Designing DAOs

We held a design workshop as part of the ACM Designing Interactive Systems conference at Napier University considering the implications of Distributed Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) for HCI and interaction design. The workshop was entitled ‘New Value Transactions: Understanding and Designing for Distributed Autonomous Organisations’ and aimed to explore and critique new models of ownership and value exchange. You can find more information on the contributions to this workshop on our Designing DAOs website and the archived call for participation in the ACM digital library. A range of academics and industry partners joined us for the day of discussions and design activities which I’ll summarise below.

The initial debate aimed to identify challenges and opportunities for DAOs in respect to participants’ backgrounds, projects and interests. Throughout this mapping exercise of grouping post-it notes (green representing opportunities, pink issues or concerns) recurring themes were discussed often from overarching concepts to more specific concerns. For example, discussing ethical and social considerations of inclusion (and exclusion on its flipside), control and power lead to discussions on governance of distributed autonomous systems as automation, AI, decision making, digital nations were considered as potential models for future crypto sovereignty. Deepening this conversation, opportunities for democratic decision making and wider participation empowering communities also raised issues of literacy, education and the hierarchical design process of DAOs. Debating if we will be giving up control to code or to the programmer of code sparked further debates on future legal and ethical considerations of programming DAOs and for programmers themselves. From this, more technological issues and infrastructural possibilities were commented on ranging from sustainability and new models of trust and consent to its potential for transparency but equally concerns of increasing black boxing. This highlighted the often contradicting or conflicting nature of DAOs premises in our discussion and seemed to be a recurring theme in this debate due to the currently still evolving nature of distributed autonomous systems. Overall a few areas were identified as opportunities for further exploration, in particular, setting up new business models, supply chain traceability and transparency, supporting interoperability of things (IoT) and design opportunities (alongside design issues) for potentially new models of user experience.

In the afternoon of the workshop, we then took the initial debate into a more focused design activity aiming to explore what the design of a DAO would entail, who its entities are (including people, organisations, things and code as ‘actors’) and what kind of relationships these entities possess. We formed four groups to ‘design’ a distributed autonomous system, each exploring a more specific topic but still broad enough topic such as Transport and Housing, Workplace, Internet of Things and Food Cultures. Each group started out with narrowing down on a topic they can design for in more detail to attempt designing a DAO and through it find out what issues, concern and questions may arise about the future of this quickly emerging new field of HCI.

In order to support a more in depth discussion of the (a) entities, (b) their relationships and (c) the value they exchange, we developed a physical mapping activity with movable magnets and different material strings as well as coloured arrows which could be used to flexibly discuss and tangibly represent different structures and networks. With the uncovered complexities of new and existing DAOs we aimed to make this activity as engaging and interactive as possible, mixing conventional design materials (pen, paper, post-it notes) with a range of tangible, movable components (coloured magnet pins, magnetic sheet doubling as whiteboard and range of string materials). By splitting this main activity into a series of tasks we directed the focus within each group from first considering the entities in their DAO with the colour-coded magnets, secondly, discussing the relationships between these entities with the string materials and lastly, the value they may exchange via arrow stickers.

Overall the 4 groups discussing Supply Chains and Housing, Workplace, Internet of Things and Food Cultures had imagined very different (and complex) systems enabling the exchange of products, services and data. Across all of them, similar debates and discussions emerged when trying to break free from known traditional structures and economic models. Concerns of permanence, maintenance and liability were recurring themes that were raised in particular in relation to how smart contracts would be programmed to account for these.

  • How can DAOs handle liability? How are disagreements resolved in a DAO? What rules or structures need to be put in place and who decides (or programmes) these?
  • How can smart contracts be immutable as well as responsive to people’s need and the system’s continuous functionality? Can new syntax support dynamic contracts?
  • What will the future legal implications of increasingly autonomous systems be?
  • And what technical, design and increasingly legal expertise may be required in future design teams working on DAOs?