Some notes from OuiShare Fest 2015: from blockchain to lovechains?

Blockchain, blockchain, blockchain…

Yes we heard a LOT about blockchain during this OuiShare Fest. But why? What does blockchain – the cryptographic technology that powers crypto-currencies like Bitcoin – has to do with the collaborative economy? A peer-to-peer currency – by the way highly inequitably distributed – doesn’t itself do much to a sharing revolution.

Well, let start with the beginning.

Photo by under CC BY NC SA license
Photo by under CC BY NC SA license

Big money. Participating to the Fest for the first time, the presence of corporate sponsors was probably what stroke me at first. But this wasn’t a surprise given the boom (if not the bubble) of the so-called sharing economy with the Airbnb, Uber and other Blablacars. Indeed this was for me the starting point of my OuiShare Fest. As sharing economy’s influencer Jeremiah Owyang put it at the opening:

The sharing economy is owned by the 1%!

That’s a fact. Between 2010 and now that’s over $11 billion that were invested with most of it in 2014 alone. This surge of capital enables the scaling of sharing businesses, but also the concentration of their ownership in the hands of a few.

The fact is that the ownership of sharing platforms is not shared at all: it’s good old capitalism, or rather capitalism 2.0 with just a few founders and their investors owning the assets: the peers owning nothing more than their own capital they make available on marketplaces like Uber. So much for the disruption of wealth distribution. A process that Michel Bauwens described as netarchical capitalism. Another speaker, Nick Grossman from Union Square Capital Ventures, observed that every technological wave in the telecommunications industry has experienced a cycle of concentration followed by an open source rebellion (eg. Microsoft and the Linux response). As for now, the Airbnb, Uber and the likes do not have much of an open alternative that has been able to scale.

There are candidates though.

Rebellion in the making: Cooperatives, open source, decentralization. Grossman proposed to develop platforms owned by communities: moving from venture to community capital. There were also quite a few sessions I didn’t attend about the evolution from crowdfunding to crowd equity enabled by the blockchain… Starting from a different point, Share Tribe is a start up that proposes all the components as open source software that entrepreneurs need to build their own peer-to-peer marketplace. This may well lower the barrier to enter the industry of “sharing platforms”, and intensify competition, also enabling the proliferation of niche platforms, in particular for social businesses. But this won’t change inner monopolistic trends of markets.

The real game changer that everyone seems to be betting on now is a technology: the blockchain.

Here we are. Following the Bitcoin’s success, its cryptographic engine may open a potential for not only running peer-to-peer currencies, but for getting rid of any centralized platform to enable transactions, be they monetary or not, disrupting the central role played by trust on markets. In this vein, Ethereum‘s ambition is to “decentralize the internet and return it to its democratic roots by enabling applications which do not need to rely on trust and cannot be controlled by any central authority”.

Rob Hopkins showing the Totnes Pound, a local  and low-tech currency -  photo by under CC BY NC SA
Rob Hopkins showing the Totnes Pound, a local and low-tech currency – photo by under CC BY NC SA

Actually, quite a bit of the discussion I’ve heard or took part in during the OuiShare Fest revolved around decentralization. And the blockchain is believed to be its enabling technological grail. And yes, not many at the Fest do understand how blockchain works. Neither do I! But as Matan Field, Founder of La’Zooz who also has a PhD about the string theory, you don’t need to understand the details of how it works to understand what it can do. So you may have heard of La’Zooz, the car-sharing app trying to be the first decentralized and community-owned platform to use Ethereum’s blockchain environment. Matan Field moved to found Backfeed to pursue the systemic goal of enabling decentralized collaborative organizations. Primavera de Fillipi is a legal scholar at Harvard Law School and is exploring for Backfeed the legal implications of such models. She observed that the use of blockchain for smart contracts is compatible with our current legal frameworks, but they open a whole new universe:

While using blockchain the governance is set and enforced by design, it is embedded in the code.

This came to resonate strongly with the work on the governance of digital commons by Mayo Fuster Morrell whom I met during a seminar dedicated to research the collaborative economy. There was much more about decentralization, so I’ll finish by pointing to its growing community GET-D and one of its founders, Joachim Lohkamp, and their next meeting in September in Berlin.

With so much about decentralization, we didn’t hear much about commons.

It was Juan Urrutia, theorician of abundance economics, who insisted that in order to understand the economics of the collaborative economy, we need to talk about commons and called for a specific stream for the next fest!

I cannot agree more. To be able to provide a cognitive space for platforms and initiatives that are operating outside the market, the commons lens may very much help.

The inner transformation – the collaborative mind. So OuiShare Fest is a lot of brainfuck with tons of ideas, projects, visions, and so on, but it’s also about our inner transformation. What attitudes are implied by sharing modes of consumption? What behaviours are required to make collaboration work? Of course there was the ususal Charles Eisenstein keynote, but something that left me with a bigger impression was the number of opportunities to actually experiment that transformation for yourself. I’ve taken part in a ‘Love Confessions’ session where about 40 people openly shared intimate stories in a caring atmosphere that is rare to experience. In the same vein, during the ‘Open Circle’ facilitated by Camille Sfez, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with strangers through deep listening, experimenting the joy of giving and receiving full attention from others, and having the space to express deep feelings. And there were many more of such moments where participants got to engage with the reality and the depth of what a transition towards collaborative models (as opposed to competitive ones) may imply on a personal level, including in the heart of our intimacy (with some nice feedback from Couchsurfing CEO). And this is well understood by Francesca Pick, the Fest Chair, who confided that she’s pushing to give a growing space to such topics during the Fest.

The special energy of the people I met along this festival let me think the OuiShare community is on the right track not to let itself gobbled up by venture capital and the growth paradigm – at least not too easily.

For me that’s what truly makes the OuiShare Fest a great event.

So what if next year the buzzword is lovechains?

Lovechain - photo by under CC BY NC SA
Lovechain – photo by under CC BY NC SA

A few other things worth reporting about:

  • While talking about the future development of the semantic web, Henry Story, noted that (data) vocabularies, on the internet as in languages, get spread if they provide a value. This is of particular relevance to the TransforMap collective and its proposed taxonomy (a vocabulary) to help communities map and categorize their initiatives.
  • The TransforMap workshop I co-organized with Jon Richter and Josef Kreitmayer was very well attended, including Neal Gorenflo and Tom Llewelyn from Shareable who have curated dozens of map jams around the world. Once again, we got confirmation that communities around the world need robust vocabularies (i.e. categories), user-friendly online tools, and onLAND methodologies to produce meaningful and interoperable maps of the collaborative economy.
  • The development of the sharing approach at the territorial level is steady. I missed the session on Sharitories, but things are moving on this side. I can mention Amandine Piron and Gwendal Briand from Collporterre who are doing a great job in France.
  • I also met with many other frenchies who are committed to an open source and decentralized web as the techno-social infrastructure that may support a socio-ecological transition. This includes the folks from Assemblée Virtuelle (Guillaume Rouyer, Yannick Duthe), OSCE Days (Thimothée Gosselin), Le Fil Rouge (Nicolas Loubet), the commons community (Valérie Peugeot, Hervé le Crosnier), la FING (Marine Albarède)…
  • As a consequence of the nice research workshop organized by David Canat and the folks from Nesta, we started a mailing list to exchange on researching the collaborative economy among and beyond the OuiShare community. Feel free to join!
  • Last but not least: the folks from Open State and OuiShare teamed up to organize POC21 ahead of the climate conference (COP21) in Paris. A 5 weeks long camp to bring open source products that have a transformative potential for sustainability up to the working prototype level. This is the really disruptive stuff!

Check the great pics from Stefano Borghi to get a visual feel of the atmosphere.

And if you still want more check out the OuiShare Youtube channel.

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