Catalonian Minister of Digital Technology and Policies Jordi Puigneró talks regulation, popular appeal, and what blockchain can do for a country. As a member of an elected public administration, Puigneró believes that he has the obligation to serve the people. In the case of blockchain, Puigneró expects that the technology will create a new class of power in society – that of “empowered digital citizens,” on equal ground with the judicial, executive, legislative, and journalistic societal powers. In this world, data would be “owned and controlled by the citizens,” a transferral of information that Puigneró hopes to initiate and facilitate with blockchain.
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Catalonia has a strong interest in investing in the future of blockchain technology in all its potential applications, particularly in healthcare – a field in which Catalonia boasts an impressive infrastructure, and which they hope to develop to be the “best digital system in the world.” To do so, Puigneró hopes to attract, foster, and retain industry talent – a resource he values as an “essential… raw material” akin to oil and electricity in the Industrial Revolution. In service of this, the Catalonian educational system has been augmented by a number of technologically-focused programs, with payoff expected in an increased interest in the area by industry insiders and local students alike.
Despite Puigneró’s prediction that people might be reluctant to embrace blockchain–what with the drastic changes to lifestyles it has the potential to cause and popular traditional suspicion of technological advancement–he believes that the government has a responsibility to introduce the technology at an acceptable, unalarming pace for the good of the Catalonian people. Such widespread adoption and implementation would only be, Puigneró expects, in accordance with the progression of the world at large.
In September, the Catalonian Government launched a “self-sovereign identity project” based on distributed ledger technology. The project, named “IdentiCAT” aims to create a decentralized digital identification system which allows users to manage their identities with the help of the Catalonian Government’s validation.
According to the Ministry for Digital Policy and Public Administration, “Catalonia will thus become the first country to have a decentralised digital identity, empowering citizens to be the exclusive owners, managers and safekeepers of their identity in any personal digital activity, whether carried out in the public or private sphere.”
The ID system is being developed to allow users to, for example, verify whether a person is of legal age without necessitating the use of a document showing place or date of birth. Signing up will be voluntary.
Puigneró, who is one of the principal backers of the project said that it qualifies and “digitally empowers Catalan citizens so they may carry out activities with full assurance and security in the digital society of the 21st century”.
Puigneró echoed the idea that citizens can form a fifth pillar of society with the help of blockchain technologies such as this, saying, “it is time to make the fifth power real: citizen empowerment … aimed towards improving governance, by promoting fully digital citizenship, providing citizens with empowerment, training and protection.”
The IdentiCAT project is also part of the Blockchain Strategy for Catalonia approved in June, which is tasked with increasing the use of the technology.
The project will start development of tools so users can create their self-sovereign ID, then work to develop the validation of the process. Later stages involve integrating the system with existing government ID frameworks. Eventually, the project will be deployed with the aim of becoming standard use in Catalonia.
- “Blockchain will bring us a new governance, a new way of understanding how we govern our society, how we govern our cities, how we understand the role of the citizens in this new society.”
- “We’ve been doing governing, and doing politics for the people in the past, now we have to do politics and govern the people with the people.”
- “In Catalonia we believe that our DARPA is our healthcare system, because we put a lot of money in our healthcare system – it’s a public healthcare system. So we want all the solutions in health to use innovation and technology. So by doing that, we are making the companies that provide the solutions to our healthcare system really innovate — using 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain. We can force innovation in Catalonia, from the public services.”
- “That’s what blockchain is about- distributing power to citizens, but also to decentralize power in many terms: in terms of money, in terms of how we understand our data — we understand, for example, that in Barcelona. In the past we saw two big models of how data was being governed: the Chinese model, in which data is government-controlled, or data is controlled and owned by the companies. I think that the best is the third model on the table, which is data should be owned and governed by the citizens. And I think blockchain can help us for that purpose.”
Welcome to this episode of In Conversation With, I’m Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau, and with me right now, here in Shanghai all the way from Barcelona at Mobile World Congress, is Minister Jordi Puigneró. He is the Minister of Digital Technology and Policies and also in public administration. So really thinking about how digital technology can help him serve the people.
And this is a question that we often ask here on Forkast News: what is the role of regulators and policy makers in the emergent technology of blockchain? It is very promising – the potential blockchain is huge – but what is the role of policy makers like yourself to implement; to encourage; to control?
Well, I think we are at a very early stage of blockchain right now. It’s still the beginning of the hype of blockchain – technologies have a hype phase, and then they go down, and then they finally become technologies which are used by everyone. We could see, for example, how Interne,t when it arrived at the beginning- Internet brought us connectivity. Well, blockchain will bring us a new governance, a new way of understanding how we govern our society, how we govern our cities, how we understand the role of the citizens in this new society.
We’ve seen in the history of humanity, which has come from a very centralized… a person had the power. Now we have four powers in our current society- we have the judicial power, the executive power, the legislative power, the press – it’s the fourth power. So I think the fifth power will be the empowered digital citizens.
Digital citizens will have a role in the new society and we need to take into account that blockchain can be a technology to favor that new society, at least in Catalonia, and in Barcelona. I always say that we’ve been doing governing, and doing politics for the people in the past, now we have to do politics and govern the people with the people. So, blockchain can be a good alliance for that purpose.
What are some of the blockchain initiatives that you’ve implemented in Barcelona?
We are doing various things. First of all, we believe that the government must trust the society, which means that we want society to do things, not just the government. The government needs to [give people] actual tools and make the environment appropriate for these types of technology solutions to arise from business and from society.
So the first thing we’re doing is trying to build an ecosystem. And to build an ecosystem, you need to have a policy, the beginning which is a soft policy: let society do, and we will regulate according to the proof of concepts that we see and change the rules accordingly. So, we are favoring, trying to attract talent to Barcelona; we want the digital talent in the world to be here in Barcelona because talented people will provide a better society, in terms of raising new solutions for society. So that’s our first issue.
Secondly, obviously, the government, we can be attractive. We spend a lot of money in various areas- for example, in the US, the DARPA department, pushes innovation a lot in military systems. In Catalonia we believe that our DARPA is our healthcare system, because we put a lot of money in our healthcare system – it’s a public healthcare system. So we want all the solutions in health to use innovation and technology. So by doing that, we are making the companies that provide the solutions to our healthcare system really innovate- using 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain. We can force innovation in Catalonia, from the public services.
You can’t have blockchain technology without the tokenization, the cryptocurrency aspect of that blockchain, especially if you’re going to serve the end users. What’s your viewpoint on allowing the freedom of usage of tokens, of coins, of cryptocurrency?
We’ve started to do that- for example, with energy,. So we are creating a market of green energy using tokenized cryptocurrencies. So that’s one way of doing it, but this is a pilot project right now in Catalonia, so we aren’t pushing a specific cryptocurrency for everyone at the moment.
We understand that the solution will come from a bigger scale- we’ve seen Libra just starting right now. But we’ve started in specific markets, for example of the energy markets. We are also using blockchain, for example, in organ transplants. One can input the user information, in terms of your organs- when you die, how can your organs be used?
And in terms of a smart contract, your wishes will be executed.
Exactly. Those were two examples and we have more, but we are pushing these types of proof of concepts in these areas because we believe that that’s the best way for society to understand these type of technologies. They are creating new opportunities.
Sometimes there’s a fear from many people that technology will kill jobs, and we must tell them that every single technology revolution in the past has created more jobs than existed before and we don’t have to think that this time will be different. We believe that specifically in digital technologies in Catalonia, in Barcelona, we don’t just want to be only consumers of these technologies, we want to be producers.
You want to create that ecosystem that could potentially be applied in other markets as well.
So you’re actually doing proof of concepts because of your universal health care interest.
That’s one of the ways, we put a lot of money there. So that’s a way of forcing innovation because we set out the rules.
You mentioned Facebook Libra project. It is the buzz concept, buzz word. A lot of people are interested in it. Nations around the world of paying attention very closely.
They’re worried. Everyone’s worried.
Why is everybody worried?
Well, not me, I think that these types of big changes always make big players a bit worried. But I think it’s the same as when Internet came. And when WhatsApp appeared- the big telephone companies suddenly see that there is an over-the-top solution, a solution which has worldwide use, one that makes the previous services, traditional telephone services, no longer useful for most of the consumers. But that’s the way it is, so we have to adapt to that, and I think banks and governments will understand that Libra, as well as other solutions, will come up and in the end we will have some universal cryptocurrency. I think what Libra has done has accelerated this process. I don’t know whether Libra will be one of the most used cryptocurrencies or not, no one knows that yet, but I’m sure that it will accelerate the process of digital currencies which is something that has been talked about in the past, but we didn’t see the actual implementation. I think that now Libra, for the first time, is a real serious option that we’ve seen.
I think there’s interest and fear from the big players, but I think Libra has come to stay and other cryptocurrencies will come up in the future. Because the real [goal] is to find stabilized cryptocurrencies, which are really a solution for wall trading, this is necessary for everyone.
It’s the promise of blockchain- it actually returns the power of the global economy to the hands of the individual through smartphone technology, which is why we’re here at Mobile World Congress.
Well, that’s what blockchain is about- distributing power to citizens, but also to decentralize power in many terms: in terms of money, in terms of how we understand our data- we understand, for example, that in Barcelona. In the past we saw two big models of how data was being governed: the Chinese model, in which data is government-controlled, or data is controlled and owned by the companies.
I think that the best is the third model on the table, which is data should be owned and governed by the citizens. And I think blockchain can help us for that purpose.
We also talk about how it allows nations… here in Asia, specifically, in emerging and frontier markets, there’s really only one developed market here in Asia and that’s Japan. Everybody else is on the earlier spectrum of global economic growth, right? But with technology like blockchain, it really allows different nations and sovereigns to leapfrog, in terms of its economy. How do you hope to do the same in Barcelona?
Well, for us it’s a big opportunity because Catalonia is a small nation which is part of Spain right now, but we believe that this type of technology empowers our people, empowers our institutions in order to be able to actually deal with a globalized world. So we’ve always been a decentralized nation, so we actually see blockchain and all these new technologies as an opportunity for growth, for wealth for our citizens.
You’ve seen what Malta has done, Gibraltar, they’ve really developed a regulatory language that creates a welcoming environment for blockchain talent and projects and teams to set up basic business there. What are you doing from a policy front, to do either the same thing, or is your vision something else?
As I said, we are at the very early stage of all these technologies, so our position is not to regulate before, but to regulate after. Once we see how these technologies actually impact society, we can decide whether we need to regulate or not. Sometimes you need soft regulation.
So I think the talent will be the raw material of this revolution. In the Industrial Revolution we saw that oil and electricity actually powered the Industrial Revolution. It was the essential material, the raw material that was needed. In the digital world, talented people will be essential material. So how do we attract talent, how do we retain talent, how do we generate new talent?
So, we are fostering our policies in these topics. That means first of all, changing our educational system in order to prepare our kids for the digital future. That’s one of the big policies we’re actually working on.
The second one is how do we retain talent, how do we attract new talent in this digital era? We’ve created technological centers, an ecosystem- there are spin offs of our universities in order to specialize in each of these technologies for innovation and research.
That means, for example, we have a technological center; it’s the internet of the future. Another one specializes in computer vision technologies, another one artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. So that also attracts talent from abroad to Barcelona, because when you research and you innovate in these areas, that’s obviously good for the industry because you get spin offs from these technological centers which generate solutions.
The third area is working with the government. As I said, in the United States, the DARPA model can be exported to other areas. We don’t pretend to be a military power in the world, but we want to be a health power in the world- we believe that our healthcare system is very good, has been very good in the past, and now we want it to be the best digital system in the world. And from that we can spin off a lot of technological solutions, just like you can do from the DARPA model: GPS, internet, these important technological solutions are used by civil users, but these came from a military investigation.
We believe that we can do that from our healthcare system, which is where we put more money from the public system.
What are you learning as you roam the halls here, in the conversations that you’re having here in China and really across the region, what are the ideas that you’re going to be marrying with your own?
Well, I think China is huge for us. We are 8 million people in Catalonia, and Barcelona accounts for 5 million people. I think we have a size in which we can be a very interesting lab. Actually, we say that Catalonia is a living lab for these technologies because of our size. It’s the right size- like Shanghai for example, or Hong Kong, which is obviously bigger than we are. These nation-cities, we believe that we are somehow like that because Barcelona is our big capital city. We have more to learn from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Denmark, and Estonia than we do have from a huge, massive nation like China which has a variety of problems that they need to solve in terms of mobility, environment, etc. We will see how we can collaborate with places like Shanghai, for example, how we address mobility in the future, in terms of people moving from one part [of the city] to another, how to have intelligent mobility using 5G and autonomous vehicles. I think we can collaborate a lot. Even if we think we are strong on that issue, we can also collaborate in areas like these. I think Shanghai and Hong Kong are very interesting places to learn from; I think we can learn a lot in the fintech area, in which we are not very strong.
I think climate change is one of the big issues in the world right now – how we can [decrease] pollution. I think it can be a good thing that they can learn from us. We work a lot in the area; I think there are many areas in which we can learn from each other, and sometimes we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we can learn from what others are doing. So my goal is to see what Shanghai is doing in those areas, [and I’m also] going to Hong Kong in a couple of days.
So I think learning, sharing knowledge is very important, not reinventing the wheel, trying to see how innovation can be used also on our side, how our companies can produce solutions in Catalonia, to be used in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Well, that’s how the world works today.
Well you’re a very unique individual in this sense when it comes to technology because you come from the private enterprise side (from IT), now you’re in the public service side and you and I are in the same business. We try to translate and decipher technology for the everyday person. Do you think that we’re winning the fight? Do you think that knowledge and understanding still has a long way to go?
I think that has happened every time in the past, in history. People sometimes are afraid of what they don’t understand. And we are seeing that these technologies are changing our lives very quickly, very fast, they’re changing our jobs, they are changing the way we live, how we move, and that really scares people sometimes, specifically when it goes so quickly.
So the role that we have, as the public administration, is to tell people that this is coming to stay and it will create new jobs if we are smart enough to understand that we need to adapt. Darwin said that the animals and species that survive are not the strongest, but are the ones that adapt more quickly to a new environment. So that’s what we need to do, we need to tell people that this technology is neutral; it’s how we use it that then has an ideology. We need to tell them that technology has brought progress to our people, always.
The only way people will understand that is when they see, when they can touch it, and they can see how it will really affect them. Because there are theories, people talking about the bad things about these types of technologies. But in the end, when people start understanding and seeing the real impact, the government helps with that transition so that nobody is left behind. We will put from the government, as well, social solutions and some sort of regulations that help people to go forward with these technologies. Then all these fears will disappear.
So that’s my role in the government: try to let these technologies be introduced at the speed which people can consume them so that they’re not opposed to them.
There’s a lot of work to do still, but my belief is that this is the only way to go and that the nations of the future that want to be at the forefront of this revolution, they need to do that. Otherwise putting new barriers, putting stoppers trying to stop the technological revolution, the only thing that will do – the problems will be there anyway, because there will be consumers, but there won’t be producers. In Catalonia, we want to be producers of technology because then that becomes the way of having jobs in that area, and by having jobs, we have more income to redistribute social services for the people that are left behind.
A virtuous cycle. And as they say, and I’ll just borrow this phrase. Technology is like water. It will always find a way.
It will always find a way, yes.
Thank you so much for joining us Minister Puigneró. We are here in Shanghai Mobile World Congress 2019, talking about blockchain technology and the promise of it. So thank you for joining us and thank you as well. Until the next time. I’m Editor-in-Chief of Forkast News, Angie Lau.