Interview #13 Bart Rousseau and Timo Wyffels

The BLING project is very glad to welcome the city of Gent (Belgium) into the consortium. Gent aims to introduce automatization into its energy loan system by using blockchain. This sounds difficult and therefore the BLING project interviewed Bart Rosseau and Timo Wyffels from the city of Gent to learn more about their project, their work with blockchain and their role in the BLING project.

Bart and Timo, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what your role is at the city of Gent?

Bart: My name is Bart and I’m working as a civil servant for the last 25 years. At the moment I’m the Head at the Data & Information department of the municipality of Gent. This is not ‘just’ monitoring all the data of the city, but we work as a strategy department. As a city we have a lot of data and we use data analysis, data management and data governance to predict and support various municipal challenges. This demands a high quality of data and therefore we are having an ambitious level of data maturity. This allows us to work with the newest technologies, such as predictive analytics, Artificial Intelligence and, the newest addition: blockchain.

Timo: I’m Timo and I work as a team coach for the climate policy department of the city of Gent. My team develops policies for energy transition in neighborhoods and companies in our city. We are working with challenges such as becoming a climate neutral city and how to encourage companies to become more circular. This requires cooperation with many different stakeholders that all have different interests. Since we were interested in the technology of blockchain, we had a talk with HOWEST university of applied sciences. They explained that our challenge with stakeholder management is a great use case which we can solve with blockchain technology. This is how we got involved with the BLING project.

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You are working on the energy loan. What is this and why do you use blockchain for this?

Timo: In Gent we have established the ‘Energiecentrale’ which is a one stop shop for energy efficient living in Ghent. Citizens are willing to improve their houses, but often do not have the sufficient money to take up different measures at the same time, while in the end, combining measures is cheaper and more efficient to do. An energy loan of the City of Ghent, which is a loan with a low interest rate, longer maturity period can help to financially take up these different measures at the same time. The ‘Energiecentrale’ offers the citizens  this consumer loan by local government fund.

Bart: In order to get this loan, citizens have to show all kinds of documentation. From income taxes to information about their house. This is quite a burden for people because this information is scattered at different institutions, and only the people that were willing and were able to put in this effort, were able to get the loan. This is what blockchain hopefully will solve. The blockchain will connect the different institutions that need to provide information. A citizen who applies for the energy loan, for example, asks the national tax department if they earn a certain amount of income. The tax department is able to just provide this small piece of information. Other information on the tax income topic will not be shared. This new way of working puts the power to the citizens because they are in charge of their own information. The GDPR legislation actually needs the blockchain in this process, because this is a method to just exchange the needed information, and nothing else. Putting this energy loan system on a blockchain will release the burden on the users and it will become more easy for institutions to offer the required information.

What is the status of the energy loan pilot at the moment and what will you develop during the BLING project?

Bart: During the BLING project, we will develop a Proof of Concept (PoC) of the Energy Loan on the blockchain. HOWEST will help the city by taking up the technical side of the project. A challenge for us will be how to connect all the different stakeholders and their databases.  Which parts require blockchain and which parts can function without the blockchain? If this PoC is finished, we can roll out the pilot for the energy loan and we can investigate to what extent this system can be used for different processes such as granting subsidies to citizens or companies.

Timo: We are really curious if blockchain is a technology that the city of Gent can use in different processes. We take the opportunity of the BLING project to discover which promises of blockchain are true, and where blockchain can benefit public service delivery. We want to discover how we can connect so many different stakeholders and to understand in what way this is beneficial for the services to our citizens, whilst ensuring privacy.

In your opinion, what makes blockchain special?

Bart: Blockchain gives the impression that it is very accessible, more transparent and is more equal than the top-down structure we have today. That is what we see in the energy loan pilot where we get a more decentralized system. The relation between users and consumers, or the citizens and the institutions, will become more equal.

Timo: Blockchain in this case creates some kind of ‘energy-democracy’. This is a structure in which all the players are equal and can arrange matters themselves by leaving them in charge of their own data. We only need to think about access to the system: how should this be organized when we don’t have a third central party. That is what we hope to learn from this pilot.

What do you hope to gain from the BLING project?

Timo: We hope that the BLING project will help us to find out what kind of return on investments we can expect from blockchain. Is this something we as a local government should take up or should we wait for businesses to develop applicable use cases. We are expecting in the BLING project to learn more about the applicability of blockchain. When should we use blockchain and in which cases should we use a different technology? The BLING project creates a great learning space to pose these kinds of questions.

Bart: I’m a strong believer of (international) cooperation. We are working on a local level and we tend to focus on what is happening right here in our own city. It is very useful to talk to other cities and to find out if they have the same challenges and issues. We can share our experiences, not only about success stories, but also about the learnings. When we are working on similar challenges and solutions, we can make those solutions more robust. This is key, and I think this is also key in the BLING project.

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