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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Tomicah Tillemann (YC 01), Director of the Blockchain Trust Accelerator and Chairman of the Global Blockchain Business Council

Tomicah Tillemann serves as Co-founder and Director of New America’s Blockchain Trust Accelerator and Bretton Woods II program, Chairman of the Global Blockchain Business council, and an advisor to the BitFury Group, VoxGov, and other blockchain companies. Mr. Tillemann previously served under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry as the Secretary of State’s Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Merging Democracies, where he also established and chaired the State Department’s Global Philanthropy Working Group and a major federal advisory committee. Before assuming his senior advisory role, Mr. Tillemann collaborated with Secretary Clinton on over 200 speeches, worked with Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Barack Obama on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and contributed to five U.S. Senate and Congressional campaigns. Mr. Tillemann has delivered over 100 keynote addresses and received his B.A. from Yale University.

The Politic: Tell me about your career in government and how you’ve ended up working with blockchain!

Tomicah Tillemann: I probably had the best job in Washington: I was working at the U.S. State Department for the Secretary of State, leading a team that operated a lot like a venture capital fund, and our job was to find the best ideas we could for strengthening the governance of democracy and civil society around the world. We would bring together technology talent and partners to bring those ideas to life. We were working in a lot of countries with big problems that we were trying to fix. But we were also working with countries that really had developed 21st-century technology for governance, even more so than the United States.

At one point, I sat down with the President of Estonia, a country widely-regarded as having the world’s most advanced e-governance system, and I asked for his advice on how to recreate Estonia-style governance around the world. He said that if he were to design their institutions again, he would build on blockchain technology: it’s much more secure, much more transparent, hardwired to efficiency, and necessitates accountability. 

At the time, I really thought of blockchain as the domain of criminal money and shady characters. I didn’t expect the merits of the technology to be extolled by arguably the world’s leading proponent of digital governance. Based on the President’s advice, I started to study the technology in much greater detail. When I left the State Department and went to New America, a civic incubator and think tank, we began brainstorming and strategizing on how to deploy blockchain for governance. 

Eventually, I was invited to a blockchain conference hosted by Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group) on Necker Island, and afterwards, I was asked to lead two institutions that emerged from that conference, the Necker Island Blockchain Summit. The second institution was the Blockchain Trust Accelerator, which was based at New America and partners with Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, and other notable organizations to address social impact challenges.

What’s your biggest project right now?

The most significant initiative we’re pursuing right now is a major partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation: using blockchain technology and other frontier technologies to create open source, modular, interoperable platforms for digital governance. There are a lot of countries around the world with broken institutions. If you look at the data worldwide, about four-in-five people say that their country’s system isn’t working for them. Corruption and tax evasion cost almost $7 trillion each year. Our Treasury Department makes about $144 billion dollars in improper payments each year. These are immensely expensive problems — arguably the most expensive problems in the world. We’re building very high quality, open source platforms that address a lot of e-governance challenges, from New York City to countries in the Global South.

We’re building out a series of seven different technological solutions which will work in tandem with one another. They’re intended to be flexible governance solutions. We build 80 percent of the platform, and each jurisdiction will customize the remaining 20 percent in order to meet their unique needs. The end result is that we’re creating “institutions in a box.” We’re making it much easier and less expensive for governments around the world to stand up institutions with very high-standards of accountability and security.

With New York City, we’re building a digital platform that will make it much easier for citizens to demonstrate their eligibility for city services. Right now, you have to carry around a half-dozen different documents to demonstrate that you qualify for services, whether that’s housing assistance for a family that’s experiencing homelessness or a range of other services that you may need in your life. We’re enabling the storage of those documents in a data wallet that will make it much simpler for citizens to demonstrate their eligibility. It will also save a huge amount of work for the city, too.

We’ve worked with West Virginia to deploy a blockchain-based voting system in the 2018 elections that enabled overseas citizens to vote using their mobile phones through blockchain technology. We also partnered with the Republic of Georgia to create the first blockchain solution to record property transactions in the buying and selling of land. We’ve seen a number of these projects come online, and we’re developing new platforms around taxation and revenue management. Our hope is that these platforms will reach 100 million citizens worldwide over the next few years.

What do you consider the fundamental value proposition of blockchain as it pertains to governance? Take this in any direction you’d like.

When I think about why blockchain is important, I reference the work of one of my favorite historians, Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind). He asks the very simple question: “Why do human beings run the world?” It could have been jellyfish or orangutans, so why are we in charge instead of them? Ultimately, the answer he comes up with is that we’re the only species capable of combining two attributes: we can cooperate flexibly and at scale. Our ability to build and fly airplanes, to develop telephones and computers, to create long-lasting institutions, and to engage in a whole host of other activities that are foundational to human civilization are all derivatives of our ability to cooperate flexibly at scale. The reason we can cooperate flexible at scale is because we can come to an agreement on a common set of facts and then go out and build societies and companies on the basis of those facts. 

For most of human history, we’ve been dependent on institutions to serve as the custodians of those facts, and the institutions on which we’ve built our lives were only as good as the people who ran those institutions. The exciting thing about blockchain technology is that it’s allowing us to build systems and institutions that are far more secure, far more resilient, and far more trustworthy than anything that’s existed previously over the span of human history.

If we get this right, the technology will not only enable the creation of more efficient markets and new forms of governance that empower citizens and hello ensure that those on the margins aren’t left behind; getting blockchain technology right will supercharge a new chapter in the story of human cooperation. That’s what I get really excited about, and our work with The Rockefeller Foundation in New York City and other jurisdictions, both local and international, is really motivated by that desire to create systems of governance and accountability that can provide a stronger, fairer, and more sustainable foundation for cooperation, collaboration, and innovation.

The second thing to mention is that we are still very, very early in this story. Right now, you’re seeing blockchain applications that solve one problem really well, and we certainly need that. But in a few years, you’re going to have blockchains that can talk to other blockchains, and that’s where I think this space gets really interesting. Blockchain technology has the potential to interact with artificial intelligence and create a new framework for how we utilize data in two key ways: solving complex challenges, and rewarding individuals for contributing data toward solving these complex challenges.

Over the last two decades, we’ve seen one–sobering–model of governance emerge in China. It’s a model of centralization, and it’s a model where those at the core hold a lot of information and are able to benefit because of their access to that data. Blockchain, for the first time, provides a technical mechanism that creates a new alternative to that model: a decentralized model of governance in which citizens have significantly more control over their data and can be rewarded for contributing information toward solving big problems. 

Right now, we operate in a very feudal system where we all contribute our data, but the benefits only accrue to the people at the top. At a fundamental level, this technology will affect the future of democracy and governance. As an institution that’s historically played an outsized role in those areas, it’s important for Yale students and alumni to understand how this technology will alter the institutional landscape on which we build our lives. 

If the 20th century was marked by capitalism vs. communism, will the 21st century be marked by decentralization vs. centralization?

I think there’s truth to that. One way to look at that question is that democracy succeeded in the 20th century because decentralized models were more efficient than centralized models. We were competing against centralized models, and it turned out that you could make better, more efficient decisions if you devolved and decentralized authority.

It’s important to recognize, and there are a number of people who’ve made this point, that there’s no guarantee decentralized models will continue to prove superior in the 21st century. In some ways, the 20th century was an aberration in that regard. It’s important for those of us who care about good governance, democracy, and civil rights to really push the margins of how these tools can be harnessed to empower good governance and to facilitate the creation of more effective democratic systems. Getting that right will be extremely important, and potentially existentially important, to the future of the West and the future of democracy worldwide.

The old line by Winston Churchill is very applicable: “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” Frankly, this is a technology that the U.S. has been slow to embrace. When I travel to China in my capacity as Chairman of the Global Blockchain Business Council, their leaders all understand the technologies at a very deep level, and they all have very detailed strategies for its implementation. That’s certainly not the case in the U.S. We’re coming from behind, and our regulatory framework isn’t what it should be in order to facilitate broader adoption of the technology. It will take a lot of people working hard to catch up, but I’m confident we’ll get there: This is a solvable challenge and folks on both sides of the political spectrum should come together to get it right.

What do you think of Yale’s responsibility, either as an institution or in terms of its students, with respect to blockchain?

Yale, like the United States, is playing catch-up when it comes to blockchain. Neither the university nor the nation have been at the forefront, but there’s plenty of opportunity to change that. The biggest opportunity to leverage this technology will come at the intersection of blockchain and institutions: Helping institutions harness blockchain technology more effectively. 

Not too long ago, I was asked to come up to New Haven and speak at the Yale Law School about how blockchain will affect the legal sector. We had a phenomenal, fascinating discussion of how the technology will intersect with the law, with contracts, and with a whole host of structures that haven’t really changed over the last 200 years but are about to change pretty dramatically.

In the same way, Yale is an institution with deep capabilities and a longstanding history of shaping the evolution of our institutions. Blockchain technology provides an opportunity to renovate our institutions for the 21st century. It’s time to upgrade a democratic operating system that hasn’t really evolved that dramatically, or improved that much, over the last 70 to 80 years. We have the opportunity to leave democracy much better equipped to advance the aspirations of people around the world.

Final question. Does your first-hand experience with inefficiencies in the State Department motivate your dedication to blockchain-based governance? 

Absolutely. My friend Madeleine Albright often says that we’re living in a world where institutions designed in the 19th century are using technology designed in the 20th century to try and solve the problems of the 21st century. It’s not working. Outmoded, dysfunctional institutions are arguably the single biggest problem facing the world right now, because everything rests upon those foundations. If we get our institutions right, everything else will fall into place.

But unless we fix our institutions and bring them into the 21st century, we’re treating symptoms rather than the underlying disease. I think it’s a serious challenge: our government has a well-earned and very painful reputation of moving slowly when it comes to innovation. That being said, you encounter some very inspiring outliers when you work in this space. Our job is to find those outliers and develop solutions that will enable them to model good innovation for others. Then, we need to help them create open source solutions that make it affordable and simple for leaders worldwide to deliver high quality governance to their people. This is a solvable problem. The question is no longer whether these technologies work and can deliver transformational benefits for society, but whether we’ll choose to make these solutions available.