Is Gimbalabs a DAO?

This is the third part in our “What is Gimbalabs” series. Read Part 1 here.

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

Near the end of The Economy of Cities (1969), Jane Jacobs writes that she does not believe in aliens.

If flying saucers full of explorers were to arrive, however, the question she would want to ask them is a prompt for first principles thinking:

What kinds of governments had they invented which had succeeded in keeping open the opportunities for economic and technological development instead of closing them off?

The Economy of Cities provides a model for thinking about economic growth as the product of local diversity and distributed opportunity. Citing examples throughout history, Jacobs shows how over-specialization often precedes economic stagnation. Specialization breeds efficient production, and this efficiency can yield periods of fast growth in cities, as in Manchester with textiles in the 19th century and Detroit for automobiles in the first half of the 20th century.

In contrast, long-term sustainability relies upon the ongoing, often inefficient work of cultivating new industries and new leaders. Places that create new and varied work tend to be more resilient in the long term. Places that ensure a level of turnover among a ruling class avoid stagnation.

In the blockchain industry, we’ve been witness to some of the most rapid boom and bust cycles in history. The greatest bust to date followed the ICO-mania of late-2017. Through the lens that Jacobs provides, we might interpret that episode as an industry-wide over-commitment to ICOs. Looking at the crypto industry here in 2021, NFTs come to mind as a similar phenomenon.

Population of Detroit, Michigan over a period of 190 years
Price (USD) of Bitcoin over a period of 221 days

Among the buzzy three-letter acronyms that pepper the blockchain landscape, we do have one with real potential to answer Jacobs’ question about the kinds of governance that keep opportunities open: Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, or DAOs. I recently re-read The Economy of Cities with this in mind. Throughout, I asked myself, could a DAO be the form of governance that helps create the diversity that Jacobs is advocating for? Or further: to what extent might DAOs co-exist with cities as a primary way people organize themselves economically?

And more directly: Is Gimbalabs a DAO?

If you’re in a hurry, I’ll keep this simple. No, Gimbalabs is not a DAO.

But that answer just closes off opportunities, and ignores the favorite advice of my kids. A better answer is that the idea of a DAO provides a helpful guide for our actions.

According to its purest definition, a DAO should function without humans in charge, and all decisions should be made based on code. As with many three letter acronyms, the definition of a DAO is expanding to incorporate varied interpretations, and that can lead to confusion.

Some definitions focus on defining what a DAO is, others on why DAOs exist, and others on how they accomplish what they do.

As the definition continues to evolve, so do our ways of working. Gimbalabs aspires to be decentralized, and to be organized in a way that allows individuals and emergent teams to be as autonomous as possible while delivering real results. So in this blog post, I’ll ask three questions:

  • Is Gimbalabs Decentralized?

For each question, I’ll ask:

  • What is our goal?

I hope that this post helps to spur conversations. You’ll disagree with some of what I write here, and you’ll notice details that I’ve overlooked. Please share your thoughts — this is how we’ll grow together.

Is Gimbalabs Decentralized?

What is our goal?

We should prioritize decentralization because centralized systems are fragile. To be able to say that Gimbalabs is successfully decentralized, we must ensure that there are no single points of failure across the organization. No matter who is contributing, Gimbalabs should continue running and delivering value.

Gimbalabs must provide ways for people to create opportunities without asking for permission. That said, there should be approachable experts to whom people can go for help. The community and opportunities presented by Gimbalabs must be accessible. Systems and documentation must provide entry points for all people to contribute.

As Gimbalabs becomes more decentralized, we can measure success by asking the community whether they approve of the decisions being made, and whether they feel included in decision-making processes. We expect to iterate on systems over time.

Have we met the goal of being decentralized?

Gimbalabs is absolutely not decentralized yet. Its founders still have a disproportionate say in how things are done. The core leadership team makes too many decisions without sufficient consultation from our community.

A lot of traffic passes through Gimbalabs — via our Discord server, our Dandelion endpoints, and our public Miro boards — and these interactions yield new projects over which we have little influence. This is a sign that we’re headed in the right direction.

On internal projects, people are beginning to make decisions on their own. We are cultivating new leaders so that we can better distribute leadership across the organization.

For now, “Dandelion” still means the set of public endpoints maintained by Roberto — a simple example of a single point of failure — and we are currently focused on making it possible for anyone to host a Dandelion node and to be compensated for doing so.

How can we get closer to our goal?

To start something, someone has to take charge. Even for the purest DAO, people still had to write the code. But we must stay committed to making sure that decision-making power is distributed over time. The simple act of doing work can create points of failure. When people contribute a lot, they develop knowledge that others don’t yet have. Clear documentation of our work is essential, and we need to deliver it.

In the recently-published Ergo Manifesto, Alex Chepurnoy writes

Decentralization is born from education and adoption. The tools we build need documentation, the community needs to actively participate and grow. Teach others to use and adopt the tools. The internet is a powerful driver of decentralization. It can be a powerful tool to teach. Decentralization is born from education, both on the development side and the user side.

Education and technology, deployed well, can both be drivers of decentralization.

Building Dandelion so that anyone can use it is our most important technical task right now. This work contributes directly to decentralization, and as we’ll investigate in Part 4 of this series, helps to create new opportunities for work.

Beyond writing software, we’d like to contribute to the ongoing work of decentralizing power in an organization that prioritizes people. How can we decentralize without casting people adrift? Is there a certain amount of hierarchy that provides clarity and support, and how can that level be maintained without reverting to old power structures?

Is Gimbalabs Autonomous?

What is our goal?

To answer this question, we must first define what it is that we hope to make “autonomous”. Is it the organization itself? Is it the people participating in that organization?

In the original definition of DAO, “autonomous” refers to the organization. A DAO’s processes can be written in code, eliminating the inconsistency and favoritism inherent in human decision-making. This makes sense for some actions, like trading tokens on a decentralized exchange (DEX) or in the implementation of an incentive system.

At Gimbalabs, our first priority is to maximize the autonomy of individual people. To the extent that we can automate decision-making in code, we should, but only as a means of helping people gain autonomy, and not as an end itself. We do not seek to eliminate the need for people to make decisions, but to create a space where people with a shared set of rules can engage in the complex work of solving problems for which algorithms don’t yet exist.

In Going Horizontal, Samantha Slade defines autonomy as “the capacity to manage one’s own time within a domain of constraints”. Slade goes on to outline how autonomy “unleashes human potential and creativity,” and we agree completely. This is what we love about Project Catalyst, which is designed to “provide a safe and lively environment for you to explore the highest potential of human collaboration”.

At Gimbalabs, we seek to minimize the constraints on how people spend their time while also reliably delivering results. That’s why our goal is to bootstrap our organization without raising outside funds, whether by taking venture capital or by running an ICO. Initial funding from Project Catalyst helps make this possible, and we hope to set a useful example of how to make the most of this new opportunity. I’ll dive deeper into this idea in Part 4 of this blog series.

We know that it is possible to value time as startup capital, and to reward people who contribute. In the long-term, this will increase our autonomy, as we will be accountable to people who help build the organization, and not to the expectations of outside investors.

Have we met that goal?

In the immediate term, this goal makes us fragile. We rely heavily on trust among people who are contributing part-time for limited rewards, because we are not yet generating the income required by a self-sustaining organization.

Fragile though it may be, this is a critical experiment. The 20th century regime of factory-based assembly lines was reliable but individuals lacked autonomy and were always at the mercy of centralized leadership and accountable to the needs of investors. We are living with the repercussions of that era now: make-work and managerialism, over-reliance on authorities and authoritative personalities, and the environmental destruction that comes from pursuing profit and productivity at any cost.

In terms of what we ask of people, we are establishing the right institutional habits: allowing anyone to opt in and contribute. But in the long term, we must deliver results, generate income, and make sure that contributors get paid.

As I’ll show in Part 4, we are building Dandelion to play a critical role in this work, by supporting operators to start their own business hosting Cardano API services.

How can we get closer to our goal?

We can move closer to our goal by staying committed to it. We need to do the initial work of delivering initial results, so that we can ignite a cycle of wealth-creation for people who contribute. As the first leaders of Gimbalabs, we rely on contributors to hold us accountable to this goal.

We need to create an effective token system that rewards contributors with both compensation and a stake in Gimbalabs.

We need to build decision-making processes that maximize transparency and reliability while also accounting for the unique input of people in novel situations.

We need to keep open minds as we straddle the historic line between an old world and a new one. In order to be able to work with existing corporations, we know that we need job titles that business leaders can understand, but we’re going to do without one “Chief Executive Officer” — let’s explore the potential of a “decentralized executive” together.

Is Gimbalabs an Organization?

What is our goal?

The definition of organization may be evolving, and new opportunities for how an organization are run now at hand, and it is our responsibility to be stewards of these possibilities.

What hasn’t changed is that an organization is a group of people with a shared set of rules and a common purpose. Our goal is to navigate this complex experiment and occasionally overwhelming sense of possibility, and to clearly define our purpose with a clear set of rules for how people engage.

We can judge our success by whether newcomers to Gimbalabs can find ways to contribute, and by the level of assurance people feel that their work matters and is recognized.

Have we met that goal?

We are getting there. Only four months ago, Gimbalabs was an idea — a passion project launched by Juliane, Roberto and me because we saw a chance to help build the world we wanted to live in.

Soon, our ideas resonated with people, and new collaborators started to show up. The need to organize went from being something that we knew might do someday, to something that urgently needs to be done now.

Because of our commitment to maintaining autonomy, this work has moved more slowly than it might have if we’d raised a round of venture capital. We’re ok with that. Each week, we confirm that the people contributing to Gimbalabs are as well.

How can we get closer to our goal?

We can achieve our goal by continuing to work toward it. I look forward to sharing and celebrating our organizational milestones as they continue to roll out.

We will continue to focus on building the right organizational habits, and we will substantiate our ideals with the right legal structure, roles, and tokenomics structure. We are refining the set of tools we use for communication and organizing our shared work, we continue to define the scope of Gimbalabs Playground, and we are fired up to share our re-designed website. We must improve our documentation for all of the above. The way we do things should be as unambiguous as possible, even as it’s still in development.

I’ll pause here, recognizing what I am: a founder making a bunch of promises of what’s coming soon. Don’t take my word for any of this. Please hold us accountable over the next three months and beyond. This is the only option for building our decentralized, autonomous, organization.

Summary

Is Gimbalabs a DAO? Maybe, someday. Let’s see if we can build one where time is valued as our most priceless currency, and where we ask hard questions about how to get it right. The idea of a DAO provides a high-level goal, and it’s all about the journey. Any claim to being a DAO always presents the opportunity to become more of one.

I’ll hand it back to Jane Jacobs for the final word here. “Economic development,” she writes, “no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.”

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