NFTs are a divisive subject. They currently divide the world population into four. The vast majority of people who don’t care or have never even heard of NFT’s, a very small percentage who think NFT’s are revolutionizing the art world, another very small percentage who think NFT’s are pointless and wasteful, and an extremely small percentage of artists who are exploring this new artistic frontier. New art has always been divisive (Impressionism, Cubism, etc.). And the scale of the division about NFT’s is itself extremely interesting, and one that is only possible because of the modern information communication technologies like Twitter. It is no longer possible to separate art and technology, either as an artist, a collector, or a viewer. Technology is an unavoidable, undeniable aspect of creating and experiencing art. NFT’s are part of that, for better or worse.
The uninteresting side of NFT’s
NFT’s mean lots of different things to lots of different people, and tendency of those in either of the small populations mentioned above is to always defend their position. Fine. Uninteresting, but fine. So before we get into the real art of NFT’s, let’s quickly cover the uninteresting (from an artistic perspective) mainstream aspects; commercialisation, motivation and aesthetics, for those two small percentages.
The commercialisation of works of art through the use of blockchain technology plays out in the same way as any market economy. It’s subject to the same underlying principles with the few rich getting richer and the majority poor getting poorer. That’s the same no matter what technology underpins the market. NFT’s as a means to buy, trade and demonstrate ownership of works of art/fairly-mundane-imagery-with-lots-of-hype-associated-with-it doesn’t and cannot change that.
The motivations for buying art, whether at an auction house or on an NFT marketplace, haven’t changed either. It continues to be about status (owning art) and money (investing in art) whether bidding on a Monet painting or Bored Ape jpg. This also will not change because of new technology.
The aesthetics of mainstream collectible NFTs have already reached a dominant design pattern. They are used as profile pictures to indicate identity with a certain group of others, often referencing other cultural aesthetics such as comic books or computer games, and often visually unique within a given set of parameters. Whether this aesthetic is your aesthetic isn’t really the point. If you like a certain aesthetic and enjoy looking at that kind of art, you can do so with or without NFT’s.
This side of NFT’s, the mainstream as it were, is where most of the attention goes, but it is far less interesting than the creative and artistic exploration that they provide for artists.
NFT as a metamodern art form
NFT’s provide the perfect expression of a metamodern art form and subject of artistic exploration. Not just each individual NFT recorded on a blockchain, but NFT’s as a subject, a form, a cultural artifact, as a metamodern artistic sensibility that…
… oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.
-Vermeulen and van den Akker.
The division of opinion that NFT’s create is in itself a postmodern stance, but for metamodern artists it becomes an expression of oscillation. The role NFT’s play in the cultural zeitgeist swings from extreme to extreme depending on who you talk to. The NFT isn’t the art, the art is the NFT. Art and technology cannot be separated and so for this art, technology provides form and function, context and content, subject and situation.
Even mainstream NFT artwork has already demonstrated a cultural stake in many of Greg Dember’s metamoden methods:
Hyper-self-reflexivity – the idea that people’s identities are constructed quite self-consciously through a narrative lens. NFT’s as status symbol and profile picture demonstrate that knowing identity construction done both unironically and connectively. As unique images, these NFT profile pictures reference the individuality of the owner, whilst at the same claiming their belonging to a group of holders of similar images and in reinforcing their self-claimed identity as early adopters of the trend.
Double-framing – the temporary trapping of the viewer between an outer frame of the “real world” and an inner frame of the narrative of the artwork. The viewer is in a space where they are able to engage unironically with the hype and of the “NFT world” whilst still remaining grounded in the reality of the realisation that NFT’s are purely virtual. This double-framing of the opinions those two small percentages held in opposition of each other is particularly of interest to artists, because it creates a space where both can exist together and boundaries can be explored through double-framing.
Constructive Pastiche – the potentially constructive juxtaposing of seemingly disparate elements, from historically separated genres and/or cultures. The jpg’s we see in mainstream NFT art often combines disparate elements from various cultural and historic reference points. Intentionally or not, they create a space for cultural iconography that doesn’t fit into it’s originating culture or history but instead combines to become a different experience.
Oscillation – a way of engaging two oppositional factors without them cancelling each other out, nor landing in the average zone between them. In fact never landing, always moving. Art that explores any kind of emerging technology such as NFT’s could never land on a single position for the landscape shifts too quickly and suddenly.
Perhaps the confusion and division around NFT’s comes from looking at this most metamodern art form from a modernist or postmodernist perspective.
Some exploration of onchain art
My own exploration into the constantly oscillating world of onchain art has been via stiles, of all things. My work constructively pastiches genres – British landscape art, conceptual art, art/life movement – and oscillates between the physical and digital worlds. It tries to explore the relationship between, and understand a world made up of, all of these things, and usually through decidedly uncultural objects.
Before stiles, there were other works of a similar theme. #FloorsIveWalkedOn created abstract patterns through photographs of floors I had walked on. This work explored presence and place, bridging the physical place and the lasting presence in the digital world. This work isn’t on the blockchain, it exists only on Instagram. At the time, that was enough. Had I been interested in displaying art in the physical world I might have printed lino floor coverings of all the floors I had walked on for others to walk on. But instead my work went the other way, becoming more virtual.
Stiles.style collects images of stiles from the British landscape into a unique collection of unique objects. Stiles are one of the few objects left in the modern world that are hand-made by different people all across the country but following a similar design pattern. Each stile is unique. And they are gradually disappearing form the British countryside. To photograph stiles is one way to preserve them in virtual form. To create a token on the blockchain that represents the photo of the stile creates an even more virtual, more abstract, preservation of a stile. And doing so asks questions. Is uniqueness tied to physical form? How much of a real object is lost when it becomes a digital photo or a string of numbers? What happens when there are no more of those real objects left in the real world and they only exist in virtual form? What effect does it have on our culture to digitise everything from the real world?
NFT’s are more than jpgs on the blockchain. They open up an entirely new cultural space for artists to explore. NFT’s are, at once, the form, subject, context and environment of art, through which artists can explore themes around ownership, the physical and digital worlds, the hype of new technology, and so many more. So, the small percentages can continue to argue from their mainstream positions, and meanwhile the artists will explore the breadth and depth of the virtual, blockchain and NFT landscapes.
Blockchains offer a means of creating an immutable record of transactions on a peer-to-peer network of computers. Here are some brilliant ideas of things we could use blockchain for:
Record the usage of toilet paper in public toilets – As each square of toilet paper is dispensed a transaction is added to the blockchain so that an everlasting and never changing record of how many squares of toilet paper were used in each visit is maintained.
A single pixel of a famous photo – If you’re NASA and you own the rights to iconic images such as the Blue Marble from the 1972 Apollo mission, why sell the image as a whole as a single NFT when you can sell each individual pixel and create a unique and finite community of Blue Marblers.
Every tin of beans – In fact every piece of food produced is recorded on a blockchain, with transactions added each time it changes location, from manufacturer to wholesaler to supermarket to your kitchen. Your smart kitchen communicates via bluetooth with every piece of food within it so when you open the tin (or your robot butler does) that too is added to the blockchain so that everyone knows beyond a doubt that that tin of beans has been consumed.
Blockchain of blockchains – Create a blockchain that records that every transaction that happens on every other blockchain so that there is an immutable record of all the blockchains. Just in case.
Santa’s list of naughty and nice children – Every child in the world is added to the blockchain , and every time each of them does something naughty or nice another block is added, enabling Santa (or more probably Elves with PhD’s in data science) to maintain an unarguable list of which children are getting presents this year. Santa could sell licenses to enable apps to be built that show the data for convincing children to behave or marketing toys to them.
The use of established technology in achieving social good and the sustainable development goals can be generally accepted, but the question of whether blockchain, as a specific and emerging technology, can contribute to the goals is at very early stages of investigation. We should be aware of the risk of blockchain as ‘a solution in search of a problem’ and of being drawn into the hype surrounding its use and efficacy. In support of the use of blockchain, there are opinions that blockchain “has more near-term potential for social impact than originally thought” (Calvert, 2018), and that new technologies being deployed in developing countries means not having the legacy of existing technologies which can hinder adoption. Of the seventeen goals, some lend themselves more appropriately to, and could benefit more greatly from, using blockchain and distributed ledger technologies.
The World Food Programme has delivered blockchain solutions that contribute to achieving Goal 2: Zero hunger. The programme distributes cash to 28 million people in 64 countries (WFP, 2021) but recognised that in some countries the existing financial solutions were insufficient, unreliable and incurred high transaction fees. The Building Blocks project implemented a private, permissioned blockchain to record transactions made by people purchasing groceries which reduced financial transaction fees and ensured greater security and privacy.
The WFP’s project provides an example of how blockchain can be used in tackling a very specific problem; that of people in refugee camps purchasing food without concerns of centralised third-parties having access to their personal data or losing food vouchers. In this case, it could be argued that blockchain solves more problems for the organisation than it does for its beneficiaries, as it reduces the transaction fees the organisation pays and provides more accurate data about those using the system. Based on this example we can conclude that blockchain can have a role to play in achieving the goal of zero hunger but has a long way to go before that contribution can be considered significant.
Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth, is another goal that blockchain could contribute to. For the 2 billion ‘unbanked’ people in the world, not having access to financial services hinders the economic growth of individuals, families, towns, and entire countries. According to the central bank of Sierra Leone, over three-quarters of the country’s population does not access formal financial services (Ledger Insights, 2019). In an attempt to tackle this issue and so enable economic growth, the charity Kiva set up a blockchain solution to provide microloans to people who are unable to provide a credit history due to their unbanked status. Kiva reports on the impact of its service as an overall but it is difficult to measure the success of the blockchain technologies, either in comparison to a different solution or in achieving the sustainable development goal of “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” (UN, 2021).
Blockchain technologies, among other emerging technologies, have much potential in contributing to achieving the sustainable development goals but must be approached cautiously and with consideration for the unintended consequences the introduction of new technologies can have. The use of blockchain technology can contribute to specific parts of solutions that contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals but to suggest that a technology such as blockchain can achieve a goal alone would risk straying into more hype than reality.
In tackling some of these issues, the Blockchain Commission for Sustainable Development was set up in 2017 to “develop a multi-sectoral framework to support the UN system, along with Member States, intergovernmental organizations, the private sector and civil society in utilizing blockchain-based technologies to develop local, national and global solutions to urgent challenges.” (IISD, 2018). The IISD works to help other organisations better understand blockchain and it’s real world applications, including aspects such as how blockchain fits within a country’s legislation and telecoms infrastructure. These challenges are important to understand when considering how blockchain can contribute to achieving the sustainable development goals as the question becomes less about the application of blockchain technology and more about how to build the national and international infrastructure that would be necessary for blockchain to be implemented in order for it to contribute to the goals.
Calvert, D. (2018). Can Blockchain Be Used for Public Good? Stanford Business.
International Institute for Sustainable Development. (2018). Commission White Paper Explores Blockchain Use for SDGs. sdg.iisd.org
Ledger Insights. (2019). Kiva sets up Sierra Leone blockchain ID system. ledgerinsights.com
United Nations. (2021). The 17 Goals. sdgs.un.org
World Food Programme. (201). Building Blocks: Blockchain for Zero Hunger. innovation.wfp.org
Blockchain technology has a utility of application that means it can be utilised across any sector including the delivery of public services. In 2018, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development studied over 200 public service blockchain projects (Table 1) in at least 46 countries around the world (Berryhill et al, 2018), concluding that whilst many of the projects were aimed at information sharing and exploring partnerships, some implemented practical applications of Blockchain technology.
Table 1: Use of Blockchain in the public sector
Types of projects (count)
Government Services (173)
Identity (Credentials/Licenses/Attestations) (25)
Financial Services (73)
Personal Records (Health, Financial, etc.) (25)
Technology & IoT (26)
Economic Development (24)
Financial Services/Market Infrastructure (20)
Real Estate (22)
Land Title Registry (19)
Supply Chain (19)
Digital Currency (Central Bank Issued) (18)
Source: Blockchains Unchained: Blockchain Technology and its Use in the Public Sector, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance
The study suggests that an area of public service delivery governments are most interested in is identity and personal records. The Government Office for Science (2016) defines ‘identity’ as a combination of authentication; that you are who you say you are, and authorisation; that you have the permission to do what you ask. A birth recorded on a blockchain becomes an immutable timestamp for the existence of a person and where perhaps ‘age’ becomes a characteristic that is used in authorising when that person can go to school, legally start work or retire. This use case allows governments to make identity management more secure and efficient. As Borrows et al describe (Figure 1), the aim is for governments to use blockchain to move identity management from low user control to high, where citizens will not only have access to the data stored about them, which isn’t the case with current identity management systems in use by governments, but will also be able to control which government departments have access to the data.
Figure 1: Framework of digital identity ownership
Figure 1 demonstrates that there are currently no examples of governments providing citizens with a self-sovereign model of identity management, and that the best example we have of movement in that direction is from Estonia. Estonian citizens each have an ID card that is managed using blockchain-like technology and that allows them to access public services, financial services, medical and emergency services, drive, pay taxes, vote and travel within the EU (Shen, 2016). Adoption of the e-ID was reportedly smooth for the government and people of Estonia, but given it was implemented around twenty years, at a time when data protection awareness was less than nowadays, and in a country that has a high level of trust in the government, it remains to be seen whether the same success can be achieved in other countries (Cater, 2021).
Voting presents another opportunity where governments could utilise blockchain technologies to reduce voter absenteeism and increase auditability and so trust in electoral processes (Foroglou & Tsilidou, 2015). Asking ‘why blockchain?’ leads us to ask why voting systems have never been digitised using an earlier technology, and the answer may be as simple as suggested by the Government Office for Science report which said that online voting was too costly and too centralised to be reliable, but that a blockchain solution could provide part of the answer (GOS, 2016).
Columbian expatriates faced these issues when voting on a peace treaty that resulted in only 10% registering a vote. The non-profit organisation Democracy Earth Foundation set-up a blockchain solution that allowed Colombians who lived abroad to cast symbolic votes and tested a new way of validating and authenticating electoral votes (OECD, 2017). Based on the results of demonstration, it was reported that the Colombian Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies recognised how traditional voting systems lack integrity and trustworthiness, and that blockchain solutions have the potential to radically alter voting systems towards using more secure technology (OECD, 2016a).
Counter to the use of innovative technologies by governments and organisations are the realities of the use of technology by people in countries like Colombia where nearly half of the total population is not yet online (OECD, 2016b). Whereas Estonia got the timing right for introducing blockchain to enable digital identity, Colombia could risk introducing emerging technologies too early before ensuring that a sufficient percentage of its population are connected to the internet and have the sufficient skills to participate as digital citizens.
Blockchain certainty has a place in delivering public services and facilitating engagement in public decision-making processes. Justification for using blockchain in the commercial sector oftens falls to increasing efficiency and reducing costs, both of which also apply to the public sector, but the public sector should also hold a greater vision about the use of blockchain to enable and empower citizens, to give them more control over their data and in how they interact with their government in an increasingly digital world.
Berryhill, J., Bourgery, T., & Hanson, A. (2018), Blockchains Unchained: Blockchain Technology and its Use in the Public Sector, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 28, OECD Publishing.
Borrows, M., Harwich, E., & Heselwood, L. (2017). The future of public service identity: blockchain. Reform & Accenture Consulting.
Cater, L. (2021). What Estonia’s digital ID scheme can teach Europe. Politico.eu.
Foroglou, G. & Tsilidou, A. (2015) Further applications of the blockchain.
Government Office for Science. (2016). Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond block chain. A report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser.
OECD. (2016a). Interview with the project team of Democracy Earth. 1 December 2016.
OECD/IDB. (2016b). Broadband Policies for Latin America and the Caribbean: A Digital Economy Toolkit. OECD Publishing, Paris,
OECD. (2017). Embracing Innovation in Government – Global Trends.
Shen, J. (2016). e-Estonia: The power and potential of digital identity. thomsonreuters.com.
The logistics and supply chain sector is undergoing technology-driven digital transformation where emerging technologies result in a strategic response that adapts the way companies create value (Vial, 2019). This technology-push model of innovation (Rothwell, 1994) where emerging technologies are developed without a clear use case in mind and then adopted horizontally across sectors leads to the convergence of complementary technology vertically within a sector. In the logistics and supply chain sector the convergence between the Internet of Things providing the data production layer and Blockchain and DLT providing the data exchange layer enables new means of value creation for firms.
Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies have particular applicability to global logistics and supply chain management as many different companies are involved in the processes of shipping and require accurate, timely and trusted data in order to conduct their operations efficiently. All of the firms accessing the data on the blockchain can trust that it is immutable, has been arrived at through consensus of the other nodes in the network, that is the other firms in the supply chain ecosystem, and has absolute auditability. Being able to trust in the data rather than rely on established business relationships offers the potential of all firms involved to establish different kinds of business relationships where firms provide business-to-business services without the need for existing business practices of price negotiation and written contracts.
Wang et al (2019) list four areas where blockchain technologies and the increased trust they provide has benefits in the logistics industry: “extended visibility and traceability, supply chain digitalisation and disintermediation, improved data security and smart contracts.” Extended visibility and traceability is a result of the trust enabled by the use of an immutable data ledger such as blockchain. With an average of 1,382 shipping containers lost at sea each year (BIFA, 2020), the ability of shipping firms to have accurate and up-to-date data about lost cargo enables them to work more effectively with manufacturers and insurance companies. EY is exploring blockchain-enabled insurance solutions, “because marine insurance is a complex international ecosystem, with multiple parties, multiple jurisdictions, high transaction volumes and significant levels of reconciliation.” (EY, 2017). The high degree of trust required in order to process insurance claims of the value and complexity that EY handles relies on multiple human processes that involve investigation and approval, processes that would become redundant if using a single, trusted, and immutable source of data in support of insurance claims and processing.
The use of smart contracts aims to reduce complexity in a supply chain by automating business transactions that rely on the verification of predetermined conditions and the execution of agreements written into the code of the smart contract. ShipChain is a logistics utility ecosystem using blockchain technology to provide smart contracts that enable “trustless contract execution, historical data immutability, and no single point of failure.” (Shipchain, 2021). The solution provides greater visibility of delivery hand-offs and so reduces loss and theft whilst enabling the transactions written into smart contracts to be executed as a delivery takes place.
IBM estimates that the cost of trade documentation is approximately one fifth the cost of shipping physical goods (IBM, 2018). This makes the cost of moving information between exporters, freight forwarders, ports and terminals, ocean carriers, authorities, transportation management and importers in the billions of dollars a year. And this does not include the ancillary costs of the data entry for good manufactures, insurance processes, etc. By providing a single trusted source of data, blockchain can reduce these transaction costs (Schmidt & Wagner, 2019) and increase profitability across the sector.
Although blockchain and distributed ledger technologies stand to offer considerable benefits to the entire logistics and supply chain sector, they do not come without risks and challenges. The introduction of new technologies into a business is a costly endeavour that risks pushing out smaller firms that are unable to invest in such infrastructure as quickly as larger firms. The use of smart contracts, for example, relies on the coding of the contract to be well-defined, deterministic, and visible to all parties, and although referred to as ‘contracts’, smart contracts are not legally enforceable (Kruse et al, 2020).
In summary, logistics and supply chain companies are increasingly exploring Blockchain and DLT as part of the digital transformation of the sector, and to enable faster and more accurate data exchange between all companies within the supply chain to increase operational efficiency and reduce costs. Emerging technologies, including the Internet of Things and Distributed Ledger Technologies stand to introduce a great deal of change to the global logistics and supply chain industry.
British International Freight Association. (2020). Containers Lost At Sea – 2020 Update. bifa.org.
EY. (2017) Better-working insurance: moving blockchain from concept to reality. ey.com.
IBM. (2018). Digitizing Global Trade with Maersk and IBM. ibm.com
Kruse, C. J., Villa, J. C., Mileski, J. P. & Galvao, C. (2020). Analysis of Blockchain’s Impacts on and Applicability to the Maritime Industry – May 2019 to August 2020. Maritime Transportation Research and Education Center.
Rothwell, R. (1994). Towards the Fifth-generation Innovation Process. International Marketing Review, 11(1), 7-31.
Schmidt, C., G. & Wagner, S., M. (2019). Blockchain and supply chain relations: A transaction cost theory perspective. Journal of Purchasing and Supply Management. Volume 25, Issue 4, 2019.
Shipchain. (2012). The ShipChain Ecosystem. shipchain.io.
Vial, G. (2019) Understanding digital transformation: A review and a research agenda. The Journal of Strategic Information Systems, Volume 28, Issue 2.
Wang, Y., Han, J.H. and Beynon-Davies, P. (2019). Understanding blockchain technology for future supply chains: a systematic literature review and research agenda, Supply Chain Management, Vol. 24 No. 1, pp. 62-84.
I spent a some thinking thinking through how we translate what our programme teams are developing for future courses into what we need to build into our products to enable the courses. It really does feel like a translation as there’s lots of different language and understanding that is important to get right.
One of our teams have adopted goal-based Now/Next/Later roadmaps for their projects. I was so impressed I messaged the project manager to tell them how happy I was to see it Ok, I’m a roadmap geek and I can admit it. Something I’ve realised about roadmaps is that the approaches, models and tools only work for a small number of elements. I wonder if the idea that roadmaps shouldn’t have too many things on them comes from the tools and models not being able to effectively represent lots of elements, or if it’s the idea drives the existence of the models. Maybe the limitations of the models is what keeps people using Gantt charts.
I had a few hours of inspiration about some of the things I want to include in my product management in charities email series so I made some notes will spend some of my time off work next week on writing the emails, setting-up the automation and sign-up form. It’s on my delivery plan to just get the emails written in June so if I can get the whole thing set up then I’ll be well ahead of schedule.
Escape form Bigbury
I went to beach last weekend a d found a nice spot to read a couple of innovation books for a few hours. During that time the tide came in and cut me off from the walking out the way I came in. I put my clothes and books into my bag, held it above my head and swam across a river, climbed up a small cliff, broke my sandals, and walked eight miles back to my car barefoot. I love these little adventures. It’s like being a kid again, getting myself into trouble and relying on myself to get out.
Blockchain in entrepreneurship
This week’s lecture was about the use of Blockchain in entrepreneurial business models, including the use of ICO‘s, which is an interesting way for start-ups to raise investment. ICO’s follow a standard approach of demonstrating that the start-up has four things that will lead to it’s success; human capital, quality of business model, social media activity, and a project elaboration whitepaper. The whitepaper is an organisational strategy document that aims to attract investors by expressing the business model. Tech start-ups often fail because they are more focused on building their solution than on validating the market needs and strategy for meeting it, so it’s interesting to see whitepapers as a mechanism for pulling them towards a more holistic approach.
And thought about:
What are we trying to achieve?
I’ve had various conversations this week, in various contexts, where trying to decide what action to take was hampered by a lack of clarity about what was trying to be achieved. Knowing the end goal becomes a guide for decision making, along with principle stacks in more complicated situations. So many of our tools and mental models are at the task level (see defining our unit of analysis below) which make it easier for us to get on with doing something, and make it harder for us to decide and remain focused on the goal.
Projects within projects
How do projects relate to each other? A project can be:
Building block – not dependent on other projects but with others dependent on it.
Chain – dependent on another with others dependent on it.
Standalone – no projects are dependent on it and it isn’t dependent on any.
Destination – dependent on other projects but with nothing dependent on it.
But that’s a pretty two-dimensional cause-and-effect view of how projects relate to each other. What about a ‘Russian doll’ relational model of project within project within project? Do we assume that projects are standalone entities when really they aren’t? What issues does this cause within organisations?
Define your unit of analysis
One of the difficult things about talking about innovation, or maybe anything that lacks an agreed definition, is being clear about what level you’re referring to. Are you talking about innovation as an activity within a company or an industry or a nation? In each of those cases the ‘unit of analysis’ is different and so the conversation is different, and confusing if different people are referring to different units of analysis without realising it.
I love a completely spurious and unconnected analogy. So, on that note, here’s why harmonic waves pendulums explain why keeping people aligned at work is so hard. The pendulums are made of a line of weights each hanging on a string of a different length. This means that even when they all start swinging together they swing at different speeds. In a harmonic wave pendulum it produces interesting patterns but at work people working at different speeds, because they have different tasks, different priorities, etc., produces dependencies, blockers, repetition and all the other things that make work inefficient. So, what’s the answer? Artificial constraints to keep everyone moving at the same speed? Redistributing work so those who are faster do more? Slice work into smaller pieces to make it easier? Yes. No. Depends.
The Power of Creative Destruction
Since reading about Schumpeter and the ideas he had about how innovation relies on creative destruction, that is one innovation destroying and replacing another, I thought he was wrong. It seems more likely that innovation builds on what went before. The Power of Creative Destruction: Economic Upheaval and the Wealth of Nations by Philippe Aghion, Céline Antonin and Simon Bunel reconsiders Schumpeter and what effect his ideas have had on how we approach innovation.
Work from Home & Productivity
This research showed that during a period of pandemic-enforced working from home (context is important but not really recognised enough) IT professionals spent more time doing less work. Productivity fell by 20% because although the study’s participants were working longer hours, more of that time was in meetings. What can we take from this, other than meetings are bad? Two things, I think. More meetings happen because organisations don’t have effective ways to coordinate work asynchronously (arguably they don’t have synchronous means to coordinate effectively either, but hey…) and so default to more meetings in an attempt to achieve coordination. And then, secondly, the visibility of workers in meetings serves as replacement for trust in workers.
A Manifesto For A New Way Of Work
Written in 2015, A Manifesto For A New Way Of Work describes the old versus new, which I like as a way of helping to make clear the unknown unknowns of the new way of work and draw lines of distinction. I’ve been thinking a bit about ‘operating systems’ for work, how we define the basic rules that create the behaviours we want to see at higher levels. Boyd’s manifesto helps with a far-off vision of what work could be like, rather than a realistic current model, but it’s interesting nonetheless from a ‘it’s a systems problem not a people problem‘ point of view.
Our new organisational strategy was released this week. I’m keen to spend some time soon reading it more deeply and thinking about how to interpret it for the work we’re doing. I’ve noticed a few strategic mis-alignments recently between the work our programme design team is doing and the direction I thought the product team was heading, so now is the time to bring together the different perspectives and course correct before we get into the next phase of work.
I also spent a bit of time working on product strategy to develop some guiding principles. One of those is about the ensuring that the speed we introduce change is matched to the speed at which the changes can be adopted. Just going as fast as we can seems like the wrong thing to do, as counter as it is to lots of product development thinking and my personal beliefs, because it’ll cause bottlenecks and futureshock.
Delivered training on using some of the new systems we’re putting in place. As part of the thinking for what to include in the training I was imagining the ‘system of systems’ we have. There are lots of distinct systems that have certain data and perform certain processes, and then there are linking processes, automated and manual, that move that data between the systems, and then the human nodes in the system that contain information about how the system works but are very much part of the system. Maybe I should just stick to delivering the training.
I wrote out my delivery plan (still a work in progress but mostly there) to help me track what I’ve done throughout the year towards the goals on my roadmap and to get into the habit of monthly planning. As part of my monthly planning cycle I did a retro of the things I’d learned in May that had affected my ability to deliver on my goals. I don’t really have a format that works for me yet but it started me thinking about methods for retrospectives and what they should aim to achieve. I think looking back is useful but really retros should be about increasing agency and ownership in order to change the approach which then improves everything you do in the future rather than just individual process improvements.
I visited Stonehenge and found a large community of vanlifers. I wanted to hand out my flyers to ask them to do the survey but it felt really uncomfortable intruding into their community as an outsider. There’s a different between vanlifers who live in semi-permanent communities together and those who live more solitary, transient lifestyles. Some outsiders and more outsiders than others.
Blockchain and social good
This week’s lecture was about how blockchain and distributed ledger technologies are being used for social good, and posed the question, ‘should more technological development be focused on making the world a better place?’ The answer is clearly and obviously, yes. The case study was how blockchain was being used to manage commons resources and some of the resources included a sector-specific study from Stanford University and looking at Blockchain for Humanity, which is a not-for-profit foundation with the mission to drive the adoption of emerging technologies that can offer a positive social impact. There is so much possibility.
And thought about:
I had my first hybrid meeting, with some of us in the room and some joining via video. It started me thinking about the pros and cons of hybrid meetings so I collected my thoughts into a blog post. Although I’m certain that remote, virtual, asynchronous work works best for me, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something interesting to try to figure out about hybrid working, especially if it’s likely that we’ll be working with others who do have hybrid ways of working.
Dealing with unknown unknowns
The common wisdom for dealing with unknown unknowns seems to be to adding them to a matrix with the known knowns, unknown knowns and known unknowns so you can (hopefully) identify by contrast the unknown unknowns. This way assumes that all domains of knowledge exist within that matrix, so I wondered about switch it around and putting a matrix within each domain of knowledge. Galbraith talks about how organisations deal with uncertainty and unknowns by processing more information between decision-makers as the way forward is figured out than is processed where decisions can be pre-planned. If unknowns are broken down into smaller and smaller domains of knowledge then perhaps the unknown unknowns become smaller and more specific, which might make them easier to imagine. Dealing with uncertainty and adapting to change is a capability every organisation is going to have to figure out how to build and I’m not sure there is a lot best practice in how to do that yet.
Ukrainian aviators love me
One of my most popular (I mean popular in my terms, which isn’t very popular by most people’s terms) blog posts is Schmenner’s Service Process Matrix – but for charities. It seems to show in Google searches for Schmenner, and weirdly, the Ukrainian National Aviation University link to it in one of their papers about applying the service process matrix to logistics. This amuses me.
And read this:
Maintaining Radical Focus and Staying on Strategy with OKRs
“No framework can possibly be complete, so it is important for employees in any organisation to examine the digital ethics dimension in any digital project they undertake.” Ethics isn’t about big dramatic decisions. Every single little decision is an ethical decision.
It is generally accepted that emerging technologies act as enabling forces for economic, social, and business transformation (Cohen & Amorós, 2014; Paschen, Kietzmann, & Kietzmann, in press, in Morkunas et al, 2019). Morkunas et al (2019) predict that blockchain technologies will “challenge existing business models and offer opportunities for new value creation”, whilst the UK Government Chief Scientific Officer described distributed ledger technology as a “potential explosions of creative potential that catalyse exceptional levels of innovation“ that can “reform our financial markets, supply chains, consumer and business-to-business services, and publicly-held registers” (2016). If these predictions come to fruition then we can expect Distributed Ledger Technology and Blockchain to have considerable impact on business and the future of work.
This essay attempts to reach an answer to the question ‘What is the role of DLT and blockchain in the future of work?’ The question is explored through looking at recent literature for a definition of the future of work, how emerging technologies, specifically Distributed Ledger Technology and Blockchain, are expected to affect the nature of work, and which sectors are likely to be most impacted. The discussion considers examples of the use, issues and challenges for DLT and blockchain in the top three affected sectors. In drawing a conclusion about the role of DLT and Blockchain in the future of work I argue that emerging technologies have an amplified impact where more than just a single technology is applied, and that DLT and blockchain are likely to have a greater impact on some sectors than others.
What is the future of work?
Work in the 21st century is entering a Fourth Industrial Revolution, a revolution built on an increasing number of emerging and interacting technologies that is “more comprehensive and all-encompassing than anything we have ever seen” (Schwab & Samans, 2016). ‘The future of work’ is a current and ongoing debate about how every occupation in every sector is undergoing a fundamental transformation as a result of the impacts of emerging technologies and digital transformation. The debate is wide-ranging, with far-reaching consequences, spanning from the offer of benefits for employers and employees augmented by technology (Grabowski, 2018) to mass economic disruption from the loss of jobs (Ernst et al, 2019). While some jobs are threatened by redundancy and others grow rapidly, existing jobs are also going through a change in the skill sets required to do them (Schwab & Samans, 2016). Some sectors can expect greater change than others.
What factors will affect the future of work?
Along with the changes to work and working life brought about by technology there are wider trends such as globalisation of labour markets through the diffusion of outsourcing and offshoring, and job polarisation (Berg et al, 2018) that impact the future of work debate. For the purposes of this paper we cannot consider all of these factors and will instead focus on the potential impacts of emerging technologies in general, and Distributed Ledger Technologies and Blockchain specifically as we try to understand what role they may play in the future of work. However, one closely related trend that is worth discussing is the increase of flexible working arrangements as shown in Figure 1. The graph from the World Economic Forum shows 44% of respondents stated that the changing nature of work was the greatest driver for change across all industries. This matches with the findings from Berg et al (2018) where the two most important reasons for crowdworking were to “complement pay from other jobs” (32%) and because they “prefer to work from home” (22%). This suggests people are looking for more flexibility in their working life and turning to technology to enable it.
Figure 1: Demographic and socio-economic drivers of change, industries overall
Source: The future of jobs: employment, skills, and workforce strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum.
Which technologies will affect the future of work?
The World Economic Forum report lists the nine technologies it’s respondents considered drivers of change (Fig. 2). Noticeably, DLT & Blockchain are not specifically listed as technologies that are expected to drive change. It could be argued that DLT & Blockchain technology has yet to achieve the maturity and adoption necessary for a study of this breadth to recognise its potential impact. This is backed-up by the British Standards Institution report which states the challenges of Blockchain adoption as including: “lack of clarity on the terminology and perceived immaturity of the technology, perceived risks in early adoption and likely disruption to existing industry practices, and insufficient evidence on business gains and wider economic impact” (Deshpande, 2017). DLT and Blockchain should be expected to impact the future of work, but perhaps those expectations are not arising just yet.
Figure 2: Technology drivers of change, industries overall
Source: The future of jobs: employment, skills, and workforce strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum.
If Distributed Ledger Technologies and Blockchain are not yet impacting businesses and the future of work in a generic way like mobile and cloud are, then which specific industries are being affected by DLT and Blockchain?
Which sectors are likely to be most affected by Blockchain?
The Global Blockchain Benchmarking Study (Hileman & Rauchs, 2017) (Fig.3) shows how blockchain is at use by different industry sectors, with the banking & finance industry the highest user, followed by government & public goods, and then insurance. Those sectors which use Blockchain the most stand to be the most affected by its use, and so it is these sectors that we should expect DLT and blockchain to play more of a role in shaping the future of work.
Figure 3. Sectors currently using blockchain.
Source: Global Blockchain Benchmarking Study
The following discussion looks at the role DLT and blockchain may play in the future of work in the top three sectors identified in the Global Blockchain Benchmarking Study, including examples and considering some of the challenges and issues.
Distributed Ledger Technology and Blockchain in the Banking and finance sector
The finance sector is being disrupted by DLT and blockchain (Buitenhek, 2016., Natarajan et al, 2017, Treleaven et al, 2017, Hassani et al, 2018). This seems undeniable. Blockchain technology serves a finance use case very well, offering as it does an immutable record of transactions and means of solving the double-spend problem (Nakamoto, 2008). Services such as Corda which “enables businesses in Banking, Capital Markets, Trade Finance, Insurance and beyond to transact directly and in strict privacy using smart contracts, reducing transaction and record-keeping costs and streamlining business operations” (Corda, 2021) demonstrate how large corporations in highly regulated industries are beginning to adopt blockchain technologies.
However, blockchain is not without its weaknesses of security, scalability, and efficiency (Dinh & Thai, 2018) which present considerable challenges in a banking and finance setting. Adoption of new technologies is always dependent on multiple factors, but perhaps it is precisely its disruptiveness that presents a challenge to the adoption of DLT and blockchain in the finance industry. As Tapscott and Tapscott (2017) state, the finance industry suffers from being “centralized, which makes it resistant to change… but the solution to this innovation logjam has emerged: blockchain.”
Let’s consider a case study of how one start-up is using blockchain to provide a disruptive microfinance solution.
Blockchain in Microfinance
“As the fintech landscape evolves at an unprecedented speed, Mastercard provides the infrastructure and assets to help fintech innovators grow and ultimately bring more people into the digital economy,” said Amy Neale, Senior Vice President, Fintech & Enablers. (Mastercard, 2021). One of those innovators is Brazil-based Moeda Seeds, a digital banking, payment and micro credit services powered by blockchain. “Since its founding in 2017, the company has used blockchain technology and has focused on the unbanked and under-banking population in Brazil“ (Moeda, 2021). They use blockchain technology to decrease lending costs, allowing microfinance lenders to send money directly to the recipients without the need for various middlemen (Hofer, 2018).
Microfinance Institutions, like Moeda, are organizations that provide small loans to borrowers who typically lack collateral, steady employment, or a verifiable credit history and therefore do not have access to traditional commercial banking (Coli et al, 2021). The use of Blockchain technology in microfinance introduces a number of benefits that are difficult to achieve through traditional financial institutions and technologies, including:
Transparency for investors to monitor repayments.
Reduced transaction fees by removing the need for intermediary organisations.
Builds an immutable and publicly available credit history for each lender (Adebaki, 2019).
In the case of Moeda, blockchain plays a role in the future of work for the Brazilian farmers, enabling them to fund their businesses without the need for traditional finance mechanisms such as capital or credit history.
Distributed Ledger Technology and Blockchain’s role in Government & Public Goods
Distributed Ledger Technologies and Blockchain have a role to play in government by performing a range of activities, including:
verification of documents such as licenses, proofs of records, transactions, processes or events such as birth of a child,
movement of assets such as transferring money from one entity to another after some work conditions are met,
asset ownership registers such as land registries, property titles and other types of ownership of physical assets and
management of identities like e-identities for citizens and city residents. (Ojo & Adebayo)
Blockchain can be used to address inefficiencies in government systems to increase the effectiveness of public service activities (Ojo & Adebayo). An example of this can be found in the Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology’s proof-of-concept for providing physicians with a means to obtain licenses to practice in multiple states. The Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, built on blockchain, not only offers advantages for the physicians but also strengthens public protection by enhancing the ability of states to share investigative and disciplinary information (Thomas, 2018).
The challenges around government departments adopting emerging technologies such as blockchain include justifying the use of public money and whether blockchain serves sufficient use cases. Estonia has been testing blockchain for limited use cases such as land registry to improve data integrity but has clearly stated that investment in other emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence is a greater priority (Govchain, 2019).
Distributed Ledger Technology and Blockchain in the insurance industry
DLT and blockchain continue to be explored in the insurance industry as a means of achieving the vision where “data is linked automatically to digital contracts which can trigger automated processes. Everyone trusts the accuracy of the data and can share it easily. World-class encryption provides the necessary security, and there’s a clear, immutable audit trail to underpin end-to-end underwriting and claims governance.” (EY, 2017). EY’s Insurwave, a blockchain enabled marine insurance product, aims to “deliver major gains in transparency, efficiency and auditability in the insurance value chain.” (EY, 2017). Replacing traditional databases with a blockchain creates immutable records allowing for better risk assessments on the part of insurers and quicker claims payouts for shippers. The operational efficiency gained by such solutions reduces the cost of moving information within and between companies. However, an issue to be faced by the insurance industry as a whole is how to work with regulators to ensure legal requirements and regulations evolve in line with new use cases for the technology. Clearly this is a policy issue rather than a technology one but could stand in the way of blockchain solutions becoming the standard across the insurance industry.
This essay started with a definition of the future of work debate as a response to emerging technologies and digital transformation, and considered which sectors are likely to be the most affected by the use of DLT & blockchain. The discussion looked at the use of blockchain in the finance sector, government and insurance industry, considering some current uses, challenges and opportunities. From looking at this we can draw the following conclusions:
DLT & blockchain will have a far greater role in changing some industries than it does in others. The effects will be greater in sectors where multiple organisations need access to the same data and for that data to be trusted as a single source of truth.
DLT & blockchain is likely to change the nature of the relationship between businesses, transforming aspects where a trust-based relationship exists. It has the potential to enable businesses to move away from centralised authorities.
All sectors and industries suffer similar challenges with the adoption of DLT & blockchain, including regulation, understanding and clearly defined use cases.
The effects on the future of work are likely to be considerably more profound where DLT & blockchain intersect with other emerging technology such as the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.
Distributed ledger technologies and blockchain, as two of many emerging technologies, can be expected to have a contributory role in changing the future of work, and it’s clear how these technologies can be used in specific use cases, but it would be less prudent to conclude a general direct impact in the way that automation technologies, for example, can be expected to affect employment and the types of jobs available.
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I spent some time this week working on how we think about risk, and start to recgonise that estimating and quantifying the likelihood of a risk occurring isn’t a very helpful way of thinking about some risks. For some risks, the kind of risks where even a single occurrence is unacceptable, severity is what matters. The tendency of likelihood-focused thinking is to assume that risk can be mitigated to point of being extremely unlikely to occur, and so severity doesn’t matter. But severity-focus thinking assumes the risks of high severity are always high severity, however likely or unlikely they are to occur, and so either need to be accepted or removed entirely.
Of course no product manager should just be taking business requirements and handing them to the development team to build without some rationalisation and validation, but I’ve been spending quite a bit of this week figuring out what a structured rationalisation process might look like with getting caught in a bootstrap problem. Our programme design teams want to add something to the courses we deliver, and that thing requires some costly and complex technical development, which we don’t want to do unless we’re sure it’s going to get used and so we ask questions about how people might be trained in using this new feature, how many people might benefit, what is the total value, but of course those are hard questions to answer with only an idea of something to add. So where to start, that is the question.
A porous membrane for the organisation, and why it matters for product thinking
I’ve been thinking for a while about how and why the boundary between an organisation and society can be made porous to allow for knowledge to flow both ways. Whether this is Friedman’s nonsense about the purpose of a company or Macleod’s ideas about how organisations use blogging and social media, or how technology products act as interfaces between organisations and customers, the nature of the relationship between organisations and society is changing.
I went to a launderette and used a change machine. I’m fascinated by simple machines like these that have a very direct logic about their interface and require the people using them to make the decisions. Most of the software we use is other people’s decisions.
And thought abut:
What problem does Product Management solve?
A colleague asked me about what I do as a product manager, and as usual I struggled to articulate anything more than, “whatever I can to help the product be a success”. Generally, the usual explanation of being at the intersection of technology and what we can do with it, business objectives and how we achieve them, and customer needs and how to meet them, works but doesn’t help anyone understand the what or how of product management in a charity. There’s acceptance that there are lots of overlaps with what other roles do, there’s some business analysis, technical architecture, UX design, customer support, etc., but what does product management do that is unique to product managers? Or to put it another way, what problem does the role of a product manager solve for the organisation?
Change isn’t failure
Making a decision that was right at a point in time but, having learned more since then that makes that decision now look wrong, doesn’t actually make it a wrong decision. It’s better to make a new decision based on new information. Not making a new decision, continuing with the old decision, is more wrong now than the original decision. How we frame learning and making new decisions not as failures and changing minds, but as progress and the mark of good leadership in a digital organisation is a challenge.
And I read about:
I listened to a podcast about Team Topologies and patterns that help organisations achieving a fast flow of change in order to be more successful at software delivery. The three key principles they talked about were: Optimising for faster flow in live systems, using rapid feedback from those live systems so teams can course correct, and limiting team cognitive load. These allow teams to assume end-to-end responsibilities and develop solid practices. I’m definitely going to learn more about this.
Rethinking the ‘rainy day’ myths of charity reserves
Charity reserves are an interesting thing. There’s a lot to rethink and and lot of perspectives to rethink from. In start-up terms, it would be called a runway. It’s how long the organisation can operate before it runs out of money. For a charity, and more so for the people who are helped by the charity, the length of that runway is even more important than for most startups. Thinking around reserves crosses-over with the financial literacy of the trustees running the charity, the appetite for risk vs. interpretations of responsibility for overseeing the correct running of the charity, the types and sources of funding available, how many people are paid employees of the charity. All of these things and more should inform each charities position on reserves. It’s a more complex calculation than blanket guidance of x number of months operating costs can cover.
Direct Acyclic Graph
DAG’s are the latest and coolest implementations of Distributed Ledger Technologies. They tackle many of the issues that the sequential DLT’s such as Blockchain suffer from (although of course have their own downsides). As interesting as the technologies are, and s interesting as the use cases for the technologies are, I think the most interesting thing is how the ideas behind the technologies are going to affect our worldviews. We haven’t even figured out how the technologies of the internet have affected us, and here we already experiencing very different concepts.