Leaving a Footprint: Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn

Vibrant spaces of academic exchange provide individual scholars with suggestions and critique, thereby enhancing their scientific rigour and a balance of arguments. It happens also that individual scholars enhance the scope of arguments in a scientific institution, thereby widening the horizon of debates and ultimately energizing spaces of academic exchange on their part. Many fellows at the Centre leave a footprint behind and Senior Research Fellow Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn, who's term at the Centre is coming to an end soon, in all likelihood is going to be one of them.

Campbell-Verduyn introduced the discourse about blockchain technology into the Centre's already quite developed internet governance agenda. The rise of new technologies creates imaginaries and gives way to legitimation strategies. A possible or imagined de-centralization of governance structures or collective modes of regulatory oversight is associated with the adoption of blockchain technologies. Are these hopes justified? The young internet itself attracted similar imaginaries more than 20 years ago and in the eyes of many provides a mixed picture at best today. Campbell-Verduyn is interested in the question, whether the applications of blockchain technologies provide pathways for global cooperation in the area of climate finance. This question brings together two areas of governance: digital technology and climate change. (And it contributes to a fundamental field for policy and research: digital data governance.)

Campbell-Verduyn in his contribution to the Centre's Quarterly Magazine issue on 'Climate and Environment' explained how he conceives the relation between imaginaries, technical artefacts and politics:

Imaginaries are useful in analyzing emerging forms of climate cooperation for two reasons. First, they help trace how individual visions become shared in and across groups. Second, imaginaries help scrutinize how shared visions materialize into technical artefacts. In emphasizing the socio-technical processes through which individual visions are rendered ‘concrete’, imaginaries draw attention to the politics underpinning global cooperation.

For scholars, imaginaries provide a means to relate the social and technological dimension to each other. While Campbell-Verduyn sees individualistic visions as dominant in initial financial and monetary applications, where the need to cooperate is clearly trumped by a trust in markets, he gives examples for more collectivist visions like BitGreen or Open Distributed Cooperatives (DisCOs), initiatives that define themselves as 'locally grounded, commons-oriented and transnationally networked', replacing 'profit' by 'social and environmental priorities'.

The 'blockchainization' of the Paris Agreement is a multi-stakeholder effort, initialized by the UN founded Climate Chain Coalition (CCC), a network engaged in a 'largely private variation of an 'experimentalist' mode of governance'.

In a research paper, 'Conjuring a Cooler World? Blockchains, Imaginaries and the Legitimacy of Climate Governance', published in the Centre's series, Campbell-Verduyn analysed White Papers of CCC members ('While oriented more towards investors and professional technologists, they often wax lyrically about their philosophical influences and visions'. 3, footnote.6). While legitimacy issues 'clearly underpin CCC goals', this top-down network is meant to empower members technologically (Distributed Ledger Technology, DLT) while finding solutions for enhancing efficacy in achieving a low-carbon and climate resilient economy. Campbell-Verduyn is sceptical about these ideas. He sees incremental improvements to existing forms of climate governance - at best - and  - worse - a distraction from more collective visions that he seems to find more promising:

The focus on technological silver bullets distracts from various ‘Green Deals’ and forms of ‘Green Keynesianism’ foregrounding collective rather than individual market-led responses to the legitimacy crises of global climate governance. In short, the world being conjured in blockchain-based climate finance experiments is one foregrounding ‘cool’ technological experimentation rather than a ‘cooler’ world in which climate governance is more legitimate through meeting emissions reductions targets and enhanced participation in decision-making.(6)

Ultimately there is a warning: 'Technologies like blockchains can extend techno-solutionist visions of technology "curing" environmental problems in ways that maintain ‘existing market-capitalist social relations’(23).

The paper in the end, unveils an underlying question: what are the roles that technology can realistically provide in addressing the legitimacy crises of climate governance?

One of those legitimacy issues is related to the material base of the global information and communication infrastructure, digital data.  Campbell-Verduyn contributes to an ongoing project on 'Digital Data Governance' at the Centre. A workshop was held in June and a presentation at this year's Annual Conference of the Society for Advanced Studies in Economics (SASE) included a presentation by Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn, who elaborated on distributive forms of data governance. He presented his observations in regard the overarchingly aspirational visions of Bitcoin being a ‘currency’ without central authority. He concluded that, while the vision is not entirely new, the implementation is showing tendencies of underlying order catering towards young, white entrepreneurs in the global north. (News)

Campbell-Verduyn recently co-edited a special issue of Global Perspectives on Global Political Economy of COVID-19 and organized a related panel on 'Covid-19 and International Political Economy – Same as It Never Was?' at the SASE Annual Conference. This unprecedented situation of a pandemic in a time of an almost globally present digital infrastructure raises systemic questions. Global emergency works as a selector across different pathways of digital innovation and a crucial field in this respect is digital identity governance. Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn and Moritz Hütten took a close look at the effects of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization, on the location and type of centralized modes of control over digital identity governance ('The Formal, Financial and Fraught Route to Global Digital Identity Governance').

Blockchains and other novel technologies are continually emerging to square the circle of privacy and surveillance. Yet, their applications often merely shift the location and form of such tensions, rather than resolving them. (1)

The FATF, established by the G7 in 1989 promulgated recommendations against money laundering (AML) and counter-the-financing-of-terrorism (CFT). The FATF published recommendations in 2017 for Blockchain applications. The group identified concerns (anonymity, identification, verification) as well as possible benefits (lower costs, inclusion) to cryprocurencies. But in a time when member countries like Russia and China regulated blockchain activities by law, the FATF approach was still 'light touch', trying to avoid bans. Instead the guidance the FATF called for re-enforced the longstanding roles of private actors as enforcers of AML/CFT. This model of leaving the reins of governance to blockchain developers and so-called 'identity start-up' firms is problematic and in the view of the authors, 'undermines FATF goals' of reducing international illicit financial flows (10).

Questions of legitimation arise also, when the authors further show that steps towards de-centralized peer-to-peer solutions also contained persistent elements of centralization. Certain certificates and confirmation protocols are in the hand of specific private companies, which could then be approached by government agencies.

Campbell-Verduyn's research constantly scrutinizes this conjuration of a distributed, de-centralized or polycentric governance model in the world of financial systems and related imaginaries, narratives and legitimations strategies. Topics and approach are enriching the Centre's research, especially in policy fields like 'governance of climate change' and 'governance of the internet'. His research also contributes an important area of research to questions of legitimacy, especially at the interface between public and private actors.  Farewell, Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn!


Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn at the Department of International Relations and International Organization, University of Groningen, Groningen