I was at the biggest blockchain hackathon ever and this is what I learned

Photo: Frank Groeliken

Blockchain is, in its core, an empowering technology. It enables digital peer-to-peer transactions without the need for a trusted third party. Bitcoin, the first blockchain application, was explicitly designed to facilitate online payments without the need for a bank. Other use cases include a notary service without a notary and a twitter service without Twitter. Banks, accounting firms, platform monopolists like Facebook and Uber and even government services have all been predicted to be put out of business because of the Blockchain Revolution.

So when the largest ever blockchain hackathon is sponsored by the likes of ING Bank, Deloitte, energy giant Vattenfall and the Dutch pension fund APG, one tends to be a bit sceptical. These incumbents are not going to finance their own undoing, right? Is this hackathon proof that the blockchain revolution is being disarmed, and that the technology is being incorporated by its former adversaries?

This scepticism might not be justified. Let’s take a look at the five winning concepts:

  • Power to Share is a platform that enables households to sell, buy, store and share green energy.
  • Social Fabric is a blockchain enabled app that allows refugees to build an identity that they control themselves.
  • The Dutch municipality of Zuidhorn presented an open platform to redistribute all kinds of value within the community.
  • Then there was this team that provided a solution to a typical Dutch problem: the implications of a new law of labor relations are so unclear that companies now refrain from hiring freelancers in fear of heavy sanctions from the tax authorities.
  • And, finally, team Nest-Egg built a platform for personal pension plans that keeps track of individual rights even in times of frequent job-switching and cross-border gigs.

Note that all of these concepts can probably be built with conventional database technology. But in that case, the platform (and the data) would be owned by the dominant party — the electricity grid owner, the immigration authorities, the municipality, and so on. This might not look like a big deal, but in most of these use cases it actually is. There is a subtle difference between registering a freelance contract with the tax authorities, and registering it in an open ledger where it can easily be audited by the tax authorities. And there is a not so subtle difference between providing information to immigration authorities to “prove” your identity, and rebuilding your identity by collecting pieces of information in a place that you control the access to.

To put it differently: all the winning concepts are meant to be empowering, and the choice of technology guarantees that they will be, even if there is involvement from governments and big corporations. Government, pension funds, energy companies — they seem to accept the fact that their role changes. Some even embrace the opportunity.

So, is the blockchain revolution still alive? I would say it is. It’s going slower than some had hoped for, but the impact will be even bigger than most realize.

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