Open Innovation Fellow Martin Wainstein to Help Guide Students on Using Blockchain for Good


Tsai CITY is welcoming an Open Innovation Fellow, Martin Wainstein. Just a day after arriving from Australia, Martin talked to us about his new role at CITY and his involvement in the upcoming Blockchain for Sustainable Solutions Conference, happening March 2 at Evans Hall. Martin is also leading two Intensives at CITY – Blockchain for P2P Energy (work on developing a microgrid in Puerto Rico) and Open Innovation (figure out how to facilitate global collaborations and crowd-based startups on blockchain). Applications for both are now open.

Q: You’re the Open Innovation Fellow here at CITY. Can you tell me about that?

A: I’m very excited to launch an Open Innovation Lab, which will explore how to leverage different social technologies to produce massive collaboration on projects that have systemic relevance because they are designed to specifically tackle a leverage point within a complex problem in today’s world. A lot of the theories on this work come from my Ph.D. research combining systems thinking with design thinking. Open Innovation actually started as a way for corporations to outsource innovation and came from the realization that relying only on their internal innovation resources wasn’t enough. But a lot of things have changed since that originally started developing. For example, web platforms have become really useful in many different sectors of the economy, facilitating peer-to-peer interaction. Blockchain technology introduces capabilities that can take Open Innovation to the next level. Blockchain allows, through ‘smart contracts,’ a lot of frictionless interactions between peers, developing things like Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO), organizations that live online, that have an in-built democratic governance. One of the things we thought was cool was to launch a lab that would leverage collective effort for real-world problem using these advances.

Q: Can you tell me what a blockchain is?

A: A blockchain is a distributed ledger that lives online. But blockchain technology is comprised of several components that are embedded into a protocol for secure and trusted transactions without a middle agent; transactions of anything that has value and can be digitalized—be it a currency, a vote, an agreement between two peers. Those peers are basically IDs on the blockchain network, which is not so different from addresses on the internet using the Internet Protocol (IP address). Peers interact in a way that can ensure their transactions are irreversible, and logged into the ledger, so… a database. From that database —which holds the whole history of transactions all the way to the very first one— you can calculate or extract the state of each peer; state in terms of their digital assets, whatever those asset are. So, if I give you something, my state after the transaction is that I don’t have that anymore, and you have it.

Now for a digital currency implementation, that’s quite straightforward. Bitcoin uses blockchain technology. In fact, blockchain technology as we know it today was first introduced with bitcoin, but one of the things that really takes the technology to the next level of applications is the possibility of using smart contracts. Smart contracts are agreements, strings of code established online that execute certain commands only if certain predefined criteria are met; this is automatic and incorruptible. So, this means that we can have an agreement, say you are going to give me something and I’m going to pay for it, but if I don’t trust you we will most likely need a third party to be an intermediary, managing an escrow… for example. But if the agreement is placed on a blockchain-based smart contract, this transaction can be done at zero cost of intermediation. A lot of the things we do run on contracts, so this brings a huge application for many things.

Q: You mentioned that you would like to launch an Open Innovation Lab. What would that look like?

A: The Lab will initially look at the type of engine we need for launching projects designed to be exponential in their effects; developed by leveraging resources from the ‘crowd’ or the internet community, with a transparent and democratic governance structure. We should not be shy of wanting to address big problems and have ambitious goals, but apply validated learning along the way. Initially, that engine can be tested by Yale students collaborating on a specific project and managing compensations for the efforts each one puts into it. Eventually, the Lab will incubate specific Open projects; open to people around the world to join them. The project’s architecture needs to be designed to evolve, so once they are in the open they have the capacity for mutability. There is no manual for how to do this. We don’t know how to solve the world’s largest problems and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals — if we did, we would have done so already! Ideally, we start laying down a structure with thought-ware, then software, and then launch a physical and virtual lab; hopefully next semester.

Q: And what about Blockchain for Sustainable Solutions, the subject of the upcoming conference?

A: Another project that we thought made a lot of sense with the emergence of blockchain technology was to have a blockchain initiative that allowed anyone around the Yale community to have a blockchain go-to hub. While we were starting to discuss this last year at CITY, I bumped into Elle Brunsdale [FES ’18] and Viktoriia Shvydchenko [FES ’19] who, in a bonfire talk decided, “Hey blockchain technology has huge applications for sustainability and we haven’t been discussing this a lot on campus, why don’t we start a conference?” And so back in October, Victoriia and Elle kickstarted the conference planning, mentioned it to me, and I immediately said I’d love to help with it. We equally care about social and environmental impacts, and want to bring people willing to research practical blockchain use-cases together.

As for applications of blockchain for sustainability, the conference will focus on three specific themes: energy and water, supply chains, and governance. The use-cases of blockchain for three of the themes are similar but not exactly the same, so similar concepts of technology are tweaked and applied to different fields. One of the exciting things is many applications are being discovered and developed as we speak. This is moving fast but there is still a lot of ground to be covered. Blockchain is a very young technology, and yet robust at the same time. It requires a lot of creativity and a lot of grounded practicality. I could go into detail about energy, supply chain, and governance, but each one is a world unto its own. Thankfully, the student-led team behind the conference was able to source amazing panels that can dive into each one of them.

Q: What is exciting about this conference?

A: It’s amazing that it’s student-led, but it’s not surprising. Blockchain is such a new and fast-paced technology that my intuition is that students are a lot more on top of it than perhaps faculty. Decentralized structures tend to be very appealing to incoming generations. Blockchain is a bottom-up technology, just like the internet, and it’s great that its packed in a student-led way. Also, this is the first official conference on blockchain at Yale; that’s a huge deal, and most of the conferences on blockchain around the world have focused on business developments, ICOs and digital currencies. This one, the fact that it’s focusing on sustainable solutions, I think is extremely powerful and very aligned with Yale’s institutions (FES, CBEY, CITY) that are focused on today’s real problems and really pushing us to ask how this technology can be instrumental for solving them.

Emma Chanen is the Digital Media Intern at Tsai CITY.


Emma Chanen