opportunity to revolutionise the credential sector by offering a more effective, scalable and secure platform for the production and use of credentials.

For Australia, innovation in blockchain credentials, will benefit a major export industry, increasing administrative efficiency and facilitating adoption of digital technology in tertiary education, as well as improve the functioning of labour markets in Australia and around the world, increasing the quality of job matching and lowering the cost of employment. We expect blockchain adoption in the credentialing industry is expected to drive economic growth, exports, and jobs.