Blockchain, The Future, Coffee and a Swing.

One of the great things about graduating from college is the dramatic change of scenery. No more drab campus you just spent the last 4 years toiling away in to earn your degree. No more commute that you spent 20% of the time rushing in order not to be late to class. No, now I was free at last.

Well not quite.

You see, I joined the IDEO CoLab for their summer fellowship, making new ventures using the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Blockchain. (For the uninitiated I’ll explain what Blockchain is in a moment.) The IDEO CoLab partnered with my recent alma mater California College of the Arts and held their summer fellowship at my old school so that we would have access to all of their wonderful facilities. While the irony was palpable — I only just escaped — I was actually quite excited. I had just earned my degree in Interaction Design, and the fellowship offered me a chance to really explore what it meant to work as a designer and learn how to collaborate with a wide range of people.

The fellowship started in mid-June, and we began by trying to explain what the hell we were all doing. Blockchain is a notoriously overused tech-term and at times, can carry the wrong meaning, or worse be totally foreign to someone. This was something that all twelve of us fellows were contending with in the first couple of days.

A few of the most talented people I met this summer

Blockchain is a fundamentally new way of organizing the exchange of information in our digital age. The best way to think of it is as a ledger, a great big list of every time two or more people exchange any information. Often times this information is just a balance in a wallets, (think Bitcoin). But really any information can be exchanged and the added to the ledger. What makes Blockchain so powerful though, is that the ledger lives inside every computer that can make transactions. It is distributed between all the machines connected to it. This distribution means that it is nearly impossible mathematically (you need to have control of more than 51 percent of all the machines on the network) to fake information on the ledger. Think of how the Internet, and by extension the world, might change if you could prove that whatever information you are receiving is legit and could not have been faked.

Once we were squared away on the specifics, we started to do some really fun work. The twelve of us, plus two fellows from one of our member corporations, divided into 4 teams to start developing venture concepts leveraging internet-connected sensors. That may sound a bit stifling, but think about it this way: what happens when a sensor lets you know if all the seats on a bus are taken? Or perhaps a sensor could tell you which streets are safe to walk down at night. Perhaps a sensor could even inform the public every time a police officer fired their gun. Our groups traveled down these roads and made some fascinating prototypes using each of these very specific, but very useful sensors. What’s more, we made these prototypes — and more — in two weeks! Though, it’s likely we were only able to make so much due to the constant stream of coffee we had from the coffee shop around the corner. I was definitely overwhelmed in the best possible way.

I stumbled into a one of a kind environment where multi-disciplinary people gathered to explore the possibility of cutting edge technology. Not only were the people I had the pleasure of working with smart, but they knew that we were building things that pointed to a future we all thought was possible. Because Blockchain and the Internet of Things are, at least for now, nebulous and alien to most people; we had the singular pleasure of translating these technologies into opportunities.

Together we asked questions like, can a box hire people to move it? What happens when you can buy, sell and speculate on atoms of energy? Can restaurants share their inventory as their need rises and falls? When you think about the power of decentralized networks and what a connected world might bring, each of these ideas alone may seem like low hanging fruit but as we designed and built them we realized that each of these ideas signaled a future to come.

We didn’t just design and build crazy future ideas non-stop, though. That would have drained us all in a month. There were also moments of serious catharsis. We went so far as to build a swing in our space so we could relax and pretend we were in a real playground, not just a figurative one.

Our swing

The process of going through CoLab is something I won’t soon forget. Not only were the people I spent my summer with fast friends, but we did something I didn’t know was possible in the context of “a real job”. We were empowered to take an idea as far as we could, building and testing along the way, and show what a world might look like if we seized the future and shaped it now. What we learned and what we built really does have a future. As long as CoLab keeps pushing and bringing together amazing people, I know we can make that future real.