On the Future of Sovrin Foundation

Anyone who remembers when they heard about Self-sovereign Identity (SSI) for the first time can imagine how I felt when I walked out of Phil Windley’s office at BYU after my first interview at the Sovrin Foundation. Simultaneously dazed and amazed, I felt an overwhelming feeling that my life would never be the same again.

Something about the premise of SSI got stuck my brain. My mind was racing thinking about digital trust. Later coined Trust over IP (ToIP), this ability to prove things online would clearly lead to amazing innovations. I probably thought of 100 different use cases for the technology that first day. After the mind virus of SSI infected my brain, I couldn’t shake it.

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My first day at Sovrin was in January 2017. I was the second employee. The Foundation felt like a family — in the almost 2 years I was there, no employee ever left for another job (100% retention!). It was clear that SSI was the future and we were helping build it.

Leaving the Foundation seemed almost inconceivable. When I started Streetcred, although I officially left the Foundation, my heart never did. I was still working on accomplishing the same end — changing the world by bringing self-sovereign identity to market. Only now, I do it directly at Streetcred by providing the best platform to implement SSI.

I am saddened and disappointed to hear of the sudden layoff of employees at the Sovrin Foundation due to the recent macroeconomic issues. I’m confident that each of these people will be scooped up by great companies in the community. For now, the Sovrin Foundation will be run temporarily by volunteers. I am one of those volunteers, and I hope you will be too. Send an email to info@sovrin.org to find out how you can help.

A Positive Correction

Many customers, partners, and friends have asked me what this transition means for the future of Sovrin. My answer is simple: nobody gets it right the first time. Every startup requires pivoting. Financial markets require correction. Medical diagnosis often requires trial and error. The Foundation is no different — the initial approach didn’t pan out as hoped. But that’s ok. The Sovrin Foundation’s brightest days are still ahead and I believe a new direction and emphasis will ultimately be a very positive thing for the community.

Every organization must iterate until they find a business model that works, nonprofits included. Sovrin hired world-class talent and scaled to the level that an international nonprofit of its caliber should be. Unfortunately, the token-based financing they were planning on didn’t pan out as hoped. It’s clear that pursuing a token as the primary funding source for the Foundation was a mistake*. And a purely donation-based model couldn’t support the significant staff required to support all the activities of the Foundation.

I characterize the situation at the Foundation as a “correction”. In its former state, the Foundation was forced to spend time and energy on

  • SEC filings, regulations, and associated legal overhead
  • Investor relations
  • Managing incentive models and ‘monetary policy’ through committees
  • Advocacy, media relations, analyst relations, social media marketing, etc
  • Providing paid trainings, consulting, and advisory services
  • Business development activities to support the steward program
  • Hands-on onboarding and maintenance of steward nodes
  • Coordinating upgrades to the network
  • Making direct open-source code contributions

I’m grateful for these activities taking place over the last 2+ years — it’s gotten us to the point we’re at today. However, these activities are actually ancillary to the Foundation’s core mission.

To accomplish that end, I believe the Sovrin Foundation needs to specialize in its core competency: governance.

Governance

The future of Sovrin is to become the meta-governance for a network of networks.

Governance isn’t one-size-fits-all. There is no way to build governance that accommodates every law, culture, and requirement for all the jurisdictions around the world. Indy-based networks in Finland, Germany, Asia-pacific, and Africa have emerged for this very reason: they require governance specifically tailored to those markets.

But there are negatives to having scores of networks around the world. Interoperability, censorship, privacy, and fragility are all concerns. It also means developers and enterprises have an overwhelming decision to make when deciding in which governance model of the many to trust.

As Sovrin evolves into a network of networks, multiple networks from different jurisdictions can all live under a single governance umbrella called the Sovrin Governance Framework. But each could still retain specific governance decisions for its jurisdiction. So long as the network is under the Sovrin Governance Umbrella, a developer can feel a sense of confidence in the core principles the network in question commits to adhere to.

The Sovrin Network

Sovrin will continue to support the global public utility for identity — at least for the foreseeable future. The three networks (MainNet, StagingNet, BuilderNet) are run by Stewards from around the world and therefore are uninterrupted by the recent changes. Support for these networks, including approving, onboarding, and supporting validator nodes, is now being done by volunteers.

It’s important that there is a global public utility with public access. Personally, I think we’ll see a permissionless network eventually under the Sovrin umbrella. It’ll be interesting to see how it evolves.

Making it happen

A small staff will be required to execute on this vision. While the core governance groups** for Sovrin have always been volunteer-based, certain executional responsibilities are better done by impartial staff. The only way everyone will come to the same table and work together on shared governance is if that impartiality persists. That means the staff required can’t be funded by a single organization who is perceived as pulling the strings. Like a grassroots political campaign, every community member should contribute. Streetcred is a donor to Sovrin and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Other generous organizations have donated to the effort, too. There are some organizations in the community that have chosen not to become donors for whatever reason. I hope those organizations reconsider their decision and begin to contribute.

The Sovrin Foundation is in good hands with the Board of Trustees. This correction is an opportunity to regroup and refocus. It’s an opportunity for the community to come together around a shared need for decentralized governance supported by the Foundation.

Sovrin’s future is as bright as ever

The future of Sovrin is as bright as it has ever been. Adoption of self-sovereign identity is continuing to grow at a strong rate. Streetcred now has over 150 companies and developers using its platform regularly to issue and verify verifiable credentials. The open source ACA-py project maintained by BC Gov has over 100 forks. Evernym’s educational resources continue to be appreciated by companies around the world. Consultants and dev shops focused on SSI are getting consistent business. And it seems like a new startup touting self-sovereign identity capabilities pops up every day.

Adoption of SSI won’t slow down as long as a stable, secure public utility for identity with strong governance continues to exist. A network of networks will expedite that growth into a global movement. I believe a lean, community-supported Sovrin Foundation is necessary to make that happen.

*Note that I’m not saying the token will never happen, nor that a token itself is a bad idea — instead, relying on it as the primary fundraising mechanism proved not to be successful.

**Governance Framework Working Group, Guardianship Working Group, Global Policy Working Group, Steward Qualification Committee, and more

Written by

Cofounder, CEO @trinsic_id | Former Sovrin Foundation

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