Creative Currencies Chiasma: An Unmitigated Success!

I’ve written about a number of times before about trying to kickstart the discussion around digital currencies and particularly blockchain technologies throughout Scotland. Not because I believe in any way that I somehow have all the answers. But simply because I see it as a crucial topic for anyone who wants to understand an game-changing development that will inevitably shape the future of our society in a wide range of ways. 

Last week Edinburgh University’s Design Informatics ran the Creative Currencies Chiasma, a ground-breaking 2.5 day residential course focused on helping people to develop digital currency business ideas from a standing start. I was delighted to be asked to help out after previously speaking at a couple of the warm-up events. There’s no doubt in my mind that as a group, the participants really did something unique over that few days. I take little credit on that front though, full kudos must go to Chris Speed and Debbie Maxwell who designed and project managed the whole event under the Design In Action umbrella.

The event was unique (check out more pictures of the event here) because it handpicked people from a wide variety of backgrounds, mixing those with extensive knowledge of crypto-currencies with newcomers, locked them in a room for a few days and stood back to see what sort of new business ideas would result. With the added icing on the cake being the prospect of £20,000 funding being awarded to the best ideas.

The first night of the event kicked off with a great introductory talk by Chris as he explored the hidden potential in the flows of data (including money) through our cities, after which Patrick Stevenson-Keating gave a fascinating talk about his recent project at the Design Museum in London where he took on the task of re-imagining financial services using a design perspective. Some really great ideas there – how about a lengthy credit card that lets you pay more money the further you insert it into the card reader for example?

George Kelsey from RBS then spoke after dinner, mentioning that whilst he wasn’t a fan of Bitcoin itself (unsurprisingly, Ripple appears to be the current frontrunner for those within the bank), he remains completely convinced that blockchain technologies are going to change the world. Whilst we perhaps have differing views on the details in the future scenarios that could play out, I felt that was a pretty significant statement from an experienced bank representative.

After that, I gave a general introduction to Bitcoin to the group before we all decamped to another room to run through a blockchain workshop that we’d devised using a combination of lego, trading cards, stickers, Countdown and all manner of other ecosystem tweaks as trading conditions evolved! We’d tried running it out on a student class a few weeks earlier with great success. The ideas that they’d come up with after having their minds opened to the possibilities of having this secure, immutable record and programmable money were truly fascinating given the short time they’d been given. The same happened here, no doubt nicely lubricated by a few drinks. The attendees at the Chiasma didn’t disappoint with their thoughts on the future..

The evening then evolved into a further investigation of the potential for cryptocurrencies into the wee small hours. It shows what happens when you get the right people into the same room – I could tell that the level of engagement was going to be immense when the earlier dinner chat at my end of the table revolved around the existential threat of AI, drones, 3D printing and the re-engineering of the financial system….

The next morning, it was up bright and early to set up camp within the RBS Technology Solutions Centre. I certainly wasn’t alone I’m sure in feeling slightly strange ideating through concepts that could fundamentally disintermediate the banking industry whilst within the belly of the beast, so to speak. But I have to say that RBS were very accommodating and freely provided the location for the event – regardless of what their motivations might have been, it’s a genuinely step forward to see a financial institution engaging in such a positive way with the topic. This would not have happened a couple of years ago and it shows you just how far things have progressed in recent times.

The next couple of days were a bit of a blur to be honest. A healthy mix of education, unrestrained ideation and problem-solving with, very interestingly, many relative newcomers immediately identifying similar areas that have attracted more seasoned Bitcoiners over recent months as being ripe for the exploration of new business models. For example, some of these included looking at ways to rebalance existing financial inequality, strengthen a variety of communities, reward previously unmeasured positive behaviours, harness the power of smart contracts and transparency, cut through the jargon, track the providence of money and secure records on a permanent basis.

I’m not going to write anything about the ideas that were developed throughout the remaining time as each of the individuals involved in the teams that made up the eight final pitches now has the opportunity to work up the concepts into a more robust proposition before applying for further funding that will support future development. However, it’s worth saying that I was very impressed with the progress that was made. Bitcoin – and cryptocurrencies in general – are difficult to grasp. It’s one thing to turn up at a Bitcoin conference or a hack weekend when you have that background knowledge and you’re surrounded by people who are steeped in the culture and daily echochamber of the Bitcoin scene. But for so many relative newcomers to openly embrace the process of education whilst simultaneously grasping the immediate potential gives me real hope for the future in terms of the way with which such ideas will be able to spread.

With such a significant paradigm shift taking place, it takes a few brave organisations to stand up and provide a framework for others to coalesce around. It’s a vital role and full credit goes to Chris, Debbie and the rest of the team for pulling this together. I suspect those involved will think back to those two and a half days in a decade or so and then truly realise how lucky they were to be involved at this point in time.

Thanks to everyone who took part. Let’s hope we can do it again some time.