“The ultimate goal of ICON is to achieve mass adoption of blockchain. This is really the ultimate goal of every public chain. My role is in line with that goal.”

Josh Choi, ICONLOOP’s recently hired Director of Public Affairs, believes in the power of technology and its potential to change the world in which we live for the better. The former Programme Lead of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN organization that handles issues related to ICT, Choi has spent his career bringing individuals, organizations and nations together so that they could put emerging technologies to work in promoting socio-economic development. He is now applying his skills for ICON, helping to expand the network by reaching out to public institutions and by crafting models of governance that encourage transparency, fairness, and diversity.

Getting the public involved

As Director of Public Affairs, Choi has two roles. The first is to expand ICON’s private networks, especially in the public sector. These networks will later be connected to the interchain. Choi believes that the public sector’s adoption of blockchain could be an important driver of mass adoption. If public organizations encourage people to use blockchain-based services such as tax payments and public transportation, the public might actually embrace blockchain technology. “That’s one part I’m working on now, to convince the public sector – government, international organizations, even charity organizations – to use blockchain, to be part of the ICON community,” he says. “They can join the interchain of ICON.”

Choi’s second role is designing the governance of ICON’s public chain. Pointing to the governance-related travails of some other platforms, he notes, “Governance might be a boring topic for some people, but it is fundamentally essential to the success of the public chain.”

A world of experience

Choi began his career during the heady days of Korea’s first internet boom, joining Daum Communications in 2003. At Daum, he saw first-hand the power of online democracy. “Lots of people went into the streets because they shared a lot of opinions on the internet,” he says. “They organized protests, they organized meetings, they raised issues in the community. I saw the huge potential of the internet even for social and economic growth.”

Determined to apply his experience and skills with the internet to the public sector, he moved to Switzerland, got his MBA from the University of Geneva, and began looking for jobs in the international public sector. He found one at the ITU. One of the oldest international organizations in the world, founded as the International Telegraph Convention in 1865, the specialized agency of the UN handles issues related to information and communication technology.

During a decade at the ITU, Choi researched cutting-edge technological trends such as AI, blockchain, smart cities and quantum computing, especially from the perspective of sustainable development. Though he liked his job at the UN, he chafed at its limitations. “I really liked my experience, especially connecting with high-level decision makers,” he says. “But even though I liked the job, there are too many high-level talks. It’s really worthwhile to talk, but I was always wondering what was really happening there, what kind of changes these people were making.”

“After ten years of experience, I thought that was enough.”

After leaving the ITU, Choi returned to Korea, where he searched for a place where he could help technology contribute to socio-economic development. He co-founded a small blockchain startup and worked at the Korea Startup Forum, an organization of more than 600 Korean startups. At the Korea Startup Forum, he organized conferences and built links between investors and startups. At one conference, he met the CEO of ICONLOOP, who was impressed with Choi’s experience and skill set. Not long after he was hired, joining ICONLOOP on Dec. 5. 

Hybrid governance

Though one of Choi’s chief tasks is designing the ICON Network’s governance structure, he also admits that no one in the blockchain industry has yet succeeded in creating the perfect governance system. We’ve only recently started to develop a concept of blockchain governance, he says.

Still, he has a definite vision of what he’d like to do. He draws a picture of a hybrid governance model that incorporates onchain and offchain governance. Onchain governance is a major tool, of course, because it’s the decision-making process for making important technical decisions on the network itself. There are still plenty of issues that can’t be simply voted on but should be discussed offchain, such as proposals for expansion of the network. He says, “We want to build really balanced governance mixing onchain and offchain governance to make a transparent, democratic governance to make our ICON network work efficiently and transparently.”

Choi also believes ICON’s governance should be diverse. Governance shouldn’t focus on block producers only, he says. Instead, ICON should reach out to academia, research institutions, and public institutions that are interested in blockchain so they can learn about the technology. It should also be fair, equally treating the different stakeholders.

How to link offchain discussions with onchain governance is something Choi is struggling to resolve. But it’s also something he is singularly equipped to handle. “This is something that’s similar to what I did in the U.N. system, coordinating the different stakeholders, trying to make a consensus,” he says. “But blockchain governance is very difficult. Sometimes I wonder whether I really made the right choice here (laughs).”

The interpreter

Choi is currently in the midst of the p-rep campaign, researching candidates and target groups and countries, reaching out to blockchain associations across the globe and strategizing for the actual p-rep election to be held in September.

Public outreach means lots of meetings and conference calls. Recently, he’s taken part in discussions with some city governments in the Asia-Pacific region. He’s especially keen on public organizations in emerging markets. “If you look at China, Japan or the United States, there are a lot of really big blockchain companies, so you have to compete with them. Sometimes it’s really hard to compete,” he says. “But if you look at emerging markets, the demands and needs for blockchain are really different from what you expect.”

For example, try to explain the importance of a self-sovereign ID system to the government of a developed nation such as Korea or Japan. Officials may roll their eyes, retorting that their existing ID systems are just fine. In developing countries, however, where many of the 1 billion people worldwide who lack legal identity live, governments are more inclined to pursue more fundamental solutions, he says.

Public officials often struggle to understand blockchain, an admittedly complex technology. This lack of understanding is one of the biggest barriers to public adoption. Out of necessity, Choi has become something of an interpreter, translating the “alien” vocabulary of blockchain into something approximating vernacular speech. He finds himself giving the same explanations over and over again. This has its benefits , though. “Sometimes I enjoy it because I’ve really improved my interpretation skills.”

But even in a developed country like Korea, the public sector is taking more and more interest in blockchain, especially private chains, seeing it as a way to build more transparent systems, to improve data management and to build trust between stakeholders. Last year, for example, there were just six pilot blockchain programs driven by the government. This year, the government is pushing 24 projects.

Though we may be in the midst of a crypto winter, Choi remains optimistic about the future of blockchain technology. Cryptocurrency might be struggling, he says, but the potential of the underlying technology is still there. And it’s time is coming. “Those who have been patient during this cold season, those who were ready for that time, they will be able to make changes,” he says. “If you’re really seriously thinking about the technology itself, the potential is still there.”