Blockchain and Sympoiesis

A Numberless Framework for Synergy-Seeking, Co-Creative Communities

©2019 John Wood - submission for inclusion in a collection of articles on Blockchain Technology and the Global South, for the Frontiers in Blockchain Journal, 2019


Blockchain | conviviality | relational thinking | sympoiesis | synergy | summative logic | value


The article argues that Blockchain can best help disadvantaged local communities in the Global South by encouraging what it calls ‘sympoiesis’ or, in other words, resourceful, synergistic and co-creative teamwork, rather than by emulating the way that monetary currencies work. Whereas local communities need convivial, imaginative, face-to-face collaboration, fiat money was invented as an instrument of imperialistic expansion. It therefore remains constrained by a summative logic that was designed for trading inanimate assets, rather than for nurturing living systems. For example, the monetising of charity tends to dissipate, or erode, the immediacy and goodwill of local care systems. It works by homogenising disparate, often intangible entities into pre-determined categories, such as 'materials', 'labour', and 'time', then quantifying their qualities in order to trade them. By making quantity its key signifier, the designers of fiat money ensured that it would be interoperable across different cultural boundaries. This enabled it to act as a 'tool-of-tools' that facilitated the waging of remote wars, managing foreign investments and trading in cash crops. It seems likely that its summative logic makes sense to humans because our cognitive systems evolved alongside the skills of mining, shaping, evaluating, and distributing material things. Ideally, Blockchain systems for the Global South would be designed to compensate for our evolutionary limitations, such as poor numeracy and for the insatiable collecting habits of a powerful minority. With today's technologies, food and energy production, it could help Dunbar-scale communities (i.e. up to 150 members) to become autonomous and convivial enough to make unit-based tally systems redundant. The role and purpose of the Blockchain would be to broker changes and opportunities across different viewpoints, languages, neural types, species and different modes of logic. Using suitable models of conviviality, it could also map transactions on a qualitative, that is, a numberless, basis. The chapter therefore invites Blockchain designers to think about the concept of 'sympoiesis' as a useful framework for combining community-building with co-creative opportunity-finding.

Can Poverty Be Un-Designed?

Some activists have argued that poverty is 'designed', rather than resulting from personal inadequacy or misfortune (e.g. Kshetri, 2017; Yunus, 2007). This is an attractive idea, as it implies that we could 'design' for greater equality, say, in living standards, life expectancy, or access to resources. Here, I use the term 'design' in Herbert Simon's notion of the ability to move 'from given to preferred situations’ (Simon, 1969). However, the cultural nuances and political complexities of this challenge suggest that a traditional design approach is not yet comprehensive enough (Fuller, 1957; Wood, 2007) to bring an end to poverty and injustice in the 'Global South'. One reason for this is that poverty traps may be embedded within post-colonial cultural norms, or in more recently acquired, neo-colonialist, practices (Joseph, Zhang, & Kakarlapudi, 2018).

Acknowledging Complexity

In order to maximise the potential of Blockchain for addressing problems of the Global South it is important to acknowledge that every local situation may have been influenced by local and global factors. This is because problems that are specific to a particular region will also be affected by world events, such as armed conflict, climate breakdown, or ecocide (Friedman, 1993). Many of these conditions are driven by vested interests that are managed at the global level, using international currencies. This level of complexity means that designers would need to envisage monitoring processes and feedback loops devised to encourage the desired outcomes. It is helpful, therefore, to see the task as a whole system, in which case, our aim would be to design Blockchain in order to 'nudge', catalyse, or orchestrate, a complete paradigm change.

Paradigms Resist Change

The idea of 'paradigms' could be useful to Blockchain designers, partly because it is outlined in different ways across a range of useful disciplines, including philosophy (c.f. Kant, 1787), linguistics (Lemkin, 1943; de Saussure, 1974; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1955) and the study of belief systems (Kuhn, 1962). When Plato used the word 'paradigm', he was thinking of the virtual forms implied by actual (i.e. factory) models, that set the standard for many subsequent copies (Onians, 1991). Our modern use of the term is more comprehensive and can be applied to complex socioeconomic situations. For example, although 'poverty traps' are often depicted as simple 'vicious circles', in reality, they will be part of a larger network of factors, including vested interests, everyday habits, shared beliefs, common assumptions and the many metaphors that keep these processes alive in our imaginations.

Can Paradigms Be Re-Designed?

Paradigms resist change because they exist as a combination of sub-components, such as customs, habits and technological affordances, each of which may have its own inertia. As Einstein famously said, "we cannot solve problems using the same thinking we used to create them". Unfortunately, paradigm change is also made difficult by the fact that paradigms become invisible to us when they become 'business as usual'. With the hindsight of history we may see, for example, that radical alternatives that are now obvious to us were, for the majority, 'unthinkable'. Donella Meadows has argued that the best way to change a paradigm is to refresh the fundamental purpose and mindset that helped to initiate it (Meadows, 1993). By making a new paradigm desirable, attainable, and sustainable (Wood, 2009), technologies, such as Blockchain, can make paradigm change more likely.

How Money Works

There are several reasons why the monetary paradigm plays such a pivotal role in human behaviour. First of all, its unit-based logic makes it universally adaptable. By defining things in terms of arbitrary units, rather than by local, or intrinsic values we have a discourse that works to the lowest common denominator. In other words, we can use it everywhere because it is interoperable, irrespective of differences in the local languages and cultures. Also, we know we can trust money, because its crude, summative nature puts spreadsheet tallying beyond reasonable dispute. If Blockchain designers wish to create systems that support convivial and autonomous communities they may find it helpful to reflect upon the paradigm of money, in order to avoid replicating its negative attributes.

Why Money Works

It is important to understand how today's global supply chain systems would have been unthinkable without the invention of fiat money, which has facilitated the popular assumption that a good business model must be scalable. Of course, this implies that, ultimately, the continued growth of business is always desirable, or essential. Normally, growth is achieved by introducing higher levels of efficiency, and by standardising and replicating procedures that deliver profits. This means that when organisations outgrow their local situation, they will gravitate to wholesale thinking, if not wholesale trading. One negative aspect of this 'growth' mindset is that it encourages us to see local differences and diversities as superfluous to the quest for generic commodities, cash crops, or other products that become central to their brand identity and business model.

Stone Age Economics

Like many other paradigms, how money works is co-dependent with the way that Homo sapiens is 'wired', in cognitive terms. Although money (i.e. in the form of coins and tokens) may have been around only for around four, or five thousand years, our ancestors have been extracting and, perhaps, fetishising, shiny ‘stuff’ from the ground for three million years. A few hundred thousand years ago, a sudden growth of the human brain changed our evolutionary path. Many experts believe that this change enabled us to project our understanding of 'things' (e.g. tools, tokens and talismans) onto numbers and categories. Perhaps this explains why the basic reasoning behind accountancy remains, in essence, summative.

Is Money Intrinsically Imperialistic?

According to David Graeber, fiat money was invented five thousand years ago for helping imperial troops to obtain credit when travelling beyond friendly territories (Graeber, 2011). If a promise of repayment was underwritten by an imperial authority, a soldier's debts could be deferred, rather than refused. Eventually, these practices turned money into an interoperable 'tool-of-tools' that enabled empire builders to exercise power at a distance. If money was invented to facilitate imperialist and colonialist expansion, rather than for local regeneration, perhaps this is a reason for the persistence of wealth inequalities. Georg Simmel reflected deeply on the intrinsic 'aura' of money, concluding that “regardless of the amount, the liveliness of attached hopes gives money a glow” (Simmel, 1900).

Insatiable Avarice

Although around half of the world’s wealth is currently owned by a handful of men (Ratcliff, 2017), inequality tends to be seen as a fiscal challenge (e.g. Bregman, 2017), rather than as a design fault. Yet, just as traditional, unit-based money can be bought and sold by speculators, so some cryptocurrencies have been designed to acquire 'scarcity-appeal' (Jackson, 2018), which enables them to attract speculative interest. Today, scientists better understand human conditions, such as sociopathy, acquired narcissism, or the role of dopamine secretions in the brain. These factors may help to explain why habits of trading and collecting can become addictive (Kishida, et al., 2011) and, therefore, why money is trickling up into a Black Hole of derivative markets, rather than down to the poor. In outlining possible design criteria for a convivial Blockchain system, table 1 offers a 'wishlist' of pertinent factors.

JW Blockchain Sympoiesis TABLE 1
Table 1 - Comparison of the monetary paradigm with the article's Blockchain approach

The Business of Charity

Since the 10th century, almshouses were administered by local parish councils. By the 19th century they were attracting support from wealthy benefactors. By the mid 20th century, charities had begun to mushroom into global NGOs, supported largely by corporate philanthropy. While the monetisation of healing, care work, and charitable deeds is increasing, since the 1980s there has been a steep rise in the number of food banks that cater to both waged and unwaged citizens. This may have changed meaning of 'charity'. For example, the western (English) word 'charity' evolved from translations of the ancient (Christian) Greek word 'agape' (ἀγάπη), which situated the giver, receiver, and the act of giving within the context of a field of love between God and humanity. In this regard, one might regard traditional religious notion of charity as, at minimum, a three-dimensional event.

Charity Beyond 2-Dimensions

Here, the dominant business language of the Global North might benefit from certain traditional concepts of the South, since they embody and sustain the nuances of social relations that have underpinned local enterprise until very recently. For example, Chinese terms, such as 'guanxi' (關係) or 'wu wei' (無爲), Korean words, such as 'jeong' (정), and the African word 'Ubuntu' all, in different ways, sustain informal, tightly-bounded interpersonal ties that enable local networks to collaborate and survive. However, in the early 21st century, the charities have increasingly used digital networks that enable people to donate online, through websites such as JustGiving. This has led to the differentiation between 'weak' and 'strong' levels of guanxi (c.f. Li, 2007). However 'smart' Blockchain systems might be, there is always a strong risk that technological intervention may conceal, or alienate us from the purpose and meaning of human agency.

The Paradigm of Number

Although dogs and wolves cannot use money, or read data sheets, they are quick to express their sense of injustice if they see similar favours rewarded unequally (Bekoff, 2001). 'Civilised' humans have learned to take this further by teaching their children to believe in the literal reality of a one-to-one correspondence between entities that are slightly different. This idea underpins mathematical logic. It is the basis of what enables us to assign categories, to add up, and to pay for things in one-dimensional 'units'. When thinking about the rules of logic, Aristotle (384-322 BC) argued that propositions are either true, or not true; concluding that we can safely ignore their 'grey' areas. This idea was developed and refined by subsequent western thinkers, such as William of Ockham (287–1347), Leibnitz (1646-1716) and Kant (1724-1804). It led to Charles Boole's (1815–1864) invention of binary mathematics and the controversial belief that all human thought is, in essence, 'black and white'. It is hard to think of a more rigorous paradigm.

Mapping Relations Rather Than Things

It is interesting that many Blockchain developers still use metaphors, such as 'tokens', 'work', 'mining', and 'units'. Western thought still adheres to Aristotle's belief that, whereas ‘quality’ only had a secondary status, ‘substance’ was a primary entity. This may have informed the popular idea of an atomistic reality in which ‘products’, 'services' and ‘prices’ - and unit-based money - are all perceived as granular, countable entities. However, this long-established paradigm may distract us from the fact that a 'relationship' has many more 'dimensions' than a 'ratio'. From both a numerical, and an economic, standpoint, 'relations' are always more abundant than ‘things'. A slightly more expansive way to say this as that combinations and, often, more valuable and productive, than their individual ingredients. This is neatly summarised in the idea of 'synergy'.

The Paradigm of Hypertext

Hypertext makes for an interesting case study because it epitomises the paradox of a digital transgression beyond numbers. Although its precise origins are hard pin down, one might associate it with Ada Lovelace's (1815–1852) observation that Charles Babbage's 'Analytical Engine' "weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves". This was also resonant with the later search for a 'modeless' user-interface design that would free the user's creative imagination to surpass the working constraints of the computer (c.f. Raskin, 2000). In 1945, Vanevar Bush wanted to give researchers the ability to harness their own cognitive idiosyncracies, to ensure that the information would retain its value at the personal level. He envisaged a new type of 'mechanised private file and library' that would, in effect, broker cross-disciplinary insights that might not have occurred to specialists within the specific disciplines. By enabling them to make their own associative leaps, users could set up personal mnemonic markers and create their own 'information trails'. This encouraged hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson to coin the term 'intertwingling' (Nelson, 1974), as “...there are no subjects at all; there is only knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly” (Nelson, 1980).


Blockchain emerged after the financial crash of 2008, when activism seemed like a way to reform financial institutions. It is a digital ledger management system that enables individuals to exchange assets with one another without the intervention of a central arbiter. Each user's computer acts as an independent 'node' that can connect directly with any other node in the network. Transactions made within the user group are independently checked by each node, using algorithms that look for signs of inauthenticity, whether or not these were caused by human error, fraud, or technical malfunction. However, although the Blockchain discourse emerged as an alternative to the existing paradigm of money, it appears to have copied some of its bad habits. Ironically, although social regeneration calls for a culture of teamwork and co-creative enterprise, Blockchain was expressly designed to obviate the need for human trust. Also, although financial speculation is one of the causes of wealth disparity, some cryptocurrencies are designed to manipulate scarcity value in order to encourage investment by speculators.

Hypertext v. Blockchain

It is interesting that research by the avant garde artist, Nam Jun Paik, would lead him to see the trading potential in his concept of an 'Electronic Superhighway' (1974). Indeed, it later inspired Al Gore’s ‘Information Superhighway’ (1993), thence to Tim Berners-Lee's (b. 1965) invention of the World Wide Web. It should not be surprising that Blockchain and hypertext systems have comparable features, given that they are both digital entities. Hence, although hypertext emerged to overcome certain limitations of physical libraries and books, it can also be seen as a data retrieval system, or a distributed, peer-to-peer data exchange network. Similarly, although Blockchain was invented as a way to address issues of trust, fairness and security within the money market, it could also be adapted as a co-creative team tool. By tracking and time-coding even the smallest modifications to documents, Ted Nelson's early hypertext systems could attribute authorship to individuals, or collaborators across what he called the 'docuverse' (Nelson, 1974). Today, the functionality of hypertext systems is embedded in web browsers and supported by databases. However, its purer forms were an attempt to depart from the numerical paradigm of digital computing.

Our Cognitive Limitations

If we are to design Blockchain systems in a way that makes them 'housetrained', we first need to acknowledge our cognitive limits, as human beings. Although Homo sapiens parted company from its chimpanzee cousins five million years ago, we retain certain similarities. All primates (even economists) find it hard to grasp large numbers (Du Sautoy, 2009) and we easily confuse quantities with qualities (c.f. Kahneman & Tversky, 2011). Although humans are clever enough to cope with living in larger convivial groups than other primates, the difference is not huge. Whereas chimpanzees live in groups of up to thirty, humans can live in groups of up to around one hundred and fifty (Dunbar, 1992). As we have seen, fiat money helped us to expand our local communities into sprawling cities and vast nations. It did so by centralising food and shelter technologies, then re-distributing them, as products, to localities.


Although the word 'convivial' came from the old Roman idea of feasting, celebration and social inclusion, it also implies the ecological notion of 'life forms supporting one another' (c.f. Illich, 1975). The scaling-up and intensification that was made possible by the development of agriculture has been a mixed blessing, both in ecological and human terms. When we scale-up teams and social groups above the Dunbar number (i.e. 150) alienation begins to replace conviviality. This is because we create managerial hierarchies that prioritise top-down information flow. As a bureaucracy grows, subsequent layers of management tend to filter-out the knowledge and experiences of the majority. Complex, local understandings of 'quality' become standardised as rules and codes that represent the lowest common denominators. Emotional and heuristic forms of reasoning are likely to give way to more instrumentalist or algorithmic modes of logic. In very large, moribund organisations, willingness, personal initiative and feelings of responsibility become replaced by successive levels of managerial accountability.

Communities of Diversity

In designing our Blockchain systems we might care to imagine networks of co-creative communities no larger than the Dunbar number (i.e. around 150). In optimising their self-reliance and resilience we need to orchestrate a 'diversity-of-diversities' (Wood, 2007). Perhaps the most important of these is ecological diversity (Grilli, Barabás, Michalska-Smith & Allesina, 2017), as it would enable local communities to think outside he stultifying logic of cash crops and energy-intensive transportation systems. If we are to design with the Dunbar number in mind, we also need to design communities with a requisite diversity of working styles and self-managed team roles (c.f.. Belbin, 1996; Adizes, 2004).

The Idea of Autopoiesis

Although inanimate objects are easy to manage in the additive and subtractive domain of counting, living systems are unquantifiably unique and their behaviour is emergent (c.f. Maturana & Varela, 1980; Corning, 1983). Maturana and Varela's term 'autopoiesis' (1972) is helpful in discussing self-managing teams, or communities. Although, in literal terms, it means 'self-creation', its full meaning needs some clarification. Loosely speaking, it alludes to the independence and resourcefulness of living systems that survive by managing the relationship between their internal and external identities, within their situated context (Maturana & Varela, 1972).

The Idea of 'Structural Coupling'

Western thought (especially, Anglo-Saxon) has tended to explain ontologies from the standpoint of individual 'agency', whereby actions are ascribed to individuals, rather than to their interrelations. This leads to socially negative concepts, such as 'compromise' and 'debate', which are combative metaphors that emphasise gain or loss, rather than conviviality. When autopoietic 'agents' interact, or work together habitually, they may eventually grow together. This might mean that they co-create or, even, co-evolve in a process called 'structural coupling' (Maturana and Varela, 1973). This is described as the "structural congruence between two (or more) systems.” (Maturana & Varela, 1973 p. 75)

The Paradigm of Synergy

The word 'synergy' (Greek word 'synergos': συνεργός) derives from the deceptively simple notion of "working together". If you combine things and find that they produce a higher quality or quantity than their ingredient parts, then you have made, or found, a synergy. Our experiments have shown us that literally anything can be combined with anything else, to produce a synergy. Buckminster Fuller's definition reminds us that synergies are hard to orchestrate. He describes them as: "the behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviours of their parts taken separately" (Fuller, 1975). Nonetheless, synergy is an important idea. One practical interpretation is that, when we join existing assets together in the right way, we receive a free gift. This has enormous ramifications for post-carbon business thinking.

Synergistic Relations

Provided communities are able to cultivate a diversities-of-diversities at the local level, this would enable them to harvest an ultimate 'synergies-of-synergies' (c.f. Fuller, 1975). From our experience of running 'creative quartet' workshops we found that a sympathetic understanding of team synergies is the key to noticing, and cultivating, other synergies. However, because synergies are 'emergent' entities, their mathematical properties are not summative. For example, in a team of 2 each member is (co-)responsible for 100% of all of the relations (i.e. 1), because either party has the power to veto the relationship that may be vital to success. (see fig. 1 below).

square-50cm-spacer.jpg JW Mint 2019 Fig 1 Small
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 1. Euler's conclusion derived from geometrical figures

Similarly, in a team of 3, each team member is (co-)responsible for 66.6% of all relations, because each is 100% responsible for two of the three relations. Likewise, in a team of 4, each team member is (co-)responsible for 50% of all relations because it 'sees' 3 of the 6 relations. It is interesting to note that, Leonhard Euler's formula for polygons (1751) implies that an enterprising quartet has six times the number of relations than an enterprising duet. Each relationship has the possibility that it can be harnessed as a useful synergy. By focusing onto relations it is possible to stumble upon unexpected synergies. Whereas the genre of invention is represented by the 'duet' (one-dimensional) model in figure 1, we can design money to as a ledger system using the quartet model as a default mode. It would attracts bids from would-be members of the quartet. The aim of an enterprise quartet would be to achieve at least six beneficial outcomes (see below).

square-50cm-spacer.jpg JW Mint 2019 Fig 2 Small

square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 2. Euler's formula can be illustrated by asking four participants how many clinks their glasses will make

The Idea of Sympoiesis

This also has relevance for collectively achieving paradigm change, which would be impossible without concomitant changes in the prevailing ‘realities’ and discourses upon which the previous paradigm depended. In practical terms, this can be difficult, especially where ego, or ambiguity intolerance, make it painful for an individual to challenge and surrender a cherished, or long-held viewpoint. Someone may be more willing to shift their personal perspective if the other party. It adds perspective to what they know, and offers new meaning in new contexts. This process is intended to combine team building with the co-creation of new knowledge. The ‘creative space’ of collaboration action resides in a zone of relations that is between, or among, the individual collaborators.

  1. The individual knowledge and viewpoints of the collaborators
  2. The creative relationship between the collaborators when they collaborate
  3. Each collaborator's potential for re-interpreting their own ideas when they combine with the other's
  4. The potential for finding useful outcomes when the combinatorial process is give contextualised in the community.

The Sympoiesis Test

The following criteria are intended to guide understanding and to encourage further possible development of the concept of sympoiesis (c.f. Wood & Nieuwenhuijze, 2005). It is offered as a possible starting point for designing a numberless Blockchain system.

  1. Was it synergistic?
    • i.e. does each collaborator still recognise their own contribution within the collaboration?
    • i.e. is the outcome better than what the collaborators might have achieved individually?
  2. Was it novel?
    • i.e. did the outcome surprise each collaborator?
    • i.e. did the outcome please each collaborator?
  3. Was it interoperable?
    • i.e. can the outcome can be understood by the individual collaborators, or others?
    • i.e. can the outcome can be applied by the individual collaborators, or others?
  4. Will it have enhanced social bonding?
    • i.e. has the collaborative process strengthened the relationship/s between the collaborators?
    • i.e. will the collaboration help to sustain the relationship/s between the collaborators?
    • i.e. will the collaboration enhances relationships between the collaborators and beyond?

N.b. The test is offered in order to illuminate the process and to encourage more convivial practices. It is not intended to encourage competitive practices, or to.

Optimising Sympoiesis

If we are to design money in a way that will elicit synergies we need to reconcile two conflicting requirements. One is to maximise the number of possible combinations that would generate beneficial synergies. The other is the cognitive limitation on the number of interdependent agents we can visualise. Our brains struggle to 'chunk' information in clusters of more than four (Cowan, 2001). Buckminster Fuller was ahead of the game when, in 1949, he described the mind as 'tetrahedral'.

square-50cm-spacer.jpg JW Mint 2019 Fig 3 Small

Fig. 3. A set relational synergies (inspired by John Ruskin's 1885 description of a craft-worker)

John Ruskin's description of relations shows there to be multiple stakeholder and benefits that is similar to my four-fold model of synergies (see figure 3).


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