An Overview of Blockchain-Based Universal Basic Income Projects

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the idea that citizens receive a regular, unconditional stipend that helps them cover their cost of living. Previous UBI experiments have shown to reduce hospitalization, crime and poverty rates. Richard Nixon, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr. and Milton Friedman were all vocal proponents of UBI.

UBI has traditionally been imagined as a government subsidy that would put money back into the economy by giving it directly to people (as opposed to quantitative easing where the Federal Reserve puts money back into the economy through banks).

The development of cryptocurrency, however, now gives us a way to implement UBI in a global, trustless and democratic way without the need for a government to implement it.

Recently there has been an emergence of a handful of blockchain-based UBI projects. They are all very early. Most of them do not yet have a public product, but a few do, if you’re curious to try some out, a few you can check out are Mannabase:

SwiftDemand:

and Solidar (implemented as a chatbot on FB messenger).

We are intrigued by this possibility and are wondering about some key issues, such as the complexities around issuing new currencies and preventing fraudulent accounts.

Where does the money come from?

When blockchain projects implement UBI, where does the initial money come from?

The majority of the UBI blockchain projects issue their own currency in the form of tokens. That is, instead of recirculating existing money in the economy, they generate new value by minting a new currency. The challenge is that while the idea behind UBI is to provide real income that can be used for paying for things like rent, tuition and groceries, newly invented currencies are initially worthless until someone accepts them. It is up to each UBI project to make their currency worth something.

Projects do this by building an economy around the currency where people can exchange and use their tokens to buy goods and services. Nick calls this building a ‘Minimum Viable Economy’.

Building a Minimum Viable Economy: Vendors & Merchants

The idea behind a Minimum Viable Economy is to build enough of an ecosystem around a token so that its holders can use it to buy goods and services or exchange it to other currencies.

For this to happen, the project needs to incentivize merchants and vendors to accept the token as a form of payment.

SwiftDemand is probably the UBI project with the most developed marketplace so far. Their hope is to seed the marketplace with vendors that are participants in their UBI community. Anyone in the community can submit something to sell:

And then anyone in the community can buy those things using the Swift token:

projectUBU (beta) is building tools for vendors to be able to easily add support for their UBU token. Enumivo (pre-beta) is building their own blockchain (a fork of EOS) with the goal of developers building dapps that accept their token, $UBI.

It is easier to convince vendors to accept a token if there are a lot of people that hold the token. A good analogy for this is the credit card: even though vendors dislike credit cards because they are expensive and require extra in-store hardware, they are incentivized to accept them because so many people have them.

To seed this network effect, many UBI projects have referral programs to reward people who bring in new users. projectUBU, for example, rewards 1,000 UBUs to the referrer and 500 UBUs to the referee per referral.

Some projects, instead of doing a one-time bonus, continue to award the referral bonus as long as the referred person stays in the network. Frink (beta), for example, plans to indefinitely payout an additional 10% to referrers, and Mannabase plans to payout an additional 100% to referrers for one year. The idea is to incentivize people to refer “high quality users” that will stay in the network for a long time. An interesting question is whether a high referral bonus will increase the incentive and potential for referral fraud.

These referral programs are often set to expire when the network grows to a desired size. Solidar’s program, for example, is scheduled to reduce the bonus by 50% when the network reaches 15,000 users and then again every time the network size doubles.

Building a Minimum Viable Economy: Monetary Policy

Projects also need to incentivize people to spend their tokens. UBI projects can build in monetary policy that makes it more attractive for token holders to spend the tokens than to hold them.

There are two ways to do this: demurrage (some amount of held currency automatically dissipates) and by growing the money supply (so that each held token is now worth less). Both accomplish the same goal of incentivizing token holders to spend their currency, otherwise their held currency will lose some of its value.

projectUBU is one of the projects utilizing demurrage: 1% of all UBU wallet balances dissipate every year. Circles is one of the projects planning to mint more currency: they plan to grow their money supply at a 5% annual rate. The most dramatic of these programs is Solidar, which has an annual 20% demurrage rate.

Another way projects incentivize people to spend their tokens is by capping the amount of tokens any account can hold at one time. In order to receive more tokens, participants need to withdraw or spend the tokens they’ve already received. SwiftDemand, for example, only allows accounts to hold 7 days of unclaimed income at a time.

Building a Minimum Viable Economy: Liquidity

Another way to create value in tokens is to provide liquidity - aka the ability for a token holder to exchange the token for another currency, usually fiat, like USD. 

For there to be liquidity, there needs to be someone who wants to buy tokens from those that hold it. 

One project called Big Foundation (beta) is seeding liquidity by paying people a bonus for buying the token.

Greshm (pre-beta) holds a reserve of USD and issues currency called XGD backed by that USD reserve. (Note that they are built on their own system and not on blockchain). That provides initial participants and vendors with a source of liquidity - they can cash out and receive an equal amount of USD for their XGD. Greshm plans to maintain a 1:1 peg to the USD at first, and then increase the ratio of XGD to USD over time. This will allow them to put new money into circulation. (This model exists in the traditional US economy where federal banks can create new money by lending out money they don’t have in reserve up to a certain lended_money:money_in_reserve ratio.)  

Another interesting approach here is Democracy Earth’s distribution program. Because their currency has immediate utility as a vote, there are more likely to be buyers of it. Democracy Earth (beta) is a governance platform, and buying currency can mean buying power. The caveat is that organizations built on Democracy Earth can set their constitutional smart contracts to limit only one vote per person per issue, which inhibits the ability for participants to effectively buy votes.

Identity Verification & Anti-Fraud

Before a UBI project can hand out tokens, they first need to verify that each participant is a real person, and that each person is limited to a single account. This prevents cheating via ‘Sybil attack’ where a user creates multiple identities that all trust and validate each other in a closed system. If every user could create multiple accounts to increase the amount of income they received, it would dissolve the public trust in the value of the currency, and depreciate its worth. It would also undermine the spirit of the project where in everyone gets the same amount.

There are two main ways that UBI projects are solving this: voting and social trust.

The first way is allowing members of the community to vote to verify a new participant. On Democracy Earth, for example, new participants have to go through a validation process with other previously validated community members in order to be able to join the network. (They actually plan to have every participant repeat this process periodically in order to prevent abandoned accounts).

The second way is by relying on trust relationships from the real world. Circles (pre-beta) does this in an interesting way: On Circles, each new participant is issued UBI payouts in their own personal currency. That currency is not worth anything because no one agrees to exchange it yet. To make their account balance worth something, Circles participants need to trust each others currencies by being willing to exchange them. From the Circles documentation: "The value of a specific personal currency is a measure of how many other accounts trust it. This means that users who are new to the system and don’t have many trusted relationships have a less valuable currency than someone who is well-established in the network. It also means that the currency of new users gets more valuable over time as they create more trust relationships."

Enumivo plans to do a combination of the social graph and voting solutions. People who want to join Enumivo will have to find someone already in the community to sponsor them. To sponsor someone, a community member stakes 200 tokens (10 weeks worth) and then other community members have 30 days to vote on them.

There are also standalone identity projects like uPort and Civic that future UBI projects could potentially leverage. Generally we are very interested in learning more about self-sovereign identity projects that could enable decentralized programs like UBI.

Are These Projects Sustainable?

There are two ways most UBI projects fund their development: by holding a percentage of their tokens (most UBI projects do this), and by collecting transaction fees (some UBI projects do this).

What I like about these revenue sources is that they align the core team’s interest with their users’ interests. The better the core team grows the network and token economy, the more their tokens are worth, and the more transactions there will be to collect fees on.

Wrapping Up

One of the applications of blockchain that we are very excited about is UBI, and we hope to keep learning about how different projects are implementing it. If you’re working on something in this space, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out, I’m [email protected]

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