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John Clippinger: On sustainable energy through blockchain and self-organising systems

In 2014, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond explored the re-invention of money and a utopian vision of a self-governing, self-editing and self-learning society. John Clippinger, who co-edited the book, wrote one chapter on the importance of self-sovereignty.

“Through the use of data asset exchanges where individuals and groups could make markets using their data assets, a new business model for web content and services would be possible,” Clippinger (left) wrote. “Imagine a world where people got fair value for their data and would be in charge of how they would be approached by vendors and third parties… it would unlock new sources of innovation and greater service efficiencies by making the management of market and security risk based upon more accurate and complete data analytics.”

This ideal would however require a total shift in how systems worked today. “None of this would be possible, however, if individuals were not self-sovereign and in charge of their own identities and personal data,” the essay added. “If other parties, governments or corporations, are in charge… then the old dictum of quis custodiet ipsos custodes [watching the watchmen] would assert itself once again.”

Clippinger, a well-respected futurist, advisor and MIT research scientist, has spent the vast majority of his career fascinated by self-organising systems and designing them to address key societal issues. He has been a member of the World Economic Forum Global Advisory Council and continues to speak on the future of blockchain and its potential.

The transition to sustainable energy

One of his current ventures within the energy sector is Swytch.io, a startup which aims to, in the company’s words, ‘act as a decentralised authority to translate sustainability actions into carbon-reduction rewards.’ The Swytch token was created by the Token Commons Foundation, of which Clippinger is also a founder.

“I think what is underreported and not understood is the rate at which we’re transitioning to more sustainable energy generation”

“One of the things that’s come out of that which I think is very germane is we were really interested in creating an alternative, having a verifiable REC [renewable energy certificate],” he tells The Block.  “The way RECs work for carbon credits is they’re very arbitrary and very localised. If you can do verification on the provenance and production of sustainable energy, then you can generate a REC with a real provable value.”

Swytch offers a potential plethora of use cases, from automated data collection and verification, to gauging energy efficiency through plugging its ever-growing network into proprietary data sets. The overall consensus, however, is to use blockchain technology to “empower everyone – governments, cities, corporations, NGOs and individuals – to take a more active role in accelerating the adoption of renewable supply and sustainability programs.”

This approach sounds markedly similar to Clippinger’s vision from five years before – and he notes the progress the company has made. “We have enterprise clients now,” he says. “I think what is underreported and not understood is the rate at which we’re transitioning to more sustainable energy generation. The cost of solar and battery is coming down on an exponential basis, and currently it’s really cheaper to do solar than it is fossil.

“You’re even getting more traditional companies, oil companies, they’re saying ‘uh-oh, we need to make a transition, we don’t want to have stranded assets,’’” Clippinger adds. “[They] see this transition. How do they make that transition, and how do they verify assets that they’re sustainable, and more efficiently manage their grids?

“There’s a movement towards creating private virtual grids, enterprise grids and managing those. There’s a lot of rethinking about how to manage IoT assets and energy grids.”

As the company explains, the first half of 2018 was focused on proving the concept, with the second half focusing on scale. This year is focused on momentum, while 2020 and beyond is headlined simply as ‘changing the world.’ “We’ve gone through the crypto winter, and so the question is can you really deploy a service and a technology at scale, engage customers, and create value from that?” says Clippinger. “It’s not just a small proof of concept. We’re at a critical juncture as how to make that transition.”

5G and a self-organising network

One emerging technology that Clippinger is interested in outside of this context is 5G. Its self-organising network (SON) capability fits in to the vision of autonomy in deployment and optimisation. 5G is often cited alongside blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) as complementary; one oft-cited path is that 5G will provide the speed to help generate greater insights (AI) on huge numbers of devices (IoT) which will need to be tamper-proof (blockchain).

“The value of crypto – something highly scalable, verifiable and programmable – is here to stay and that changes everything”

For Clippinger, it is the network which is particularly exciting. “You’re going to have to have it self-deploying, self-optimising, self-healing – you’re forced to deal with this because of the number of devices there,” he says. “That’s going to set protocols that other services are going to have to plug in to. If you cannot verify the security or the reputation of an asset then you need to quarantine it and turn it off – all of these things need to be worked out at enormous scale.”

The one thing all these technologies definitely have in common is their propensity to be overhyped. Anyone who attended MWC Barcelona last month would have heard all kinds of discussions around 5G but comparatively little to show for it. In the same way, many companies will describe their product as AI-enabled when it is anything but.

Going beyond the hype for blockchain

Blockchain has certainly had its moments – type ‘blockchain or database’ into a search engine to give some idea of this – but the optimists believe the light at the end of the crypto winter tunnel is that only the serious players will be left in the game. It is a view with which Clippinger agrees.

“It’s a baby and the bathwater problem,” he explains. “I think the issues that consumed so much conversation in the crypto and blockchain world in 2016, 2017, 2018 – proof of work, proof of stake, all these very heated discussions I think are going to go away, and I think that you’re going to evolve new kinds of architectures and new kinds of players.

“The money is not going to be speculative money – it’s going to be institutional money that’s going to drive this,” he adds. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the banks are going to assume the hegemony again because I think there’s something inherent in the architecture that goes against the business model – but I think that you’re going to have this transition.

“If you suddenly see the top 100 cryptocurrencies collapse in value it doesn’t mean that the whole idea of cryptocurrency is flawed; it’s moving into another phase,” adds Clippinger. “The value of crypto – something that’s highly scalable, verifiable and is programmable – is here to stay. That changes everything.”

John Clippinger is speaking at Blockchain Expo Global in London on April 25-26. You can find out more about his session here.

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