Daniël du Seuil is involved with a number of European blockchain initiatives. He is an active member of the EU Blockchain Partnership (EBP), and is convenor of the ‘European Self Sovereign Identity Framework’ for the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure (EBSI). In this interview he shares some insights on the projects he is working on, on EBSI, his thoughts on the future of blockchain, and on the role government should play in supporting innovation.
Tell us about the blockchain projects that you’re working on
I’m involved in the European Blockchain Partnership (EBP), an initiative of the European Union. I also participate in the EU Blockchain Observatory and Forum, the European expert forum that does research on the trends and developments that are happening around blockchain.
I used to be the Blockchain program manager for the Flemish Government, and now I’ve moved from the national level to the European level. Which is good, as I think we need to work on a lot of these challenges at the European level. And I work with a lot of different organisations – for example I’m working with Antwerp on some of their blockchain challenges, such as ‘Blockchain on the Move’ (a blockchain pilot to give Flemish citizens more control over their identity data).
The European Blockchain Partnership is working on a European technical infrastructure. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
The European Blockchain Partnership is an initiative of the European Commission and the different partners/member states to bring several blockchain initiatives together. For example, we see that many interesting use cases get stuck on technical issues. And because there is no centralised technical infrastructure for Blockchain, it is hard to bring certain use cases into production.
So we thought it is was important to build a European blockchain infrastructure that can used by all member states. This is called the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure.
What does this European blockchain infrastructure look like?
The European Blockchain Services Infrastructure (EBSI) aims to enable cross-border public services using blockchain technology. EBSI will deploy a network of distributed blockchain nodes across Europe, initially supporting applications focused on four broad use-cases – Notarisation, Diplomas, Self-Sovereign Identity, and Trusted Data Sharing. EBSI is now working on additional use cases on a European Social identification Number, SME Financing, and Asylum Process management.
How can blockchain enable interoperability?
Building a common infrastructure will significantly help with the interoperability side of the technology: if we have one infrastructure for Europe than it will be easier to solve cross-border use cases. Ideally, of course, you’d have a global standard for each use case because a lot of use cases actually have a global scale – they’re helping address shared international problems or issues.
This is quite complicated because it takes a lot of time to investigate, a lot of deliberation between countries and so on. But we think it is the way forward. So we are working on a pan-European blockchain infrastructure. Of course, this should not discourage national initiatives – quite the contrary! We really want to help the use cases that need a (cross-border) technical infrastructure so we can facilitate the development and delivery of cross-border use cases.
Blockchain and governance
Because blockchain is a new technology that works in a decentralised way, you quickly get to the difficult question of governance. Who takes the lead in designing or specifying systems or standards? For example, when you realise that for some use cases you need to look at a European or even global scale, it can be a bit intimidating for a municipality or even a national organisation to take the lead on a solution that’s going to be used at European or global level. Is appropriate for a city like Antwerp to take the lead on developing a reference standard for a regional or international use case, for example?
So there is the risk that organisations will start to wait on each other. To prevent this from happening, the European Union is investing quite a lot so that we can take the lead and take the initiative in supporting these use cases. Organisations such as the European Blockchain Observatory and Forum and the International Association for Trusted Blockchain Applications (INATBA.org) are examples of this.
In a sense, blockchain is very intuitive for Europe, because Europe is already quite decentralised. Especially compared to China, for example. Decentralisation is in our DNA. Of course, that has its own challenges. For a local government or city some use cases are too big or too complex to solve – but they can be an important partner in a larger ecosystem and sometimes a catalyst for the development and adoption of regional use cases.
What are the use cases that the EBP are looking into right now?
There are several. Verification of diplomas and academic qualifications is an important use case, since a lot of fraud is being committed in this area. We saw that organisations in many different places were already building their own custom solutions. That kind of innovation is very good, but everyone involved also quickly realised that having many different solutions is not going to help in this case. So a European – or even worldwide – infrastructure would be very helpful.
Other use cases the EBP are working on involve self-sovereign identity and the authorisation of documents and bills using the European self-sovereign identity framework (ESSIF). Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) allows individuals to control their own digital identity, without having to use third party “identity providers” – blockchain has a key role in enabling the adoption of SSI. The technical infrastructure that we are building should really help to take these kinds of use cases into production.
What is your personal interest in blockchain?
Well, in the beginning I was fascinated by blockchain because of the bitcoin and the crypto side of things. I was very interested in the question of how you can organize money in a decentralised way.
I was already working on innovation in government, and I figured that the decentralised way that blockchain is organised might be interesting as well for other processes and services, and I started to wonder how we could connect these things.
Many problems in government are caused in part because government is organised in a very centralised way. I got an opportunity to work on these kinds of questions at the Flemish government. My focus now is mostly on self-sovereign identity, as I think that is one of the most interesting and relevant use cases. A lot is going on in that field. And I quickly saw that this goes further than just the national level, this really is an international issue.
What kind of opportunities do you see for blockchain in government?
Well, transparency would be one. And tokenization (a process of representing an asset or securities ownership as a digital ‘token’ stored on a blockchain which can be transferred or sold).
Used together transparency and tokenisation have a lot of potential to be used in systems to show how the government is managing/ delivering certain things – like processes and services. You can make things easier to oversee and be more transparent. For example, you might tokenize a subsidy. That would make it easier to give insights into how much subsidy the government has given to certain parties. But you could also tokenize infrastructure in roads, for example. So many different departments and governments work on infrastructure that nobody knows where what is anymore. If you would treat it as an asset or token, it would help you to create more overview of what is happening and who is doing what. This has enormous potential. However implementation of new approaches like this will require an enormous amount of coordination across organisations. So often the classical solutions are chosen, because they are faster.
For government public services, it is important that you are able to fix errors. Part of the promise of blockchain is that you have a ledger that cannot be altered. How can blockchain-enabled services solve this dilemma?
Well, you can implement blockchain in a very strict way and say it’s not possible to fix something. I think that is too dogmatic. Of course, you cannot overwrite a transaction once it has been written (saved) to the blockchain, so you cannot delete or hide an error. But it is possible to update the blockchain, so then then you change a value and make it correct. The older transaction is still there, so you do have an audit trail. You’re going to need some form of revocation.
You can implement a blockchain system in a very decentralised way, which gives you less ability to fix mistakes. But you can also add a little bit more control. That’s a question of implementation and configuration – and most importantly of governance – even in a decentralized system.
Can you tell us a little bit about ‘Blockchain on the move’?
Yes. This was a project that started about two years ago in Antwerp. It originated with a classic use case: people move house, and how do they then share this updated information across the city and all of its services. We thought we could use blockchain to develop a better and easier solution. Now there are a lot of departments that all have citizen data – it would make more organisational sense if that data was shared once across departments.
And it should be easier for users and citizens to see who is holding what data. While we were exploring how to make this process easier, we came across the concept of self-sovereign identity – which seemed to be a key part of the solution that could allow citizens to manage their own data. So we asked the market to help us build the building blocks for this, since not much existed at the time. We wanted to explore what self-sovereign identity-based solutions could bring us.
After we had developed the initial technical approach, we quickly realised that the biggest challenge was not the tech, but the organisation and how it managed data, and how the various systems and departments worked together. In practice, the way this sort of data is handled is really quite complex. So we took a critical look at the available public sector / government blockchain use cases, and also tried to see which ones were also private sector use cases – with the aim of bringing all of this together. Because we also realised that citizens don’t want to have all sorts of different digital wallets and identity systems. So we need to look at tackling this from a national and European level. But that also complicates things, of course.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
Oof! Well, my final thought is that you should remember that innovation is a marathon – it is about the long term. Usually, there are not a lot of quick wins, if any. You need a lot of partners, a lot of coalition building. But it is very important that the government takes on this role and supports innovation. It may sound a bit contradictory, to have government help to create a decentralised network. But we see that in countries where governments don’t take on this role it is a lot harder to get momentum and to deliver services and use-cases. So you really need it, you need innovative government that leads, helps and facilitates, and will work to help pave the way for your use-cases and solutions.