Interview David SuomalainenThis interview is with David Suomalainen. David works for the Swedish Ministry of Infrastructure, with a focus on the digitalisation of the public sector. In this interview he explains some of his thoughts on further implementing and developing blockchaintechnologies for governments.
What is your current job and what kind of work does it entail?
Currently I work as an adviser for the Swedish ministry of Infrastructure. I am a lawyer by occupation. My focus is on the digitalisation of the public sector. So that is about issues such as AI, datafication, open data, open source in the public sector and new technologies. One of these technologies is blockchain. Sweden is engaged in the EU Blockchain partnership. For this, we try to help the public sector: helping them with fieldwork, get them in touch with relevant partners or look at the (im)possibilities of the law. It also means we look at what kinds of laws are being written right now.
I’m also involved with blockchain in a different way: the EU Blockchain Observatory and Forum. This is separate from my work for the ministry, but it has a nice synergy. It is different from the Blockchain partnership: the partnership is focussed on advancing blockchain within the EU and see in what way the public sector can benefit from blockchain. The Observatory is more an expert forum and keeps track of the developments around blockchain technology.
What kind of use cases do you see for blockchain on a EU level?
Currently, there are four. One is looking for a way to audit bills. A second one is for diploma’s. Self-Sovereign Identity is an important third. We are also looking into data sharing: how can we share data between different customs. A shared infrastructure would be needed to do that in a good way. Currently the EU Blockchain Partnership is actively looking for new use cases.
In June you were one of the speakers of the conference The Future of Blockchain in the Public Sector. You were fairly critical of many blockchain applications. What kind of opportunities do you see for blockchain?
I’m not critical on the technology itself, I actually see a lot of possibilities. But I do think it’s important, especially on these kinds of conferences, to ask the difficult questions. I’m not critical about the tech, but I am critical about people who think that it is easy to implement. I also often see that they don’t ask the difficult questions when they start. And then often the project fails, because there is no (structural) funding, or because there are legal issues, or governance issues. You hit the difficult questions sooner or later.
Governance is especially an important but difficult issue, especially seen from a public sector perspective, particularly for open blockchain. Because who will ‘manage’ it? Who will fund it, and feel or be responsible? In Sweden we did an blockchain application test for the land registry. This took almost three years, in part because we got stuck in the legal issues and it is still not in production as it was an innovation project. It is probably easier to work on a national level, because you can have some influence on the law writing process. This is a lot harder on the EU level. So you need to know the legal side of things when you start.
So I’m still optimistic about the tech. Implementing is just going to take a lot of time. But that is the case with all digital changes.
"I’m not critical about the tech, but I am critical about people who think that it is easy to implement."
Do you have any advice for civil servants that experiment or work with blockchain?
Blockchain is hard for a government, especially open blockchain because government usually is just in control of certain processes. That’s the job of government. I personally think that if technology is available to help you work better or more efficient, we should try it. Of course there is still the question of trust: if we trust the blockchain, who do you really trust? Blockchain is written by humans. In the end, that’s the people writing the code. And from that understanding there is a quite big discussion on accountability. I think that sometimes people forget that when something goes wrong in a big way, there are going to be repercussions and the people and the state are going to look for whom to blame.
It is good to try. But not all use cases will succeed and I don’t think they should all be taken into production. I see many use cases that are basically database solutions. Blockchain is redundant in those cases, usually. But it is good to learn from them.
We talk about a use case from the city for Groningen. It’s a Stadjerspas, which uses a blockchain application. Lower income citizens get a pass which they can scan at certain places, such as the swimming pool. Or they can use the web shop-portal to buy certain tickets for a discount. The transaction is registered in a blockchain application. At the end of the month, the municipality receives a bill with all the transactions and pays them. David responds:
It’s an interesting application for blockchain. But I don’t think you need blockchain for this, you could do this with a different solution as well. In Finland they are experimenting with something similar. I think they also looked at the use case from Groningen when they designed their pilot. There they do it a bit different: they use digital money. That money is programmed to eligible in certain places. So you don’t need to send any bills.
What do you think blockchain is going to do in the future?
I think blockchain is going to change many things but not in the way we think right now. You have to look through the hype and then look for the interesting parts.
Great! Any last advice?
Yes. When you start a blockchain experiment, you need to have a diverse team. You need also to think about the governance questions, the legal questions, those kinds of things. Don’t call it an IT development project, because then it is going to fail.
This is our first interview in what will become a monthly series. Every month we interview an expert who is, in one way or another, involved in blockchain. Do you have tips for who we should talk to? Mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org