Artwork by Nick Dupey

Humans + Bits + Blocks

How the technology that powers Bitcoin might create new experiences that go far beyond currency

As (geeky) human centered designers, it makes our hearts race when we encounter new technology. But we immediately start thinking: how will my life be different because of this? Edge technologies are hard to predict. So, we find it’s best to just let our imaginations run wild in order to help understand what might be possible.

Bitcoin is a digital currency, interesting in its own right. But, the block chain technology on which Bitcoin runs points to a very interesting future that’s about much more than currency. It has the potential to disrupt countless industries and create new experiences. Although Bitcoin was the original impetus for a block chain, advances in the technology continue to emerge. From here on out, we’re using the term “block chain” to describe this technology applied to many other spaces than currency.

Over the the next several weeks, we’re going to explore different industries and share how these nascent technologies could create better consumer (and creator) experiences. As designers, our reflex is to create the future we want — and not just let it happen to us — by making concepts tangible as early as possible. We can then iterate, get real feedback, and spark the belief and action needed to make great futures come true.

Here are 5 areas that we think will be impacted by block chains.


1. Peer-to-Peer Exchanges

What We’re Wondering: Where can block chains let us eliminate middle men?

What’s Inspiring: We’ve gotten used to peer-to-peer exchanges on the internet ranging from Craigslist to BitTorrent. But, they still haven’t found a place in much of our real lives — from sharing the unused space in our cars to the sparsely used lawn mowers in our garages to the empty storage on our computer hard drives.

Why We’re Interested: Today, intermediaries (eg. banks, real estate brokers, record labels) often add value through information discovery and translation between parties. Block chains can store records of transactions and facilitate the exchange of information and value between people without any middle man needed.


2. Frictionless Transactions

What We’re Wondering: Where can block chains make service interactions more seamless?

What’s Inspiring: Warby Parker is a great example of frictionless transactions. Although many existing payment mechanics are used, the friction points — and there are many — of buying glasses at a physical store have been removed. Alternatively, consider the payment interaction when you take an Uber. That’s right, there isn’t one. Uber has made it invisible.

Why We’re Interested: Sure, credit cards have made payments fluid, but let’s be real about this. The process of checking your bill, waiting unknown times for transactions to clear, and tracking charges to merchants through cryptic codes isn’t actually that easy. Block chains reduce friction in transactions by enabling value exchanges directly between parties instantly — and “value” could be monetary value, ownership of a house or a ticket to a concert.


3. Digital Scarcity

What We’re Wondering: Can block chains help us reclaim “limited edition?”

What’s Inspiring: Napster, and countless other file sharing platforms that came after it quickly come to mind to highlight the lack of scarcity in the digital world. On the flipside, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is a secret album to which they strictly control access, allowing only one person at a time to listen under high security in a vault.

Why We’re Interested: The digital world makes it dead simple to copy and spread assets (eg. music, videos, documents). Block chains create a secure way for creators to register origin of work, set sharing permissions, and structure the means of exchange that they’re willing to accept (payments, trade or otherwise).


4. Trust + Authenticity

What We’re Wondering: How can block chains remove the anxieties of exchange between people?

What’s Inspiring: The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program publishes a wallet-sized card tracking which fish, fisheries, and fishing methods are sustainable, giving consumers visibility and choice when they eat seafood.

Why We’re Interested: Trust is the bedrock of our society; it enables us to work together whether we’re driving side-by-side on a highway or eating food at a restaurant. With block chains, perfect records of creation and ownership are possible for digital or physical goods.


5. Shared Ownership + Coordination

What We’re Wondering: How can block chains help the sharing economy fulfill it’s promise?

What’s Inspiring: Airbnb has created a global market and brand that celebrates the diversity and uniqueness of hosts across the globe. They’ve made a previously awkward notion (ie. sharing a deeply personal resource — one’s home — with a stranger) the norm.

Why We’re Interested: We can look at Airbnb, ZipCar and Uber and see that the sharing economy has taken off, yet we’ve still only scratched the surface. Block chains offer a way to advertise, reserve, check into, and rate a shared service or asset, broadening the scope of what can be shared well beyond housing and rides.


Each of these areas highlights opportunities where block chains can be beneficial to create better experiences, and we’re excited about the possibilities. We want to hear what you think too. Where do you see possibilities for this type of technology to benefit our future? What real impact can it have? What needs can it support?

Next week we’ll dive into the music industry because it’s desperately in need of solutions for very human challenges. How can I make a viable living as a musician? How can I find music I like and support the artists that make it? How can paying and making money not feel so business-like and transactional? We’re inspired by how block chains could solve for some of these needs and revitalize a troubled industry. We’ll be designing for an artist we call Rift.

Design by Nick Dupey

Questions? Comments? Builds?
Let us know at futures@ideo.com or @ideofutures

To learn more about this topic, check out IDEO Futures’ podcast interview with Chain.com founder Adam Ludwin.

Written by Matt Weiss & Reid Williams

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Matt Weiss’s story.