Blockchain, the ground-breaking technology for decentralisation underlying the bitcoin, could play a prominent role towards stronger democracies in the digital age. Although wide-scale case studies are still missing, it offers a myriad of value promises. At CitizenLab, we regularly explore the next big frontiers for our democracies, with this week: the Blockchain.
What is Blockchain?
Simply put, a blockchain is a digital, publicly accessible ledger or register. All transactions involving bitcoin are saved in the ledger, and anyone with the access codes can verify ownership of the virtual currency at any time. Blockchain’s revolutionary character lies in the fact that it is a decentralised system, meaning it operates independently of a central authority, such as a government or central bank. This ensures faster and cheaper transactions, and a “trustworthy” central party is no longer necessary.
Want to get an easy-to-understand introduction? Check out this 5 minute video on the Blockchain:
Use Cases for Democracy
1/ Secured voting
A first application of how the blockchain could be used to build stronger democracies is pretty obvious. Corruption is still very common in our flawed democracies — our ballot system works like a black box. Voters go to polling stations, cast their paper ballots into a ballot box, and these votes are later counted by independent officials. In other words, this counting method is based on a trust relationship with the government collecting and counting ballots. Who can guarantee the citizens that the votes were counted correctly? Exactly, no one.
While some experts argue that even Internet voting isn’t secure enough to use yet, blockchain voting entails interesting benefits. Instead of registering votes in one central place, a network of thousands of computers records all the votes. The Blockchain technology guarantees the identities of the voters in a decentralised way.
2/ Smart participation
The Blockchain can go many steps further than “merely” offering secured voting during elections. Citizens trust is known to be one of the missing ingredients in our democratic recipe. Indeed, the Urban Millennial Survey (2016) indicates that 83% of -35-year-olds don’t feel that their voice is heard, although the majority of them do want to participate.
A solution to re-install trust amongst citizens might be to implement technology that commits governments to listen to their citizens. One way to do so might be through Ethereum‘s so-called smart contracts. City governments who already encourage bottom-up citizen participation — such as the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, where the 10 best ideas from their digital democracy platform are monthly presented on the council meeting — can carry out their rules of the games in a written contract on bits. The same goes for the practice of participatory budgeting.
The blockchain in combination with existing civic technologies could re-generate trust from citizens, improve the effectiveness of our representative governments, and put our participatory democracies on steroids.
3/ Liquid democracy
To make our particratic democratic systems belong to the past, we need the people to re-engage on topics. Liquid democracy — also called ‘delegative democracy’ — offers an interesting way out. It basically allows us to vote on issues that concerns us and give away our votes on the bills that don’t interest us. Thereby creating a new form of democracy between direct democracy and representative democracy: liquid democracy.
In contrast to our current system of having one single vote every X year for your political representative, liquid democracy allows citizens to regain control over which topics they want to participate in.
Best practices so far
First experiments on the blockchain for stronger democracies have popped up all around the world. Ranging from a Danish political party using the blockchain to arrange internal voting processes, to the Ukrainian government leveraging the decentralisation technology for petitions and advisory votes at municipal level, or even an Australian party who wants citizens to participate in parliament through the blockchain. We can only expect the adoption by governments to increase in the years to come.
Do you have any other examples we should be aware of? Let us know!