Towards Decentralized Civic Infrastructure: Transforming Civics with Web3

Calvin Po, Fang-Jui “Fang-Raye” Chang

January 8, 2024

This series of three articles have been made possible through funding from the Ministry of Digital Affairs (moda). Authored by Dark Matter Labs (DML) and supported by the Frontier Foundation, it has been published in collaboration with RadicalxChange, who supported the editing.

Why web3?

“web3 technology” is a broad umbrella term used to describe a whole range of technologies which signify a generational shift in how the internet works, and how society organizes itself.

Among these, decentralized technologies widely considered to be under the web3 umbrella include blockchain, cryptocurrencies, DeFi (decentralized finance), smart contracts, DAOs, and NFTs. These technologies are often foundational, used to implement core digital capabilities that are needed for social participation, such as identifying, transacting, exchanging data, contracting, associating, and more.

While the term has been imprecisely defined and used, there is a common theme of decentralization: these technologies support new ways of organizing and move agency away from its traditional sources, be they governments, international organizations, or multinational corporations, to networks which allow that agency to be exercised at the level of self-organized communities, whether over information, democratic decisions, or assets.

This poses a question on the evolving role of governments, including Taiwan’s. We believe that reactionary or ‘catch-up’ approaches are misguided, and underestimate the potential for the unique characteristics of web3 technologies as tools to make structural changes in our society in the face of critical challenges like the crises of climate, wealth inequality, and democracy itself. We instead suggest that web3 technology can be used to build ‘decentralized civic infrastructure’ that deliver on these much-needed system changes by creating new ways of organizing society, with the government of Taiwan taking a proactive role in supporting this transition.

Decentralized tech for decentralized civic futures

The characteristics of the technology on which society operates in turn shapes outcomes in society itself. The refinement of accurate land surveying technology and cartography in 17th century Europe shaped how we treat land as bounded commodities and enabled the idea that we can delimit the jurisdiction of a state through its geographical territory. The logistical challenges of counting paper ballots and transmitting election results across a country predisposes democracies to frame their decision-making based on representatives elected on multi-annual cycles, rather than direct, liquid, or more complex conviction-based democracies.

There is an opportunity for web3 to address societal challenges that trace their origins to causes rooted in the ‘deep codes’ (underlying structures) of our systems. It can be argued that the crises of climate and environmental degradation can be traced back to the simplistic governance of land and resources under the institution of property. With the boundary as its spatial technology and its bundle of rights as its legal technology, it allowed the enclosure and extraction of value within, while reductively treating its consequences as ‘externalities’. Could redesigning these technologies of governance also design a pathway out of these systemic crises? And could the characteristics of web3, which operate on non-exclusive, decentralized networks, provide a new grammar of civics that allows coherence to emerge out of complexity, and transform both the systems and also outcomes of civics?

Breaking free from reproducing problematics

Unfortunately, web3’s potential to reimagine civics is not yet fully realized. Blockchain and its applications remain the dominant associations with the web3 term. While these in their technical architecture are built on distributed and decentralized approaches, the social outcomes of these applications often do not decentralize agency, and recreate problematic existing social dynamics.

For example, in our interview with Arthur Brock, co-founder of Holochain, he critiques consensus mechanisms of proof-of-work (which rewards those with the most computational power) and proof-of-stake (which rewards validators based on those who can risk the most tokens) prioritize those who already have more agency in the system. In turn, the system rewards them for it, creating a systemic predisposition toward growing concentrating power and exacerbating inequalities.

Similarly, in our interview with Kaliya Young, founding partner of Identity Woman in Business, she critiques approaches to web3 decentralized identity based on “extreme proof of personhood”, which essentially tries to find a solution from within the blockchain technology. Initiatives such as Worldcoin’s DID system World ID, which is underpinned by biometric scans of the person’s iris, are based on a single source of truth of biometric uniqueness, yet this may be missing key elements of how identity is established, recognised, and socially practiced in everyday life, where different facets of a person’s identity might be used in different sociocultural contexts.

From Digital Public Infrastructure to Decentralized Civic Infrastructure

A vision for transforming civics with web3 therefore cannot take for granted that its technological characteristics will automatically translate into its corresponding social outcomes. In examining how web3 technologies can be used for a fundamental transformation of civics, we start with the Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) framework, which is widely-used to outline the foundational capabilities needed for digital participation in society, namely identity, payments, and data exchange.

While we recognise these capabilities as essential, discourse around DPI presumes strategic roles for government in how they are provided, used, and governed, such as defining DPI’s use cases, regulating it, financing it, hosting citizen participation and oversight around it, partnering with the private sector to develop it, or even developing and owning DPI itself. The shared underlying logic across these roles is that DPI must operate in the public interest, which the government has a unique role in guaranteeing.

However, the role of the government for ensuring public interest must be defined carefully. The DPI framework emerged in part as a rightful critique of how essential digital capabilities for a time were being overwhelmingly provided by largely non-interoperable private monopolies motivated by shareholder (rather than public) interest. Transitioning to government provision of essential digital capabilities could result in the creation of public monopolies, which pose similar problems, such as centralization of the power to grant access, define terms of use, and control data. Furthermore, while private monopolies are subject to government regulation, public monopolies combine monopoly power with the state’s sovereignty, resulting in fewer avenues of accountability.

Given the foundational nature of DPI, this lack of accountability poses a great risk should the government no longer be able to guarantee DPI for the public interest, especially since its control over DPI would influence the very democratic process that should allow citizens to hold the government to account in this role. In the case of Taiwan, with its volatile geopolitical context, centralisation also adds a dimension of risk by creating single-point vulnerabilities to malicious actions by hostile foreign powers seeking to undermine Taiwan’s democratic system and civil society through hybrid information and cyber warfare.

In light of these considerations, we propose that to leverage the civic transformational potential of web3 technology, it is not simply enough to implement them under the existing strategic framework of DPI (as centralized approaches built on decentralized architectures) but it requires a conceptual shift. We propose the term ‘decentralized civic infrastructure’ instead as a web3-native approach to these essential capabilities.

Digital to Decentralized

In recognition of the risks outlined above (of monopolization and centralisation and their vulnerabilities), we propose that for digital infrastructure to be resilient enough to be foundational to Taiwan’s democratic society, its technical and social approach should both be aligned with decentralization as a fundamental principle. On the technical side, this recognises that designing a decentralized system requires a fundamentally different approach from the outset. This ensures that these infrastructures, foundational for a digital society to function, avoid single-point vulnerabilities from the ground up, but also that key outcomes, such as privacy of personal data, can be an intrinsic part of the distributed system through self-sovereign approaches, where private data is controlled and stored only by the individual.

More importantly, this also aligns the technical architecture with the social aims of decentralizing power and agency to citizens. Providing these capabilities in a decentralized way means that decisions to exclude citizens from or shape the way they use these foundational capabilities cannot be the discretionary decision of a singular body, building in inclusion and pluralism by design. The transition away from decision-making by authority to a peer-to-peer method also requires embedding democratic decision-making as a functional necessity of the system. It is critical that these principles are locked-in from the infrastructure’s very architecture, such that decisions to undo these principles are difficult, if not impossible to take.

Public to Civic

We are also proposing a concurrent shift from emphasizing the ‘public’ to the ‘civic’, in recognition of the fact that a technically resilient system will also need a socially resilient community around it in order to achieve the necessary strategic resilience for digital capabilities essential for society. Learning from Hilary Cottam’s lessons in Radical Help, the design of public infrastructures, such as the public welfare system, can risk eroding individual agency and quality of social relationships if they are designed to treat citizens as passive recipients of services, rather than as individuals and communities to be empowered with capabilities and responsibilities to be built and deepened. These lessons apply also to how we build these foundational digital infrastructures, which should not serve to replace citizens’ social relationships with each other, but rather to strengthen and supplement the relationships and communities that already form Taiwanese civil society.

The connotations of ‘public’, which imply a certain relationship between the state vs. the citizen, therefore should be reframed. The citizen should not be understood purely as an end-user of these infrastructures, to be consulted in defined moments. The role of the citizen in co-operating and co-developing these infrastructures is critical for taking full advantage of the resilience and innovative capability of a decentralized model. Open source approaches, which apply to much of the civic tech space, already blur the hierarchies between user and developer by decentralizing the developer role, collaboratively harnessing insights, ideas, and contributions from a diverse range of citizens, including those with the closest knowledge of the problem space, and allowing citizens to collaborate, adapt, and fork the work to suit their or their community’s specific needs.

Beyond opening up the contributions to the source code and development, decentralized civic infrastructure would open up diverse contributions from citizens across all aspects of its operation, such as data collection and verification (e.g. citizen science and open-source intelligence), its governance (e.g. being delegated votes from other peers, such as in liquid voting systems), co-funding (e.g. funding mechanisms such as quadratic funding that favor breadth of consensus), etc. Not all of this requires relying solely on a sense of voluntary civic duty – web3 systems widely implement decentralized incentive systems that reward participants for their contributions. But by dismantling the boundaries between user and service provider in both its development and operations, these digital infrastructures deepen a sense of civics based on active citizenship, by allowing citizens to feel, exercise, and also augment their agency within these systems.

In addition to decentralization, web3 characteristics of building associative, non-exclusive, and interoperable systems are notably aligned with a progressive vision of civil society. Theories such as Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” understood the need for community groups as subdivisions of society that exist on a relatable scale between the individual and state and allow social bonds to be formed and deepened. However, Burke conceived of these subdivisions as social classes which are hierarchical, exclusive and unchosen. A vision of civil society in an increasingly networked world striving for social mobility also requires new infrastructures (beyond legal technology such as unincorporated associations) that support the coexistence of freely-associative, non-exclusive, and interoperating groups. In our shift from public to civic infrastructure, we also should shift away from a conception of infrastructure that is unified and totalising, to one that is a “network of networks”, as described in the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, enabling the interoperability of many civic systems.

Pathways towards decentralized civics

Decentralization needs a civic sense to work at its best. But decentralization can also be a means to nurture and deepen this civic sense. By building digital infrastructure based on decentralized civics, rather than the centralized public, these foundational digital capabilities can be created and maintained regardless of changing government priorities, or even hostile takeover by foreign powers. Instead, by creating infrastructures where citizens can understand their active role and develop their social stake in the system, it can create an infrastructure for foundational digital capabilities that is truly resilient and common. In the second part of this series of three blogs, we examine how the government of Taiwan can use its powers to encourage decentralized ways of organizing, if not decentralize its powers altogether. In [the final part](/media/blog/pathways-towards-decentralized-civics/, we explore a series of strategic opportunities to develop use cases and pathways for decentralized civic infrastructure that explore the questions of “identity”, “payment” and “data exchange” in a broader civic sense, including cultural, media, non-monetary and customary relations between humans, more-than-humans and ecosystems, to kickstart a new vision of a pluralistic civics. To be continued →


We express our sincere appreciation to the experts who generously contributed their insights and engaged in meaningful conversations for the development of the paper and these articles. Their expertise and invaluable contributions have played a pivotal role in shaping the essence of this work. We would like to thank (in first name alphabetical order): Arthur Brock, E. Glen Weyl, Jacob Lee, Joon Lynn Goh, Kaliya Young, Mary Camacho, Matt Prewitt, Primavera de Filippi, Scott Moore, and Vitalik Buterin.

We also extend our gratitude to all the individuals who contributed to this paper, both through offering invaluable feedback and actively participating in content creation. Their insights and contributions have been instrumental in shaping this work. We would like to thank (in first name alphabetical order):

Ministry of Digital Affairs: Audrey Tang, Eric Juang, Hao Yuan Ting, Mashbean Huang, Yu Jhen Kuo, and Yue Yin Li.

Dark Matter Labs: Arianna Smaron, Charles Fisher, Eunsoo Lee, Gurden Batra, Hyojeong Lee, Indy Johar, and Shu Yang Lin.

Frontier Foundation: Frank Hu, Lucky Chen, Noah Yeh, Peixing Liao, Vivian Chen, Wei Jen Liu.

Individuals: Gisele Chou, Jeremy Wang, and Jia Wei Cui.