Primavera de Filippi on Blockchain and the Quest to Decentralize Society

The Harvard researcher talks blockchain governance and her novel alternative to proof-of-work.

AccessTimeIconApr 18, 2017 at 12:30 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:14 p.m. UTC
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"I went into the blockchain and I never left."

As a researcher at CERSA/CNRS and Harvard Primavera De Filippi is perhaps most well-known for blockchain ideas that sound as if they come straight out of a sci-fi novel. Case in point, De Filippi presented a robotic flower that lives and reproduces via bitcoin micropayments at a conference earlier this year.

Of course, there are plenty of big ideas swirling around in the industry, but whether or not all or any of these are viable is still up for debate. And that hangs heavy on De Filippi, too.

She sighed heavily when The DAO – the most prominent example of a leaderless organization functioning on blockchain that unravelled after an attacker exploited the code last summer – was brought up.

But even with that misstep, De Filippi is still inspired by the potential for smart contracts to create decentralized companies and governance systems with blockchain technology.

Governing society

To really dig in, De Filippi has to look at humanity a little bit differently.

"It actually changes a little bit the way we go about society, when you use technology as opposed to regulation," she said.

She's been studying the advantages and drawbacks of governing through technology (as opposed to regulation) for some time. For example, in the context of blockchain, she's been trying to work out how smart contracts could change laws and regulations.

And her findings have eventually led her to the mantra: "From competition to cooperation."

"So, I think we need to come up with different governance structures which are not market-based, but which will ensure some sort of decentralized power within the community," she said.

That might turn some heads in the blockchain industry, which has historically been made up of libertarian-leaning free market supporters. But, in her mind, building a decentralized system within the confines of a market-based economy doesn't make sense.

"It’s kind of funny because there's such an obsession with creating a decentralized system. But, if you use a market-based mechanism to govern that system, obviously it's going to centralize itself, you know? So, what's the point? Why are you building a decentralized system in the first place?” she said.

Instead, she's trying to engineer a type of cooperative system, all on top of blockchain technology. As part of her research at Harvard and CNRS, De Filippi has been working, for many years, on the elaboration of new governance systems for decentralized organizations, including the Backfeed protocol.


Another problem for decentralized blockchain-based systems, a more technical one that she's been exploring solutions for is a Sybil attack.

Effectively, if it's easy for users to create identities then it's possible to exploit that with one user creating hundreds of accounts, then using them to, say, vote, acting as 100 unique users.

"When you're in a model where you don’t identify who is a part of the system, then it’s really complicated to avoid people creating fake identities in order to cheat," De Filippi explained.

Bitcoin addresses this with proof-of-work, in which miners need to use some energy (in bitcoin's case, computing power) in order to create blocks of transactions and earn block rewards. Ethereum aims to resolve this issue in future with a different system called proof-of-stake.

The Backfeed team, however, is working on its own solution called proof-of-value. The security of the proof-of-value system is supposed to be based on the reputation of users, and while users can create as many accounts as they want, it’s not quite so easy to impact the system with them.

“My reputation, my influence within the system only depends on the perceived value that the community has given to the contribution that is associated with this identity," said De Filippi. "So instead of being based on this objective amount of hashing power, it’s based on this subjective evaluation of the contribution that I have made."

However, it's still hard to say whether the experiment will pan out.

Photo via Primavera de Filippi


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