Blockchain: co-designing the future

Irene Lopez de Vallejo

Irene Lopez de Vallejo is Director of R&D Programmes at Digital Catapult

Irene Lopez de Vallejo, Director of R&D Programmes at Digital Catapult, touches on the rise of emerging technologies, including the exciting potential of blockchain. Read on to find out more and learn how you can take part in our work with this emerging technology. 

Some years ago I was massively obsessed with location tracking technologies. I used to spend hours reading about RFID and UWB, trying to understand how they worked in real environments, particularly in buildings.

One of the things I enjoyed most was finding visualisations of how these technologies operated. I remember an “a-ha” moment when I saw the results of a really cool study on RFID ‘aura’, which inspired me to find out more about the space that surrounds objects and people. This eventually led me to do a PhD on the subject.

Another ‘a-ha’ moment – magical I’d argue – was the first time I tried a ‘mind reading helmet’ based on EEG signals, using the eyes as a writing tool. It only took me half an hour to master it – this was in 2009, mind you! I got goosebumps and almost cried when I could write a line only with my ‘mind’.

The last year has been hectic for many reasons; one of them being that my job allows me the privilege of meeting some of the coolest and most disruptive digital SMEs in the UK and Europe, as well as their leaders, founders and funders.

During the last year there has been a major focus on blockchain, a technology that makes me feel like I’m at the brink of a tsunami.

From an early superficial understanding of the technology – I’m a social scientist after all – to living the buzz, meeting advocates and detractors trying to do something tangible within the creative industries at Digital Catapult (check out our recent smart contracts work with the UK Games Fund), I have been through a period of excitement, awe and, quite frankly, confusion.

What is it?

Blockchain technology allows a coder to build a chain (a sequence of items of the same type, forming an imaginary line) of blocks (think of a book that records digital transactions) that once agreed upon through communal decision making mechanisms, transparent by definition and to the parties involved, cannot be altered.

Why is this important?

Its immutability and transparency make it the perfect consensus mechanism, and their characteristics tap into the social unrest that affects societies globally; whether it is the feeling of missing out, of loss or of injustice. It offers a tool that can be used for the greater good.

Can it be used for evil?

Indeed it can, with the most terrifying potential consequence being the loss of control in a blockchain-enabled society. I’d argue here that we should focus on people, not tech, and that we need to consider multidisciplined privacy protection when scaling blockchain solutions.

How is it going to evolve? Why does everybody think it is as disruptive as the internet was 20 years ago?

No idea – we will have to watch this space, but we must think about how openness, transparency, immutability and accountability can protect fundamental global rights to privacy, ownership, safety and trust in government.

All these questions have been explored in a short film we have collaborated on with Furtherfield recently. What started as a discussion on common interests around personal data, IoT and trust, entered a much more experimental and hands on collaboration on how can we take this technology and its potential to a wider audience; to SMEs, governments, creative industries and in general, to all potential users and beneficiaries of blockchain enabled solutions.

Can we co-design the future together? Watch our video below and come along to our Blockchain meetup to find out!

Irene Lopez de Vallejo is Director of R&D Programmes at Digital Catapult. You can follow her on Twitter @ILdeV. Don’t forget to follow us too @DigiCatapult.

Find out more about our work with blockchain and how you can get involved by attending our Blockchain Meetup

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