Tian Zhao

Blockchain-Loving Product Designer

The Product Signals of Distributed Computing

What “distributed computing” means to me from a design-thinking, exponential-thinking, and systems-thinking fashionThe Product-ization of BlockchainSetting the scene
As a digital product designer (UX/UI/IX Designer/Researcher/Strategist) who was fortunate enough to journey into the world of blockchain ever since 2015 when I first met Vitalik, I’ve been thinking about my outlook on these 2 worlds a lot (blockchain and design).
The following 2-pronged questions are something that has been on my mind ever since the 2017 cryptocurrency bubble:
Personally: what do I want to ideally design, with respect to distributed computing?
Professionally: what does the world need idealistically, with respect to distributed computing?
This can be reformulated to be “what are the ideal distributed computing products that will matter the most to me and to the world?”
This question is ultimately about addressing this:
Which distributed computing products will be the most feasible, viable, and desirable?
This question also takes on the following variations:
What are the killer apps… or in the case of blockchain “DApps”?What will it take for blockchain to achieve product-market fit?What does success look like for blockchain?
Before I attempt to answer this question, I must define what “distributed computing” means:
Generally: distributed computing is a field of computer science that studies distributed systems, which is a system whose components are located on different networked computers. These then communicate and coordinate their actions by passing messages to one another; they interact with one another in order to achieve a common goal.
Specifically: distributed computing contains many use cases such as peer-to-peer networks. 3 of which will be put under the spotlight for the purpose of this publication whenever this term is used. These 3 use cases are “blockchain”, “crypto-assets”, and “crypto-networks”. Also for the purpose of staying true to the philosophy of decentralization, private and federated blockchains will be excluded from the dissertation. Caveat — they will only be included/referenced if they are meant to be seen as a stepping stone towards true decentralization.
Coming up with a thesis
The answer can actually be found herein:
I came to this simple conclusion because my aforementioned question only took into consideration of design-thinking and exponential-thinking. There was however a missing piece to the triune puzzle — systems-thinking. If I were to apply it to all of this, I can reformulate the above question to be the following thesis:
Cypto-network cooperatives are the distributed computing products that will be the most viable, feasible, and desirable.
It is in my strong belief that they will prove to be the killer digital products within the world of distributed computing in the long-run. However, you may be wondering — why and how did this come about specifically? What about all the distributed computing products that are out there already? Are you saying that none of them matter?
No, but what I am saying is that, with respect to Web 3.0 productization, they will be the most impactful in the long-run. The reason why I say this is because distributed computing products that currently exist can be broken down to 3 different types of products:
Layer 2.0 solutions (the link is to an article published by Coindesk) — infrastructural projects such as Plasma, Lodestar, Raiden, etc.Web 2.5 solutions (the link is to an Invision Board of Web 2.5 products I’ve designed such as the Universal Faucet — one of many top Ethereum developer tools as deemed by Consensys) — products that interface with the Web 3.0 such as MetaMask, Kaleido, Coinbase, etc.Web 3.0 solutions (the link is to a website called The State of Dapps)— Cryptokitties, Decentraland, MakerDAO, etc.
What I’m referring to when I try to answer the question of “what does success look like?”, it’s only in relation to the Web 3.0.
Truth is, most successful solutions within the distributed computing world falls under either Layer 2 or Web 2.5 solutions.
Both types of solutions have indeed seen a high level of regard, given that Layer 2 solutions have received copious amounts of grants and funding in general and Web 2.5 solutions have achieved copious amounts of users and user activity for example.
Web 3.0 products on the other hand have seen a relatively strong level of feasibility but not with respect to viability and desirability. Web 3.0 products have still struggled to achieve a strong level of product-market fit as of now. The reason for this is because I strongly believe that the users have not been clearly identified, defined, and understood until now.
Also, we must remember that not all “killer software solutions” that currently exist even within the Web 2.0 started off as killer solutions in the first place. A lot of them grew into becoming killer solutions. We cannot ignore the fact that what isn’t considered to be “killer” today within the Web 3.0 and even the Web 2.5, can’t become a killer DApp some day in the (near) future. We must also consider that Web 2.0 and private/federated blockchain solutions have that same potential as well.
The theory of it all
It is necessary to ask though what the north star is, that we’re aiming for within this whole decentralization movement? Is it simply to add a technological layer to society or in the case of the thesis provided — should we not be looking to find a business layer and a design layer to all of this that fits?
The business layer(s) that some have sought to align this technological layer to is the crowdfunding model, which is why ICOs were born. They of course have taken on different names like TGE’s — Token Generation Events, but in the end — this business model hasn’t proven to be sustainable. Even IEOs are invalid because they still require an intermediary that takes on the form of a centralized exchange; this defeats the entire purpose of the decentralization movement. DAICOs on the other hand meet the philosophical criterion.
Another business model that some have sought to align distributed computing to is the “… as a service” business model. This however stands to reason is something that at a philosophical level once again — doesn’t really stand true to decentralization. If people are paying to a central body on a recurring basis in order to access said digital service, should that be considered a true Web 3.0 product? Though, this may already be disingenuous to begin with as these “… as a service” — based distributed computing products out there aren’t really Web 3.0- products, but rather Web 2.5 products.
Therefore, the business layer as identified by Andreessen Horowitz and myself that I think will make the most sense and be the best fit is the business cooperative. The reason for this is laid out quite clearly:
Because crypto-networks are information networks based open source code, shared state, automated “smart contracts”, and 24/7 international markets — all tools that allow participants to find one another, share information, and coordinate — these networks can more easily get past the bootstrap hump that cooperative enterprises traditionally face. By encoding commitments to continued cooperation in software, crypto-networks can engender trust at new scales, both granular (due to cost efficiencies) and macro (due to social scalability).
As a means to look at the future state, long-term viability, and providing a solution that aims to systemically tackle the grand challenges of our world: crypto-network cooperatives can possibly be one of the best manifestations of Capitalism 2.0.
With that said, what about the design layer? To expand on the article Andreessen Horowitz published, I would argue that the final missing piece has to take into account of one more crucial element within Capitalism 2.0. By considering the grandest challenges facing humanity today — in other words, the Sustainable Development Goals and what many consider to be the area that distributed computing will have the most relevancy to — we should look to answer questions pertaining to large-scale systems and processes.
Having done design work for a blockchain-based social enterprise called Raise and being friends with folks such as Lucia (founder of Emerge), I can confidently say that blockchain and social impact go hand-in-hand. The truth is however that everything is still evolving and in my mind — for distributed computing to have the kind of social impact it needs to have, a certain body of knowledge should be looked into.
This is where Circular Economics comes into play:
By peering into this world, we would find the answer to our above question:
Our design layer — Circular Design — the innate quality of cooperatives that makes natural sense for them to be married. Cooperatives are communal by nature and therefore has the potential to be circular by nature, because circular systems are self-perpetuating, self-sustaining, and self-supporting. Principally-speaking, cooperatives and circular economics make a “magnificent pair”.
Summary
In order for distributed computing products to achieve and meet technological feasibility, strategic viability, and human needs & desirability, they should be aligned within respect to the following layers:
Business = Cooperatives
Design = Circularity
Tech = Crypto-networks
Circular crypto-network cooperatives
It’s important to understand that the alignment of all 3 layers isn’t merely about aligning with existing business cooperatives and shoe-horning in circular design principles into it. Given the many arguments out there about how the internet is broken and how it should be rebuilt from the ground-up.
Given the many voices calling for a restructuring, refactoring, and remake of the entire World Wide Web to be more ethical, this means that it’s also about a paradigmatic shift.
Such a shift could mean the emergence of new crypto-network cooperatives with built-in circular design principles that redefine the business landscape of the future. This shift could take on the form of both an evolutionary step for existing business cooperatives as well as a revolutionary change for existing enterprises and consumers not belonging to cooperatives by allowing them to set up new ones with new foundations.
Next Steps
Moving forward from this, I would like to apply this perspective of distributed computing in the following ways:
There will be a followup article, perhaps more than 1 exploring the intersectionality of all 3 of these aforementioned layers. Immediately there will be an article chronicling my experience as a design research fellow with a blockchain-based legaltech startup that incorporated itself as a cooperative known as Kleros.I’m currently finishing up a contract at the Royal Bank of Canada as a design researcher (ends at the end of April) and so would love to work FT for a blockchain company that may resonate with what any/all of what I’ve said in this article.I’d also be open to speaking with any of you if you wish to engage with me from a client perspective. I’m currently doing some part-time work as a consultant at MetaMesh. If any of what has been said resonates with you, then I’d love to speak with you further about your needs.
My name’s Tian Zhao and I’m a young professional with a background in industrial/systems/human-factors engineering from the University of Toronto who’s deeply and widely passionate about solving problems in a scalable, sustainable, and systematic manner. In particular, I’m incredibly interested in Industry 4.0 technologies such as what I’d like to call the “Computing Trinity”, which is divided into Cognitive (AI) + Connected (IoT) + Distributed (Blockchain) Computing. My mission is to apply design-thinking, exponential-thinking, and systems-thinking to optimize systems and processes in an effective, efficient, and expedient manner in everything I do.

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