From a kitchen table to China – the story of BlockchainLab Drenthe
Adri Wischmann – Blockchain Lab Drenthe, Netherlands
Serendipity, hard work and Interreg took 3 entrepreneurs from a kitchen table to build an internationally recognized organisation that has delivered the biggest public service government blockchain project in The Netherlands.
Satoshi Nakamoto may have invented Bitcoin in 2008, but it was 2016 before the founders of what would become BlockchainLab Drenthe discovered blockchain. In the beginning, a handful of enthusiasts would meet at an office or in someone’s living room and they’d give each other homework assignments – “next time you will explain what ‘consensus’ is, and I will explain what a ‘Proof-of-Work’ is”. From September 2017 there were monthly open meetings, where the community worked to help each other understand the ins and outs of Distributed Ledger Technology.
In February 2018, BlockchainLab Drenthe Foundation was established as a non-profit foundation with the goal “to spread knowledge, experience and insights about Distributed Ledger Technology”. Jeroen Wester, Danny Dreves and Adri Wischmann were the founding members, helping their community to sail off into uncharted territory.
A few months later in July 2018 serendipity struck on a trip to the Interreg Like! conference in Angus, Scotland. A wee chat between Adri Wischmann and Tineke Smegen from the Province of Drenthe during a bus ride between conference venues planted the seed for the long-term collaboration between the Province and the BlockchainLab.
It turned out that the Province needed people who knew about blockchain to support Drenthe’s participation in the BLING project, and BlockchainLab Drenthe was in need of a partner/ client who could provide projects, funding, and a network. A match made in Blockchain heaven, just in time for BLING’s kick-off in February 2019.
Our first BLING project – the Self Sovereign Attendancy App
It was not easy to set up our first project. A governmental body like the Province of Drenthe is not used to thinking about decentralized ways of working – and a number of ideas were scrapped before we found the inspiration for our first project, the Self Sovereign Attendancy Application. The app is a blockchain based, GDPR compliant alternative to the (hand)written attendance lists which have to be signed at every Interreg event (but which are not compliant with a number of GDPR rules).
Our motto “eat your own dog food” was the driver for BlockchainLab to develop a blockchain based solution that could manage a list of meeting attendees and prove that the meeting hosted X number of people, while preserving the attendee’s privacy. The app gave attendees a way to prove they were present, without needing to ask the organizer to confirm that they were there – the app could do that! It took
quite a bit of work to determine what GDPR compliance would look like for this use case, but after building and showing our proof-of-concept the Self Sovereign Attendancy-app was born and field tested at a number of events (e.g. the 2022 North Sea Conference in Bruges). It’s now been proposed that Interreg uses the SSA-app instead of traditional paper attendance lists for all their project and network meetings.
Our Second BLING project: the Netherlands’ largest government blockchain-enabled service
The Municipality of Emmen – another BLING partner – was struggling to develop a use case that allowed them to distribute funding from the Municipality to citizens. In November 2020 Emmen got in touch with BlockchainLab Drenthe: Jan Willem Bos and Adri Wischmann started working with Emmen and over time convinced them that they could build a tool that used blockchain to enable a new type of service to distribute government funding/subsidies.
10 months and a feasibility study later, programming started on EnergieKnip (Energy Wallet) – a blockchain application based on the IOTA protocol. EnergieKnip allowed citizens to anonymously submit information about their domestic (home) energy usage, and rewarded them with €50 worth of tokens that could be redeemed for energy saving equipment at hardware stores in Emmen. EnergieKnip was a win-win-win-win situation for:
- the residents, who received energy efficient devices and gained energy awareness through the app,
- the Municipality, which gained a very efficient way to distribute funding, and which gained a lot of information about how their citizens use energy,
- local retailers, which got a lot of revenue and new clients, and
- the environment, because lots of energy and CO2 were saved.
Emmen had previously used a paper voucher system to deliver energy support, but after 7 months it had only been able to give away 16% of their budget.
EnergieKnip was launched on January 11th 2022 with a budget of €150,000, and only 13 days later (on January 24th) all of the money had been claimed. An additional €150,000 was then released, and it only took 11 more days for all of that to be claimed. Nearly 50,000 wallets were sent out (1 for every home in the Municipality) making EnergieKnip the largest government/public services blockchain project in The Netherlands.
EnergieKnip (and BlockchainLab) received national and international media attention, with articles in China and even Al Jazeera contacting us to learn about our “Blockchain driven energy project”. Then came national and international events where we were able to present EnergieKnip to new audiences.
EnergieKnip 2.0 is currently being developed – it will allow Emmen to distribute energy saving appliances to low-income citizens.
There are many companies which want to jump on the blockchain train and who want to build blockchain solutions. But the number of blockchain programmers and experts is extremely small. BlockchainLab Drenthe wanted to do our bit to change this (as much as any small organization can), and so we convinced NHL Stenden University
of Applied Sciences to start delivering two blockchain courses in September 2021, which now trains 40 students per year.
The EnergieKnip spin-off
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to the tripling of energy prices in The Netherlands. The Parkstad Region in the South of the Netherlands contacted us if we could help them with distributing €5,000,000 to 20,000 families who were in financial difficulties because of these high energy costs. This resulted in the Parkstad EnergieKnip, which we deployed in a record breaking 6 weeks, so these households would receive targeted financial support to help them pay their energy bills.
In 2022 the Province of Drenthe started the IT-Hub initiative in the Municipality of Hoogeveen, which was set up to promote IT knowledge among students and to help companies with automation projects. IT-Hub provides a bridge that connect entrepreneurs, schools and government. BlockchainLab Drenthe is providing much needed knowledge and experience about distributed ledger technology to the hub.
Now, don’t think this was all smooth sailing; everywhere you talk about implementing blockchain you are met with prejudice, scepticism and resistance. Persistence and enthusiasm has brought us to where BlockchainLab Drenthe is now – but being able to show successful deployments makes it (somewhat) easier!