The Next Adjacent Possible
Building product experiences for the Web 3.0 future
The crypto community is talking a lot about an article that Dani Grant and Nick Grossman wrote on how applications and infrastructure evolve in tandem. The post questions the popular narrative that the blockchain community is currently in a protracted infrastructure building phase. Here at Celo, we loved the article and agree with the premise that there should be more focus on building end-user experiences in the Web 3.0 community. Furthermore, we argue that to build out the best experiences, it’s important to work across all layers of the stack. Constantly rethinking everything from little touches in the UI to changes to the underlying consensus algorithms.
In their post, Dani and Nick make the point that product and infrastructure innovation frequently follows a cyclical pattern. Infrastructure improvements enable new and improved product experiences, which push the limits of the infrastructure, driving further innovation. They point out that much of the innovation in this cyclic process is incremental, evolving into The Adjacent Possible (a concept originally proposed by the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman and described by Steven Johnson in the book Where Good Ideas Come From). You can easily see this playing out today. For example, Ethereum and Metamask created the foundation for browser-viewable dapps, which led to CryptoKitties, everyone’s favorite feline crypto collectible game. CryptoKitties brought the Ethereum Network to a crawl. This, in turn, validated and further accelerated existing research into more scalable Ethereum competitors such as Dfinity and Polkadot.
Building Today’s Platforms
One trend that’s easy to spot in Dani and Nick’s posts is that in the past, infrastructure and products were frequently built out by different organizations (e.g. light bulbs vs the electrical grid, or airplanes vs airports). The internet era has changed the nature of platforms such that this is no longer always the case. One has to simply look at today’s giant internet companies to see how successful products (e.g. Amazon’s Store, Facebook) enabled the very same companies to release massively successful platforms (AWS, Facebook Platform). If this phenomenon repeats itself in the Web 3.0 era, then perhaps the best way to build successful fat protocols is to build them in tandem with their corresponding breakout product experiences. But how do we find these applications?
Luckily, the Web 3.0 space is not short of great product ideas. The promise of bringing financial services to the 1.7 billion people who are still unbanked is one of the most exciting and motivating product goals of our generation. More importantly, it is finally coming to be just within reach of what is Adjacent Possible. Research shows that over two-thirds of this unbanked population have mobile phones, with smartphone adoption rising quickly. Additionally, cash transfers are increasingly being adopted as a more efficient method of distributed aid, which in turn further fuels the need for financial services for people receiving aid. On the Web 3.0 side, global familiarity with cryptocurrencies is on the rise, and light client support continues to mature.
However, there are an equal number of issues that are yet to be solved. Sending and receiving cryptocurrencies continues to be difficult for people with limited technical know-how. The volatility of most cryptocurrencies undermines their use as a means-of-payment. And while stable tokens such as Dai (by MakerDAO) have shown that it’s possible to build decentralized stability protocols, the fact that you have to own Ether to send Dai complicates the experience and excludes a population that could really benefit from it.
Coffeehouse Model of Creativity
At Celo, we believe that in order to make meaningful progress to solve some of these challenges, you need to work across all levels of the stack. In the same book cited by Dani and Nick, author Steven Johnson describes the coffeehouse model of creativity, a style of noisy conversations held between people of diverse and interdisciplinary backgrounds. He shares the example of different departments within Apple working together through a process called Concurrent Production.
Under this model, employees from across the company (design, manufacturing, engineering, and sales) continuously work together through the product-development cycle in a manner that is noisy and contentious, constantly brainstorming, trading ideas and strategizing over the most pressing issues. In this way, the needs of the end user are always front and center at all levels of the stack, and the team challenges themselves to deliver on the end goal, with fewer compromises than would otherwise happen had the teams been handed work sequentially in isolation. Steven Johnson attributes this style of work to the immense creative success that Apple has enjoyed over the years.
We’re inspired by this style of development and believe that it can be highly effective at driving Web 3.0 product and infrastructure innovation in parallel. Celo is a mobile-first cryptocurrency aimed at increasing financial inclusion. We’ve built a team of people with diverse backgrounds (design, mobile, cryptography, distributed systems, economists and experts in international development) and are working together following the same Concurrent Production model to build a mobile cryptocurrency experience that isn’t possible today on any existing platform. By working together in this way, we are building decentralized stability and identity solutions by constantly challenging ourselves to avoid pitfalls and compromises that would otherwise water down what’s possible.
One example of this is our address-based encryption protocol. There have been many attempts to add identity to wallet addresses at the infrastructure level. Celo approaches the problem differently. We started with the end user experience in our mobile wallet and performed field research in target markets such as Kenya. Rather than creating an attestation service that does nothing for the 1.1 billion people without an officially recognized form of ID, we took inspiration from the mobile money space (e.g M-Pesa) to use phone numbers as public identifiers. In so doing, we built out a decentralized phone number verification protocol that powers our underlying wallet experience.
The end result is that our users can easily send payments (using our stable currency) to anyone, without having to copy-paste public-key based wallet addresses. In fact, they can send a payment to someone even if that person has yet to install our mobile wallet. And even more excitingly, by creating a protocol that relies on verification text messages, we’re opening up access to the crypto-economy. Anyone with an Android phone and excess phone plan capacity can earn cryptocurrency by allowing the protocol to send verification messages to other users signing up. Finally, we are working hard to enable anyone to leverage these primitives when building mobile-first dapps on top of our platform. In so doing, we hope that they too can build mobile products for the financially underserved global community.
This is just one of the many product driven protocol innovations that we’ve been working on.
If you’re motivated by building blockchain-based infrastructure in service of great product experiences, Celo is growing our team of people with diverse backgrounds.