Blockchain and the new Renaissance

“One has to evaluate with caution the doctrines that dominate intellectual discourse, with careful attention to the argument, the facts, and lessons of past and present history” Noam Chomsky

Since the advent of bitcoin a few years ago, the role of its underlying technology – blockchain – has been heralded as a breakthrough in a broad variety of industries and public services, not just currency or financial services. Everything from patents, identification management and contracts are under investigation by distributed ledger enthusiasts.

It is a fascinating time for such a technology to be created in the world. It is a technology that promises distributed trust between groups of people in an era when democracy has become something of a spectator sport – at most, populations around the world have the “right to consent to be governed”, rather than the right to participate in true democratic processes. In a world economy where large corporations dominate decisions, the opportunity to create distributed trust that allows them to bypass corporate supply chains and create their own is obviously a tempting proposition for many people.

There are perhaps no other technologies that offer such a level of digital disruption – promising to revolutionise not just industry, but social contracts, how companies are formed and run (and indeed may even be run by machines themselves with no human interaction) and even how government is operated in many nations. As bellwethers of an emerging digital economy go – this is truly the loudest one so far. Distributed ledgers allow not just a change in efficiency and effectiveness of operations as ICT has done previously – they help redefine the manner in which power is developed and maintained in economic systems.

This presents an interesting conundrum for research and strategy assessments – by their very nature, distributed ledgers are inherently interdisciplinary. Traditional research between disciplines is usually conducted in a multi-disciplinary manner – where each discipline works in a silo and occasionally come together to discuss possible cross overs. To a greater extent, the same has been true in strategy consulting. Distributed ledgers, however, cannot be treated in a mu multi-disciplinary context – it can only be researched appropriately with inter-disciplinary approaches. In effect, this means that technology researchers need economics and social science training, while the methods and techniques used to develop and create new technologies should be understood across a much broader range of social science researchers.

While many attempts have been made to develop interdisciplinary programs previously, they have fallen far short of training engineers or computer scientists in economics or social sciences. They have generally fallen into multi-disciplinary projects, with little real breakthroughs in methods or even insights into the phenomenon being studied. Multidisciplinary research is failing us.

The project that spawned this website was an attempt to bring research disciplines together and to not just work in silos but to argue through our misunderstanding of each other methods until we managed to reach a new level – a new set of methods for interacting across disciplines and sufficient training between us to allow a designer to apply economic methods, for example or a computer scientist to use design methods.

Which got us thinking on this project about the need for a new renaissance in the world today to bring forward a new generation of polymaths or renaissance men and women in the field of scientific discovery.

The renaissance period brought not just great contributions to art and society, but was also a period of immense scientific breakthroughs. From the perspective of scientific knowledge, it was also a time of revolution and the emergence of the scientific method. Ideas across science, maths, biology and physics were transformed and the world was never the same again. Scientists were just as interested in innovation as they were in recovery of information.

For me, the emergence of distributed ledgers is one clear signal that a new renaissance is needed – a period of time where we (re)-introduce observation as a core aspect of all research – economics, technology and design included. New methods are needed to properly investigate the world that is emerging around us. Without new methods, we will hold innovation and progress back. We cannot be afraid in the face of the necessity for change. We can only try to embrace it.