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Massachusetts Program Spreads Blockchain Knowledge to Cities

Massachusetts sees blockchain as a promising tool for governments of the future. The state is now offering a training program to help local leaders wrap their minds around the possibilities of the technology.

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In contrast to higher levels of government, municipalities have greater flexibility to assess and test blockchain applications, according to the vision that’s driving a new training program in Massachusetts. 

The program, led by the Innovation Institute of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), involves educational sessions aimed at “government innovators” in local areas. The sessions, two of which have already occurred in 2020, aim to help leaders understand blockchain and its potential applications in layman terms, said Pat Larkin, director of the Innovation Institute. 

Larkin said the program is driven by the work the organization has done with the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, which asked MTC to examine different new technologies that could grow the economy of the state. 

MTC identified blockchain as a promising tool for Massachusetts, as most of the state’s major research institutions have made “path-breaking discoveries” about the technology. With this intellectual capacity in place, Larkin said the next logical step was educating the people who have the greatest ability to address real needs with blockchain. 

“Municipal leaders often times can be first adopters,” Larkin said. “They’re more nimble than other levels of government. They collaborate. They improvise. They try to work well with other municipalities to try to get leverage and growth.”

Ian Cain, a city councilor in Boston suburb Quincy, said one is more likely to see proper management of activities, including those related to technology, at the local level. Beyond that, it’s better to apply and test ideas rather than receive a mandate from a higher level of government. 

“What happens in your backyard is so important,” Cain said. “With a municipality, you have the opportunity to make incremental but meaningful change that can be adopted and replicated in other cities and towns.”

Larkin said there’s a case to be made for adopting blockchain solutions at the local level if more efficient processes can be achieved. He pointed out that many municipalities are “stuck with legacy systems because of sunk investments.” As a result, municipal leaders can have “an appetite to do things better.” 

The solutions, however, must make financial sense for officials. 

“We find that the growth of industry sectors seems to be less about the technology and more about the institutional infrastructures and the human infrastructures that lie around a discipline,” Larkin said. “It’s hard to get people to change systems or do things differently. It’s just human nature. That’s why the value proposition has to be made in order for institutions to change.”

Cain said Quincy has a significant interest in the potential of blockchain and sent multiple officials to one of the aforementioned educational sessions. In addition to serving on Quincy’s city council, Cain is co-founder and chair of a local startup incubator called QUBIC Labs, which aims to support entrepreneurs who have plans to utilize blockchain. 

Cain mentioned three blockchain applications that could prove “timely” for municipalities. 

The first is blockchain voting, which has been criticized for its current security limitations. Cain said that while he is very concerned about these limitations, he believes that if the method can be made “foolproof,” it could be of immediate interest to municipal governments, which will already be experimenting with increased mail-in voting this year. 

The second application is an example of community exchange, or bartering. Blockchain could enable a solution where small and medium enterprises that lack a particular cashflow could exchange products and services, the value of which could be tracked and measured by a distributed ledger. Cain said this application could be valuable to communities during times of economic distress. 

The third application involves keeping up with property titles. Teton County, Wyo., has already experimented with a land-record blockchain.  

Larkin said he could see some state-level departments, such as health and human services and public safety, adopting blockchain solutions for their complex systems, but Massachusetts’ general approach is to continue spreading awareness about the technology and then see how different applications fare on the local level. 

“We don’t pretend here to know what the future of blockchain is,” Larkin said. “But we do know there’s acceptance that’s starting to develop in the marketplace for certain use cases.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.