Inspiration at the IDEO Cambridge Studio

What is the future of digital identity?

I never leave home without my wallet, phone, or keys. Everything — my credit cards, driver’s license, social media accounts, apartment keys — is a link back to me. They are the physical and digital manifestations of who I am and what I can do.

The problem is that all these manifestations are fragmented. One card only works for one company. One login only works for one account. One key only works for one door. Nothing talks to each other, even though they point to the same thing — me.

Sure, carrying some plastic and metal in my pockets isn’t asking too much from me. However, this fragmentation actually leads to large moments of pain and friction when it really matters.

Imagine, for a second, if we lived in a world where we could carry the different pieces of our identities across any (digital or physical) border without any friction.

This might sound like a tall order, but it’s actually something we’re making progress on. Blockchains and the larger family of cryptographic technology could play a key role in reshaping how we keep and share our identities.

At the Bits + Blocks coLAB, we’ve been exploring the potential of blockchains in the future of identity. With inherent features such as provenance, immutability, and interoperability, blockchains have sparked rich conversation about the meaning of identity and how we handle identity systems.

Building Something Real

In our explorations, we’ve been guilty of going down a rabbit hole and arrived at many unanswered, metaphysical questions about our identities. But here at the Bits + Blocks coLAB, one of our mottos is “Don’t get ready, get started!”8

So we asked: what can we build in one week that will help us better understand this future?

We decided to start with a simple yet real scenario: workplace certifications for machine shop equipment. In our experience, training and access to use equipment in the workplace, maker spaces, and universities don’t travel from one institution to another. Being trained and certified to use a table saw at work doesn’t mean I can use the very same table saw at my weekend makerspace.

Our hypothesis: Machine shop certifications are a valuable and easy proof-of-concept use case for universal, digital certifications.

While this early hypothesis could be fruitful on its own, we designed our prototype so that it could open itself up to analogous use cases. Either way, our goal was to learn about the essential technical features, user needs, and key interactions required for a platform that manages digital certifications.

During our one-week hackathon, we built a web app that allows shop experts to grant training certifications and users to browse through their own certifications:

left: screenshot of how experts grant users certifications, right: screenshot of how users browse and view their certifications

Our initial build of this prototype included a few key features: proof-of-existence, dual-layer cryptographic signatures, and blockchain verification. In order to create a tangible experience as fast as possible, we utilized a few existing developer platforms and tools: BitcoinJS to create bitcoin transactions, BlockCypher to broadcast transactions, Blocktrail to crawl the blockchain, Onename to reference bitcoin addresses in a common namespace, KeybasePGP to cryptographically sign certifications, Parse to manage our data, and Heroku running Node.js for our app logic.

Testing the Prototype

With the basic app up and running, we took it downstairs to our shop experts, keeping a few overarching questions in mind: What certifications make sense? What are the big roadblocks to machine shop certifications? What other factors play into granting shop certificates or training?

Here’s a peek into our conversation:

What makes our shop in IDEO Cambridge unique from other shops, IDEO and beyond?

Our Cambridge shop is community-run. Since we have no dedicated shop managers, there are unique protocols and responsibilities for individuals using the shop. In “formal” shops at universities, makerspaces, and other IDEO studios, there are usually shop managers whose role is to ensure that safety protocols are adhered to, proper training is administered, and equipment is taken care of.

So, without formal shop managers, what does our certification process look like?

Right now, it’s pretty informal. After years of training and practice, we come in knowing how to use all the equipment. However, for other designers who just want to use one machine, we debrief them to get a sense of what they know about the equipment. But even if we feel confident about their skills, we still want to be by their side the first few times, just in case.

What types of certifications make sense to put on the blockchain?

In some of our discussions, we tried creating different levels for our equipment. Things like the laser cutter and 3D printer (level 1) seem to make the most sense, since they’re not too difficult to operate and pretty common. But as you move up the levels and use the lathe or mill, things start to get really complicated.

Let’s assume that we’ve been able to successfully put all shop certifications on the blockchain, what does that experience look like?

Even if there are universal shop certifications with a perfect, trusted protocol, we’re not sure how much it changes the experience. Sure it would filter out some unauthorized usage of equipment, but as the shop experts, we’d still want to be by an individual’s side if they’re operating a machine for the first time in our shop. There are still some human trust factors that need to be accounted for.

Surfacing New Questions

Based on our discussion, we learned a lot about the shop and how certifications work. I left with a few questions:

How would automated monitoring system affect the current certification experience? Would they be sufficient?

How do you create a robust protocol that accounts for the small differences in shop culture? Is that even possible?

While these questions illuminate the richness of machine shop certifications, they also begin to reveal the underlying complexities of this use case, disproving our hypothesis.

We were, however, able to surface new questions that could help guide us later on:

How might we codify less obvious characteristics or behaviors?

What key moments in the certification process should we be designing around?

As we continue to explore digital identity, it’s important not to get bogged down into the specifics of one use case. With a working prototype in hand, we look forward to getting closer to our goals: asking the right questions, identifying themes, and implementing a proof-of-concept prototype.

We’ve been brainstorming other certification areas to explore: academic certificates for informal education such as IDEO U, expertise endorsements by co-workers, employee-of-the-month awards, boy scout badges, and standardized test scores.

What other certifications would you like to see us put on the blockchain?