Interview Hennie Bulstra

Hennie Bulstra is a blockchain realist. He is the convenor of the Diplomas and Credentials User group of the European Blockchain Partnership is member of the Blockchain Expert Policy Advisory Board (BEPAB) of the OECD, and is a business consultant and policy advisor for DUO, the Executive Agency of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science in the Netherlands.

Hennie, what’s your view on blockchain?Hennie Bulstra - European Blockchain Convention

Blockchain is a new technology that we can use to develop great innovative solutions for problems we have. But blockchain requires a new way of thinking, and a new way of designing governance and the relationships between  the players and participants in the field.

There are two ways to do innovation. Firstly, you can innovate on top of an existing way of thinking - such as digitizing paperwork and paper-based processes. But when it comes to blockchain and AI, you have to adopt a new way of designing and innovating and you have to think outside the box.

This is where digitalization takes place. Self sovereign identity, blockchain and other technologies are key to a new digital society. This is different from a digitized society – it’s a new way of thinking. Albert Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when creating them” and this is how I think about blockchain. It is definitely not a goal in itself and it will not solve poverty, but it can be an enabler to make life easier. We are looking at complex challenges which cannot be solved by a single organization - you need to work together. You have to create an ecosystem in which all partners are involved.

You are convenor of the ‘Diplomas and Credentials’ user group of the European Blockchain Partnership. What’s a convenor?

A convenor is a sort of liaison between the member states of the European Union, and the European Commission’s  Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. This DG is responsible for building the infrastructure to boost the digital single market, to enable more growth and jobs in an environment where citizens, businesses, and public administrations can seamlessly and fairly access and provide digital goods, content and services. I connect member states and the DG on blockchain related topics - like the Diplomas and Credentials use case.

What sort of pilots are the ‘Diplomas and Credentials’ user group working on?

Europe has policy goals to enable student mobility and employment between companies. This means that students and workers should be able to easily move across borders and have ‘freedom of movement’. This sounds like a great goal, but how do you achieve this? One of the enablers of this free movement is blockchain – as we can use blockchain solutions to allow students to ‘take’ their qualifications with them - electronically. The real key advantage of blockchain is that it can enhance and enable mobility in a much broader sense, in a cheaper way than current systems, more secure and with less administrative burden on the students and the institutions they attended.

For example, the Dutch government holds a diploma register and we have some 6 or 7 million records in it. It is kept by the Dutch government, so it is authentic (i.e. we know the information in it is true) and we can trust it. When a Dutch student wants to continue studying in Germany, the register should be able to provide proof to the Germany educational institute that the student’s Dutch qualification is real. However, Germany is organized in a different way, with State and Federal governments and different administrative agencies.

This creates a large administrative burden when evidence of qualifications - like certificates - needs to be sent (and sometimes even physical copies of certificates are required) to the foreign university and they then need to check and accept that these documents are real. This costs extra time and money and extra administrative overhead for both students AND Higher Education institutions.

Another example, imagine a refugee from Syria has graduated from University in Syria and would like to continue studying at another European educational institute or apply for a job. How can they prove that they have a real high-school diploma if the school they attended in Syria does not exist anymore? Besides, the opportunities for fraud and mis-representation are increasing because institutions are sending copies of authentic documents. The use of blockchain technology in a dedicated qualification e-service can resolve these issues by building a service around citizens and allowing them to manage who has access to their academic credentials - this creates a new way of sharing and authenticating information across borders, next to existing ones.

How does this work on a European level?

A good system that is built on blockchain infrastructure makes it possible to build a system to share authenticated diplomas and certificates. This enables student mobility and mobility across sectors and regions. Enter the European Blockchain Service Infrastructure (EBSI) - a network of distributed nodes across Europe that will enable the development and deliver of cross-border public services. EBSI is a program supported by all the EU member states in which they agree to work together to build a blockchain infrastructure based on initially four use cases: notarization, diplomas, self-sovereign identity and trusted data sharing. Together we are building a standard approach to diploma authentication based on blockchain that works in all the signatory states - we have been working on this for 1.5 years and the first version is planned to go live in the first quarter of 2021. Then the member states can pilot some of the important business elements and we will further develop this idea. It will be up to member states to do further trials on the platform and to roll out this as a service to their citizens. The private sector will also be able to build services on top of the EBSI.

What are the challenges of building a blockchain-enabled service?

Of course there are challenges. Not all educational credentials are digital, and in some countries diplomas and qualifications are still paper based. So we initially need to develop a digitized way of working. Secondly, it is very difficult to reach a standard system that works across all Member States, as some member states and some institutions are less digital than others and each Member State controls how their educational systems is organised.

This project can help them to take a big step forward, but it will also take time to get everyone at the same level. In addition, there are the legal issues such as the GDPR and the right to be forgotten which need to be considered as part of the design of these services. And there is the issue of governance. How will this influence the role of executive organizations such as DUO or accreditation bodies in the Netherlands? The wider ecosystem in which they work will shift, and we will need a new level playing field between governance, market, regulators and citizens.

What are you doing with blockchain at DUO?

Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs (DUO) is an Executive Agency for the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and is the holder of the diploma register in the Netherlands – this has more than 6 million records! DUO is exploring new technologies and we are curious what role these technologies can play for our organization. We have set up an innovation lab at DUO where we are experimenting with blockchain and digital identity to see what opportunities this new technology can potentially bring to us.

Blockchain is all about recreating trust. And the first set of questions we encountered when thinking about how to deploy blockchain-enabled solutions is how the governance should be organized and how to exchange value (in terms of skills, credentials) between an issuer, the recipient and the supplier.

Making a ‘Career Wallet’ real

You can now think about things in a different way. Education and employment have been organized in silos in member states and within member states. We will not recreate this – we’ll put the citizen at the center of this. The citizen can say “This is my wallet and I have qualifications and skills and credentials from my career, and I can now share these on my terms with the people and organizations I want to”. This is huge – citizens can define themselves and describe themselves in terms that are based on what they think they’re worth and what their value is. These tools will provide an efficient, effective and authentic way for citizens to show what their value is.

So you can take this further: a ‘Career Wallet’ can also contain skills and experiences, which makes it really valuable to the citizen. This ‘Career Wallet’ is an application where users can manage information around their employment and qualifications. The wallet will be able to hold your diplomas and other credentials, and you’ll be able to share this information with employers and educational institutes using a process called ‘self-sovereign identity’. The Wallet will give a standard way that users can share their information in a reliable way .

This innovation was developed by a Dutch consortium who are now working on the prototype – Rabobank for example took the initiative and is leading this consortium, which includes the Dutch Blockchain Coalition.

At DUO our mission is to make education and development possible.That’s the reason why we modestly contributed to the development of a prototype of a wallet with dummy test data fromDUO. The opportunity is bringing this idea together with what already has/will be brought by EBSI.

The EU and EBSI will bring a framework to the market with clear standards and requirements, and it is up to the market to actually build services and user interfaces that individuals will use to create and manage a wallet. The European digital credentials infrastructure will provide a standard way to describe to the content of your CV – the format and templates and so on. It is up to the private sector to build services that leverage the wallet idea, and a lot of companies are developing business models that use these wallets.