Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Category: Business/Economics Page 1 of 6

Decentralized Finance and the Power of Smart Contracts

Sticky post

When people use apps or services like Netflix, Instagram, Amazon, etc. they sign, or rather virtually accept, digital user agreements. Digital agreements have been around since the 1990s. These agreements are written and enforced by the institutions that create these services and products. However, in certain conditions, these systems fail and these digital or service-level agreements can be breached, causing people to feel robbed. 

A recent example of this is the Robinhood scandal that occurred in mid-2021. Essentially, people came together and all wanted to buy the same stock. However, Robinhood ended up restricting buying, citing issues with volatile stock and regulatory agreements. As a result, they ended up paying $70 million dollars in fines for system outages and misleading customers. And individual customers were left feeling robbed. This was partially the result of centralization and Robinhood having full control over the platform as well as enforcing the digital agreement.

Zak Ayesh Presenting on Chainlink
and Decentralized Smart Contracts

Zak Ayesh, a developer advocate at Chainlink recently came to Duke to talk about decentralized Smart Contracts that could solve many of the problems with current centralized digital agreements and traditional paper contracts as well. 

What makes smart contracts unique is that they programmatically implement a series of if-then rules without the need for a third-party human interaction. While currently these are primarily being used on blockchains, they were actually created by computer scientist Nick Szabo in 1994. Most smart contracts now run on blockchains because it allows them to remain decentralized and transparent. If unfamiliar with blockchain refer to my previous article here. 

Smart contracts are self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement being directly written into computer code.

Zak Ayesh

There are several benefits to decentralized contracts. The first is transparency. Because every action on a blockchain is recorded and publicly available, the enforcement of smart contracts is unavoidably built-in. Next is trust minimization and guaranteed execution. With smart contracts, there is reduced counterparty risk — that’s the probability one party involved in a transaction or agreement might default on its contractual obligation because neither party has control of the agreement’s execution or enforcement. Lastly, they are more efficient due to automation. Operating on blockchains allows for cheaper and more frictionless transactions than traditional alternatives. For instance, the complexities of cross-border remittances involving multiple jurisdictions and sets of legal compliances can be simplified through coded automation in smart contracts.

Dr. Campbell Harvey, a J. Paul Sticht Professor of International Business at Fuqua, has done considerable research on smart contracts as well, culminating in the publication of a book, DeFi and the Future of Finance which was released in the fall of 2021.

In the book, Dr. Harvey explores the role smart contracts play in decentralized finance and how Ethereum and other smart contract platforms give rise to the ability for decentralized application or dApp. Additionally, smart contracts can only exist as long as the chain or platform they live on exists. However, because these platforms are decentralized, they remove the need for a third party to mediate the agreement. Harvey quickly realized how beneficial this could be in finance, specifically decentralized finance or DeFi where third-party companies, like banks, mediate agreements at a high price.  

“Because it costs no more at an organization level to provide services to a customer with $100 or $100 million in assets, DeFi proponents believe that all meaningful financial infrastructure will be replaced by smart contracts which can provide more value to a larger group of users,” Harvey explains in the book

Beyond improving efficiency, this also creates greater accessibility to financial services. Smart contracts provide a foundation for DeFi by eliminating the middleman through publicly traceable coded agreements. However, the transition will not be completely seamless and Harvey also investigates the risks associated with smart contracts and advancements that need to be made for them to be fully scalable.

Ultimately, there is a smart contract connectivity problem. Essentially, smart contracts are unable to connect with external systems, data feeds, application programming interfaces (APIs), existing payment systems, or any other off-chain resource on their own. This is something called the Oracle Problem which Chainlink is looking to solve.

Harvey explains that when a smart contract is facilitating an exchange between two tokens, it determines the price by comparing exchange rates with another similar contract on the same chain. The other smart contract is therefore acting as a price oracle, meaning it is providing external price information. However, there are many opportunities to exploit this such as purchasing large amounts on one oracle exchange in order to alter the price and then go on to purchase even more on a different exchange in the opposite direction. This allows for capitalization on price movement by manipulating the information the oracle communicates to other smart contracts or exchanges. 

That being said, smart contracts are being used heavily, and Pratt senior Manmit Singh has been developing them since his freshman year along with some of his peers in the Duke Blockchain Lab. One of his most exciting projects involved developing smart contracts for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine allowing for a more seamless way to develop energy units.

One example of how this could be used outside of the crypto world is insurance. Currently, when people get into a car accident it takes months or even a year to evaluate the accident and release compensation. In the future, there could be sensors placed on cars connected to smart contracts that immediately evaluate the damage and payout.

Decentralization allows us to avoid using intermediaries and simply connect people to people or people to information as opposed to first connecting people to institutions that can then connect them to something else. This also allows for fault tolerance: if one blockchain goes down, the entire system does not go down with it. Additionally, because there is no central source controlling the system, it is very difficult to gain control of thus protecting against attack resistance and collusion resistance. While risks like the oracle problem need to be further explored, the world and importance of DeFi, as well as smart contracts, is only growing.

And as Ayesh put it, “This is the future.”

Post by Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

Duke University Energy Week Part 1: The Energy Conference

Organized by students with support from the Duke University Energy Initiative and the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) at The Fuqua School of Business, the 2021 Energy Week at Duke brought together business and technology leaders within the energy industry to provide audience members insight into the industry’s future.

The focal point of this article will be the Energy Conference, which occurred on November 10. If you’re curious about the future of clean energy within North Carolina, my colleague at the Duke Research Blog, Nhu Bui (Class of 2024), wrote a fascinating piece on the Energy Innovation Showcase.

Duke Energy Conference Organizing Team (photo by Jacob Hervey)

Over the course of eight hours, the Conference schedule alternated between a series of keynote addresses and fireside chats. The latter centered around a particular topical focus; each chat involved a faculty moderator and three industry experts whose organizations lie at the cutting edge of the climate transition within the private sector. In addition to the moderator’s questions, conference participants were invited to ask questions about the visions and innovations of their company.

The first fireside chat – Energy Transition Plans, Projects, and Pathways – broadly centered around the decarbonization of the energy industry. The speakers were Mallik Angalakudati, SVP of Strategy & Innovation at Washington Gas, Kirsten Knoepfle-Thorne, General Manager of Strategy at Chevron, and Jon Rodriguez, Energy Business Director of Engine Power Plants at Wartsila. All three acknowledged their companies’ traditional reliance on fossil fuels and stressed the need for emissions reduction moving into the future. The avenues each company was pursuing to reach this end varied considerably from green hydrogen to battery energy storage systems to carbon capture.

The second chat – Renewable Transportation – sought to highlight the latest innovations of firms within the burgeoning electric vehicle (EV) market. The panel consisted of Liz Finnegan (Fuqua ’17), Electric Vehicle Infrastructure and Energy at Rivian, Pei-Wen Hsu (Fuqua ’97), Global EV Marketing Director at Ford, and Kameale Terry, Co-Founder and CEO of ChargerHelp!. From launching new vehicles to servicing software breakdowns at charging stations across the nation, these speakers brought a wealth of perspectives to a high-growth market. They reinforced the certainty and necessity of mass consumer adoption of EV innovations, offering multiple roadmaps for the coming decades in transportation technologies.

Speakers from second fireside chat engaging with audience (photo by Jacob Hervey)

The third chat – Investing in Climate Tech Solutions – addressed the financial side of climate tech solutions. The speakers were Nneka Kibuule, SVP at Aligned Climate Capital, Lisa Krueger, President of US Operations at AES, and Sophie Purdom, co-founder of Climate Tech VC and an early-stage investor. Each speaker targeted climate solutions at different developmental stages, from early-stage ventures to companies ready for their IPOs. Taken as a whole, their firms reflected the robust nature of the financial ecosystem available to aspiring climate entrepreneurs and firms.

The three fireside chats engaged a number of angles through which the private sector can collectively curb climate change. As lab-developed technologies reach sufficient scale, the efficacy of climate solutions depend not solely on the quality of the innovation, but rather the quality of their implementation.

The conference conveniently coincided with the final few days of the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. As policy leaders half a world away wrangled over the minutiae of coal usage and climate financing, it became clear that a different sort of conversation was taking place on our campus. By engaging with the Energy Conference, even the most ardent skeptics of climate change progress would find it hard to deny the tangible shift in priorities that have occurred over the past few years. The prioritization of environmental concerns by the energy industry is now a given. The bigger question to consider is whether their plans and promises are sufficient to avert climate disaster.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri

Duke University Energy Week Part 2: The Energy Innovation Showcase

Organized by students with support from the Duke University Energy Initiative and the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) at The Fuqua School of Business, Duke University Energy Week brought together business and technology leaders within the energy industry to provide audience members insight into the industry’s future. The focal point of this article will be the Energy Innovation Showcase, which occurred on November 11. If you want a glimpse into the eight hours of energy-focused conversation that happened on November 10, my colleague at the Duke Research Blog, Vibhav Nandagiri (Class of 2025), wrote a fascinating piece on the Energy Conference.

Welcome to the Energy Innovation Showcase (photo by Jacob Hervey)

The evening kicked off with a riveting conversation between Ajulo E. Othow, Esq. (Founder & CEO of EnerWealth Solutions and General Counsel at Carolina Solar Services) and Marshall Cherry (Chief Operating Officer at Roanoke Electric Cooperative), moderated by Duke’s own Dr. Brian Murray (Director of the Duke Energy Initiative and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions). Othow, Cherry, and Murray discussed the future of energy in North Carolina, from exciting prospects for renewable energy to access barriers in rural regions.

Othow, Cherry, and Murray in conversation (photo by Jacob Hervey)

At the conclusion of the keynote discussion, the evening segued into the tabling session, and the audience was released back into the Hub for two hours of mingling with energy representatives. There were spokespeople from every facet of the industry – development companies like Susteon and Good Solar, suppliers like Leyline Renewable Capital and Piedmont Lithium, and advocacy groups like the NC Sustainable Energy Association and the NC Business Council.

Grace Fernandez, Nicholas MEM/MBA student and co-chair of Energy Week, had her concerns about the whole affair at first. It was the first year that Energy Week was conducted through a hybrid of platforms, after being entirely online last year due to the pandemic. Fernandez said that it was hard to convince people – both Duke students and energy representatives – to come, but through determined calls and emails and targeted social media ads, Fernandez succeeded in her goal of getting a “new audience engaged in energy.”

Turns out, Fernandez had no need to worry about turnout. Some of the attendees included Joy and Tenzin (both Trinity ’22), who were not first-timers at the showcase; they came to enjoy the “interactive” aspect for another year and meet new people who had first-hand experience in the energy industry. Nicholas MEM student Anat is not necessarily studying energy, but still came for the “innovative” aspect – to see how new developments in energy might be more interdisciplinary and interconnected.

The attendees I spoke to took note of the fact that all the organizations present came from around North Carolina. Some, like Nicholas MEM student Chayan, would have preferred representation from further away. But others, like Pratt first-year Jack, from the Durham area, came to the showcase specifically to see what local energy companies are up to and what opportunities they may be offering.

Discussing Carolina Solar (photo by Jacob Hervey)

The spotlight on North Carolina was by design: the organizers of Energy Week had taken a different approach to this year’s showcase, specifically seeking to highlight groups from Durham and North Carolina at large. “I wanted Duke students to be able to see the incredible work happening in our own backyard,” said Trey Signorelli, an Energy Week Showcase co-chair. He commented that many Duke students aim to leave North Carolina and take their talents with them, so he wanted to put on display the many exciting opportunities they already had right on their doorstep.

Duke University Energy Week 2021 coincided with the final few days of the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Three thousand miles away, world leaders debated coal usage and policy financing and the future of climate action. But if Thursday’s showcase taught us anything, it’s that if we want to see the future of energy, we don’t have too look far.

Post by Nhu Bui, class of 2024

What Happens When You Give People Money?

Paige Stampatori

What happens when you give people money? Dr. Aisha Nyandoro and Natalie Foster know: through their research, they’ve seen the impacts of guaranteed income firsthand.

On November 9, as part of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy’s Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture series, these experts discussed their work and what we can learn from it at “What Happens When You Give People Money: The Future of Economic Security for Children and Families.”

Natalie Foster

Foster, co-founder and co-chair of the Economic Security Project, began with the big idea of guaranteed income. Before the pandemic, wealth and income inequality were at all-time highs — disparities that “can be traced back to the origins of racialized capitalism.” But recently, things have gotten even harder. Wages have remained stagnant despite increases in productivity — and despite inflation, making it harder to afford things like rent. Foster denounced the “strong ideology that says that lack of security in this system is a personal failing. That if you can’t pull yourself up, there’s something wrong with you.” There’s something wrong with the system, Foster said. “People are working. The economy isn’t.”

Foster explained that the 1996 “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” fundamentally changed welfare by converting the old New Deal-era unlimited grant program into the flat-funded block grant we now know as TANF, leaving determination of eligibility to state discretion and generally “making welfare more punitive.” The Act, Foster said, was built on racist stereotypes, like that of the welfare queen. To make matters worse, it was passed against the backdrop of a persistent devaluation of the labor of people of color

Foster said that even though there didn’t appear to be room in these political conditions to do things differently, she had the “audacity to imagine something else: the ‘adjacent possible.’” She wanted to give cash to people directly, ensuring an income floor regardless of whatever crises that may abound.

Foster worked with the mayor of Stockton, California on the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), which provided 125 Stockton residents with $500 monthly payments for two years. 

Dr. Aisha Nyandoro

Foster was connected by a mutual friend to Nyandoro, the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities. Nyandoro had launched The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which provides low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi with $1,000 monthly payments for one year. 

With The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, Nyandoro sought to shift away from economic policy “rooted in ‘what is,’ and toward ‘what could be.’” This concept has a rich history, she said, and includes the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers. She had a specific ‘what if’ in mind: “What if when Black women told us what they needed, we believed them?” What if we sought to overturn the very structures that keep these people down, and subverted the “paternalistic nature of the social safety net”? 

Nyandoro stated that as a researcher, when she has questions, she “goes back to the people.” When she did, she found that although people’s needs were individual, “cash was ubiquitous” — cash was a solution that could address every single one of the problems that she heard. Giving cash directly could help combat a system that “penalizes people for being poor, rather than trying to lift them out of poverty.” 

Why low-income Black mothers? Nyandoro explained that in order to do the work of economic liberation, one must identify what’s wrong with the system. In this case, that meant identifying those who are the most negatively impacted by the system, and using what limited resources are available to help them specifically.

Nyandoro turned to her findings: giving people cash works. These mothers are often working tirelessly, holding down two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet. After receiving the money, people continue to work and often do so at higher rates (a major fear of opponents of guaranteed income). As a result, their income is often doubled — with life-changing results

Beyond the numbers, Nyandoro emphasized that “we are seeing joy. We don’t talk about joy enough as it relates to Black women.” This money allowed Black women to feel free, to be entrepreneurial: to “dare to dream for the first time — for themselves and for their families.” 

She referenced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous speech “The Danger of a Single Story,” explaining that in order to change the narrative, “we need to change the narrator.” It’s time to think about whose voices we center.

In Jackson, Mississippi and Stockton, California, the pair had carried out research about the ‘adjacent possible.’ They’d used cities and states as “laboratories in democracy.” Foster said that their work was paving the way for gradual advances in guaranteed income — slowly, but surely. Then, the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, ideas that had recently been dismissed as too radical were viewed as necessary. Often unable to work, people needed money fast in order to put food on the table and cover their most urgent needs. The federal government rose to the challenge with the American Rescue Plan, providing stimulus checks and pandemic unemployment insurance, plus expanding the Child Tax Credit. “The ‘adjacent possible’”, Foster said, “had become the possible.”

The country saw an “immediate drop in poverty.” The pandemic was revealing, said Foster. It revealed that cash provides time, stress reduction, and resilience. It revealed that cash serves as a tool to create economic security and “build back better.” Above all, it revealed that “poverty is a policy choice that we’re currently making. We could make a different policy choice in order to eliminate it.”

The pandemic also revealed that stimulus checks and the Child Tax Credit were “very popular policies.” Nyandoro has observed support in the form of petitions for monthly cash transfers, the founding of organizations like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and Guaranteed Income Community of Practice, and the launch of over a hundred guaranteed income pilots of some sort. All these efforts, Nyandoro said, are pushing toward “the same North Star”: centering the needs of families and achieving economic liberation through federal policy.

Foster turned the discussion toward next steps: “these victories have been immense, but could disappear” if the Build Back Better Act does not pass. The Act includes a year-long extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit, a key instantiation of guaranteed income. The Child Tax Credit has bipartisan support

If the extension of the Child Tax Credit passes, then according to Foster, guaranteed income is one step closer to becoming a cornerstone of social policy. This would be a “nail in the coffin of the way we’ve done policy for the last fifty years — that you’re only worth what you do in the world. Every human has dignity and worth, and we have the opportunity to build a policy that says just that.” 

Nyandoro agreed with Foster. As an anti-poverty advocate, she believes in a world without poverty: a world where “everyone can have a life of dignity for themselves and their families.” She believes that the ‘adjacent possible’ is achievable if “we can move beyond our own individual needs in order to view life as a collective, where prosperity is shared rather than hoarded.” She ended by quoting Toni Morrison: “if you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else.”

Last Friday, the House voted to pass the Build Back Better Act, which now heads to the Senate.

Post by Zella Hanson

“News for the Rich, White, and Blue”: Nikki Usher on her new book and the state of American journalism

Erik Carter

News organizations are facing an economic crisis

In their battle for survival, they are “realigning their priorities in ways that favor audiences who are willing to pay.” And those who are willing to pay tend to be rich, white, and politically blue.

On November 3, as part of the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Fall 2021 Information Inequalities Speaker Series, author and University of Illinois associate professor Nikki Usher discussed her new book News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.

Usher began by explaining that as newspapers face “market failure,” only non-geographical news is in a position to survive. As news becomes a private good (The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The New York Times come to mind), the result is inconsistent and unequal access to news. 

According to Usher, 1800 local communities lack any regular access to local news. Usher stated that political consequences result when news organizations pull back from places that don’t exhibit that aforementioned willingness to pay. 

She gave an example of one such consequence: many journalists had their “heads in the sand” about the rising tides of populism in rural America. As a result, they were blindsided when Trump won the election. But the win simply revealed what had been the case all along. 

The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged this after the election: “We’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country… and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”

Usher said that another consequence of the delocalization of news is reduced trust: only 11% of Republicans say they trust the media a great deal or a fair amount. Additionally, when places lose news, they grow more polarized, with reductions in split-ticket voting. 

Usher said that she practices a kind of “gestalt scholarship,” employing the tools of ethnography and lived experience as well as quantitative data. She dipped into this side of her research, recounting a few anecdotes which represent the “materiality” of the loss of local news.

In 2018, the LA Times moved from its Downtown home, near Skid Row, to El Segundo. The move was not without controversy. In a 2018 editorial, an anonymous author wrote that “location matters, on both a physical and symbolic level, and… moving the headquarters far away from the local power base and the most important entities and stories the Times covers… is the wrong choice.” 

The Miami Herald’s old home got demolished in 2015. Now the newsroom is near the airport, across from a cow pasture. “It’s bad for the psyche for there to be no building to exist for people to see every day,” said an editor. (A recent bit of unnerving news regarding the future of the Herald and journalism at large.)

Usher then stated that newsrooms are “places of power” that are becoming “increasingly inhospitable places for those who are non-white and who lack financial resources.” 

In June 2020, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor resigned after the publication of an article with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” led to a walkout by dozens of staff members. At the LA Times, Latinx journalists penned an open letter drawing attention to the fact that its 13% Latinx newsroom does not reflect its nearly 50% Latinx community. In Detroit, the disparity is even worse: an 80% Black population is served by a newsroom that is only 14% Black. 

In 1968, the Kerner Commission put down a series of recommendations to improve diversity, noting that the journalistic profession was “shockingly backward” in its absence of Black journalists. The American Society of News Editors set a target date for newsrooms to be at parity with the populations they represented: 2000. They’ve since pushed the deadline to 2025. 

It’s not looking good. That’s because, according to Usher, newsrooms aren’t hiring, and “when newsrooms don’t hire, they don’t hire minority journalists.”

Usher also touched on the “death of the working class reporter.” Increasingly, the only young people who are not deterred by journalism’s instability and lack of lucrativity are those who come from copious amounts of privilege. Add this to the inability of poorer students to pursue resume-building journalism activities alongside work-study jobs, and the preference of news outlets for the oft-wealthy students of elite universities, and one can see why “journalism is becoming a profession for the elite.” 

Usher said that when “newsrooms become bastions of privilege, [that’s] bad news.” Losing journalists who come from blue-collar backgrounds means losing the ability to “empathize” with a whole set of experiences.

Usher said that as news revenue goes increasingly digital, reliance on those willing to pay is even more pronounced, with “consequences for equity in access and geographically specific news coverage.” She referenced The New York Times, whose rise “mirrors the rise in inequality” of access to news. “They know they’re leaving people behind,” Usher said. She quoted Dean Baquet, who acknowledged that 98% of Americans “were now excluded from The New York Times’ journalism and might well have to do with substandard information.”

Usher also discussed “Goldilock newspapers” — not too big, not too small, but just right for survival according to the “upside-down logic” of digital advertising. The problem is that, as Mike Wilson of the Dallas Morning News put it, “the pursuit of digital subscriptions has honed our focus on what we’re covering” — sometimes to the detriment of local readers. As a result of this phenomenon, Usher has seen reduced coverage in places considered too low-income to get advertisers. In one instance, she saw a dismissal of concerns about ad- and malware clunking up the computers of those with inferior Internet access because “those people are less likely to subscribe anyway.” 

Where does this leave us? Usher identified a few potential solutions. She reiterated calls for more inclusive newsrooms, and added her own call for higher-ed financial aid reform so that lower-income students can have a fighting chance at pursuing journalism. She discussed the need for a “post newspaper consciousness” — to acknowledge that we cannot save the newspaper, but we can identify what journalism does best and save those “special parts.” 

She left the audience with a final recommendation: journalism should “embrace the partisan media system.” Usher clarified her position: the news media like The New York Times “hides behind a veil of neutrality,” when this is only an (unconvincing) illusion. “People want to see them advocate for social justice,” she said, and she agrees. Usher doesn’t think polarization is inherently bad “if it’s polarization toward social justice and breaking down systemic inequality.”

“There’s no use assuaging people who have given up and aren’t listening. And then you have lots of people unsubscribing because the phony neutrality was irritating them,” Usher said. For organizations like the Times, the veil of neutrality is looking like a lose-lose.

She advised them to “go for those who are still listening. And just own it.”

Post by Zella Hanson

The Duke Blockchain Lab: Disrupting and Redefining Finance

The first decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was created in 2009 by a developer named Satoshi Nakamoto which is assumed to be a pseudonym. Over the last decade, cryptocurrency has taken the world by storm, influencing the way people think about the intersection of society and economics. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum, another popular token, operate on blockchains.

Manmit Singh, a senior studying electrical and computer engineering, was introduced to blockchain his freshman year at Duke after meeting Joey Santoro ‘19, a senior studying computer science at the time.

Singh quickly found that he was not only interested in the promise of blockchain but skilled at building blockchain applications as well. As a result, he joined the Duke blockchain lab, a club on campus that, at the time, had no more than fifteen students. Singh, who is now president of the Duke Blockchain Lab, explained that there are now over 100 members in the club working on different projects related to blockchain. 

“Blockchain is a computer network with a built-in immutable ledge.”

Manmit SIngh

Essentially, computers process information, the internet allows us to communicate information and blockchain is the next step in the evolution of the digital era. It not only allows computers to communicate value but to transfer it as well in a completely transparent way because every transaction is tracked and, a record of that transaction is added to every participant’s ledger which is visible to others.

The concept and application of blockchain is not intuitive to everybody. Not only do people have difficulty understanding it, but they do not even know where to begin asking questions. 

For Singh, a key element to the club’s success was recruiting new members. The crypto space experienced a crash in 2017 resulting in a lot of skepticism around an already novel idea, decentralized currency. As a result, it was crucial to educate others on the potential of decentralized finance (DeFi), cryptocurrency, and, of course, blockchain. When recruiting, Singh wanted to bring in both tech and business-focused students so that they could not only work on building blockchain applications but conduct research on business models and how to generate value within decentralized finance as well.

Members of the Duke Blockchain Lab at a
weekly meeting learning about Stablecoins,
one type of token in cryptocurrency

Currently, members are working on a variety of projects including looking at consensus algorithms or how the blockchain makes decisions given that it is decentralized so inherently no one is in control. However, their most ambitious venture is the development of their Crypto Fund where people can invest money.

They are also looking to develop a Duke-inspired marketplace with talented Duke artists to sell non-fungible-tokens or NFTs. If unfamiliar, Abby Shlesinger, a senior studying Art History, created a blog to educate people on what NFTs are. 

One of the first projects Singh led involved developing a “smart contract” for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine, a computation engine that acts like a decentralized computer that can hold millions of executable projects. Smart contracts are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met.

Additionally, Singh and other members of the Duke Blockchain Lab are working on tokenomic research with Dr. Harvey, a Duke professor who recently published a book alongside Santoro titled “DeFi and the Future of Finance” which you can find here. 

“Every blockchain is a complete economy that exists on a different plane.” 

Within these blockchain economies are various different types of tokens that vary in function and value. Tokenomics explores how these economies work and can be used to generate value. When asked to compare tokenomic concepts to ones in traditional finance, Singh explained that payment tokens are like dollars, asset tokens are like bonds and security tokens are like stocks. Currently, several companies are working on creating competitive blockchains that will be both cheaper and faster allowing creating an avenue for blockchain to continue accelerating into the mainstream. 

Meanwhile, Santoro, who introduced Singh to blockchain, graduated from Duke in 2019 and went on to form The Fei Protocol, a stable coin that unlike bitcoin does not change in value. His protocol raised one billion dollars within several weeks and while it had some initial challenges, it is now set to launch V2, a second version, soon. 

Singh plans to continue working on blockchain applications after graduating this spring and hopes to combine it with his passion for entrepreneurship.

“I am enthused by the applications of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the internet of things in disrupting the world as we know it.”

Manmit Singh
By: Anna Gotskind

School Segregation & Culture War: Color of Education 2021

Mary Hassdyk

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 1619 Project. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalism project which sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project has been controversial and is thought to have sparked the current debate over critical race theory in the classroom.

Its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, spoke at the Color of Education virtual summit on October 26. She discussed her journalistic research on systemic racial inequities in the education system, as well as the 1619 Project and the struggle over teaching race in the classroom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones defined the public school as an “intimate place” where young members of society come together to “exchange ideas and culture, meeting across class and race.” The public school serves to create community, which, she stressed, is necessary for a healthy democracy. “A sense of community prevents polarization,” she said. “I know that a person who’s different from me still wants, fundamentally, the same things.” That gives us more of an opportunity to solve political problems without hostility. 

Instead, she often sees “segregated” low-income mostly-Black schools and “integrated” mostly-white schools, separated by a disturbing chasm of resources and opportunity. (She’s written about this in several Times pieces.) She remarked that “this bifurcation doesn’t serve our democracy and it doesn’t serve humanity.”

But that’s been a problem since before Brown v. Board of Education. What’s changed in the last few years, according to Hannah-Jones, is that in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, there is now a “culture war” being waged over critical race theory. 

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines the intersection of race with law and public policy. The theory is controversial: many fear the fundamental critique of the US legal and economic system that the theory ultimately implies. (In 2020, whereas white conservatives and more moderate liberals tended to blame fatal incidents of police brutality on “a few bad apples,” the viewpoint consistent with critical race theory is that “the problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it.”)

Laws banning the teaching of critical race theory have already been passed or are in the works in several states, including here in North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper recently vetoed a bill which sought to regulate the teaching of several race-related concepts, including whether “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.”

There’s also historical revisionism, known pejoratively as ‘revisionist history’: the reinterpretation of orthodox views surrounding historical events, or, according to fellow Times contributor and historian Timothy Snyder, “the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable.” (Snyder says that in the US, “the ‘revisionists’ are people who write about race.”) 

Critical race theory ultimately requires some revisionism — to critically examine the intersection of race with the laws and policy of the current moment, we must critically examine how we got here, and that means taking another look at the US’ legal history, war history, even its history of infrastructure. Critical race theory is usually taught in college humanities classes. (Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s, and her work is decidedly college level — I’ve read her here at Duke, but certainly not before.) But because critical race theory and revisionism are linked, it’s come to pass that any K-12 effort to teach about how racism has informed US history now gets labeled as “critical race theory” by adversaries of these efforts. 

Critical race theory has become a buzzword — and in many circles, it’s a bad word. These days, if a parent thinks you’re teaching critical race theory, you might soon find yourself without a job. (The summit required a passcode and was not recorded for fear that educators participating might be “outed as believers” in critical race theory and subsequently maligned.)

Along with educators in the Zoom comments, Hannah-Jones discussed this problem: teachers are getting accused of teaching “critical race theory”; the term is being used as a weapon and to imply wrongdoing; and it seems that parents, legislators, and even some educators don’t know what it actually means. 

Hannah-Jones asserted that this is “how propaganda works.” The term “critical race theory” is being used to produce fear and automatic condemnation, which distracts from the content of the theory and shuts down further (more rational) conversation. Hannah-Jones gave some advice to educators: “When a parent says, ‘I do not want my child to learn critical race theory,’ Ask them what they think that it is. They don’t know. And then you get to say, ‘Well, no, that’s history. Well, no, that’s anti-slavery.’ You get the point.”

Hannah-Jones explained that “as educators, you have to have these conversations with people.” Parents don’t necessarily know what their children are learning in school — and that can be a source of anxiety. So when “bad-faith actors are fear mongering, saying ‘Don’t you know what terrible things your kids are learning?’” it’s all too easy for parents to become distraught and distrust their child’s teacher.

Moving to discussing other issues in education, Hannah-Jones emphasized that schools are generationally deprived of resources, which is a problem that “can’t be fixed overnight.” She’s seen parents trying to advocate for their children and failing because they lack proximity to social, political, or legal power. “Maybe they can’t come to PTA because they’re a single mother, or they work at Popeyes — they get dismissed,” she said. “There’s no meeting with the superintendent. They can’t call the media in.” And when power dictates one’s ability to make change, the generational deprivation of resources can only continue.

Jayden Grant, a senior at Falls Lake Academy, asked Hannah-Jones how to ensure that these issues are addressed on the level of charter and private schools, which aren’t governed by the same policies. 

Hannah-Jones replied that she is fundamentally opposed to charter and private schools, viewing them as “undemocratic by design.” As such, “holding them accountable” is only possible through public advocacy, namely through the media. Students have the strongest voice, she told Jayden. They’re the reason these schools exist in the first place; it’s up to them to challenge policies or actions they see as unfair and make the public aware. 

On that note, Hannah-Jones brought the conversation back to the question of which version of our collective past will be taught in the K-12 classroom. Hannah-Jones said that based on the feedback she’s gotten and conversations she’s had, the 1619 project has inspired kids. It’s made them excited about history and learning in general. She denounced the neoliberal “privatization and commodification of education,” stating that often, parents wrongly view themselves as consumers. “We need to center kids in these discussions,” she said.

Hannah-Jones wrapped up the discussion with a call to action. She told the audience to “get angry” that authors like Ruby Bridges and Toni Morrison are being blacklisted, because “that is the same kind of thinking that’s led to the inequality we see now.” She claimed that “people wouldn’t be freaking out about the 1619 Project if it wasn’t having an effect,” but the Project is making waves, because “those who control the stories about who we are control the culture.” And the culture Hannah-Jones wants to see is one which sees the “least of us as just as deserving as anyone else.”

Professor Emeritus at UNC Harry Amana had the last word, saying that one cannot be an educator without being an optimist. That’s because, as an educator, you believe that “if people knew better, they would do better.” 

Maybe one day, we all will.

Post by Zella Hanson

Law Tech Demo Roundup, Using Technology to Address Gaps in Access to Justice

If innovative technology solutions are the key to addressing gaps in our justice system, Duke Law Tech Lab (DLTL) is a place where these solutions come to life.

Friday, October 22nd, three teams presented on their work, supported by DLTL, to change the way that legal services are delivered. And the presentation had more at stake than just educating the attendees. Real cash prizes were on the line – voted on by a panel of judges and even audience members – to provide even more funding for these startups.

Jeff Ward introduces the 2021 Law Tech Legal Demo Judges.

The three teams were accepted out of dozens of applications to work with the DLTL, according to host Jeff Ward (JD), Director of Duke’s Center on Law and Technology and Clinical Professor of Law. The Lab looks for early-stage companies striving to increase access to legal solutions to offer monetary support, but the missions of the DLTL initiative go far beyond that. DLTL is building a community for creative entrepreneurs in the legal tech space, connecting start-ups with valuable partners and mentors, and fostering a space of growth through tailored resources and support.

First up at the 2021 Law Tech Lab Demo Day was Creators’ Legal. “The traditional legal solutions simply don’t work for the modern content creator,” said Eric Farber, founder and CEO of Creators’ Legal. Farber’s company is seeking to help what is now the second-fastest sector of the world economy: Content creators. Content creators are people who generate revenue by sponsorships and advertising, often through social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok. This market is huge and expanding, but “completely underserved” with legal solutions, said Farber.

Creators’ Legal CEO and Founder, Eric Farber, explains how the company works to support modern content creators.

Because content creators can go from production to distribution within just a few hours or less, traditional entertainment legal that is filled with time-consuming, expensive, and unresponsive lawyers is not a viable option.

Farber says that “Industry Standard Agreements and deals are hidden behind the doors of [this] traditional legal.” By creating a platform that has easy-to-use contract templates, eSignatures, and a digital briefcase for storing files offered on a by-contract or subscription-basis, Creators Legal wants to be a company that serves the gaps left for content creators.

Next up was Justice Innovations, represented by its CEO, Sasha Davenport. Davenport and Justice Innovations want to rearrange the workflow associated with the process that happens from the time a crime takes place to the person who has been arrested for the case makes their initial appearance in court.

“This [at the initial appearance] is where things get really interesting for me,” said Davenport because about 40% of cases are dropped for no-actions. This leads to a huge number of wasted time, effort, budgets, and more. By creating and integrating a software system that they are dubbing Vet-IT, the company wants to increase data-sharing across agencies that should be on the same page with each other but often are not.

Sasha Davenport, CEO, explains how Vet-IT works through different steps from initial crime reporting to someone’s first appearance in court.

Through the data-sharing platform, information would be entered about a case from the first moments of crime investigation to help decide if this is a charge that would even end up being prosecuted or not. The benefits, according to Davenport, including filtering out bad cases, deflecting more people from entering the carceral system, decreasing jail populations, expediting redirection for individuals in need to mental health interventions, and, potentially, improved community-police trust. Justice Innovations were inspired to pursue this idea because of the great success that Harris County Texas has had in producing few no-action cases. Harris County achieved this by a process of phone-trees across agencies for the last 50 years.

Founder and Executive Director of SAEF Legal Aid, Eamonn Keenan, explains the company’s marketing strategy of community outreach.

Last, but not least, was SAEF Legal Aid. Eamonn Keenan, company Founder and Executive Director, laid out the team’s legal tech solution. There is a systematic problem of finding the legal support that one needs before it is too late, bringing with it immense challenges and large expenditures of time. Keenan became aware of this issue while working at a legal aid help desk. SAEF Legal Aid’s solution is to leverage practical tech to more accurately diagnose user’s legal problems and facilitate access to free or affordable legal solutions via reliable referrals and strategic partnerships.

In doing this work, the team hopes to help low-income families more immediately, starting with family law services and expanding out. A large part of their solution also includes building partnerships with “word-of-mouth marketing” to embed the service in high-need communities. “People without internet access might need legal help the most,” Keenan said. SAEF Legal Aid hopes to cut through the lack of staffing for legal aid advice desks and bypass the waiting game of larger legal aid providers who often have high turn-away rates and long waiting periods for attorney follow up to resolve the barrier that intake causes in gaining access to legal help.

At the end of the presentation, Justice Innovations walked away with the Audience Favorite prize and SAEF Legal Aid took the Grand Prize. Regardless of prizes, these three teams will inevitably continue to be part of the solution to gaps in justice as they carry their work forward.

Post by Cydney Livingston

The COVID-19 ‘Endgame’ Depends on Where You Live

In February of 2020, no one could have fathomed that the very next month would usher in the COVID-19 pandemic – an era of global history that has (to date) resulted in 5 million deaths, 240 million cases, trillions of dollars lost, and the worsening of every inequality imaginable.

And while scientists and governments have worked together to make incredible advances in vaccine technology, access, and distribution, it goes without saying that there is more work to be done to finally put the pieces of an exhausted global society back together. On Tuesday, October 12th, the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) brought together three leaders in global health to discuss what those next steps should be.

The panel discussion, which was moderated by Dr. Krishna Udayakumar of the DGHI, was titled “The COVID-19 Endgame: Where are we headed, and when will we get there?” The panelists were Dr. Ann Lindstrand, who is the World Health Organization’s unit head for the Essential Program on Immunization; Dr. Ayoade Alakija, who is the co-chair of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance and founder of the Emergency Coordination Center in Nigeria; and Alberto Valenzuela, who is the Executive Director of the Pan American and Parapan American Games Legacy Project.

Dr. Ayoade Alakija
Dr. Ann Linstrand
Alberto Valenzuela

Dr. Lindstrand began by setting the stage and highlighting what are undoubted successes on a global level. 6.5 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered around the world, and the vaccines have impressive effectiveness given the speed with which they were developed. Yet undergirding all of this is the elephant in the room that, sitting in a 1st-world country, we don’t think about: high-income countries have administered 32 times more doses per inhabitant compared to low-income countries.

Graph from Dr. Ann Lindstrand

This vaccine inequity has been exacerbated by already weak health security systems, vaccine nationalism, and lackluster political commitment. And while the WHO is slated to enormously ramp up supplies of vaccines in Q4 of 2021 and Q1 of 2022, it doesn’t mitigate the damage to the socioeconomic welfare of people that COVID-19 has already had. Dr. Lindstrand outlines the three waves of socioeconomic impact we will see, but expressed concern that “we’re already beginning to see the first wave pan out.” 

Diagram from Dr. Ann Lindstrand

Dr. Alakija took this discussion a step further, asserting that COVID-19 is poised to become the disease of low-income countries. “If you’re living in the US or EU,” she remarked, “You’re heading into the ‘Roaring 20s’. If you live in the Global South, COVID-19 is going to become your future.”

To this point, Dr. Alakija emphasized that the only reason this is the status quo is because in her eyes, the world failed to do what was right when it should have. In her home country of Nigeria, she highlighted that out of a population of 210 million people, 5.1 million people have received the vaccine – and of those 5.1 million, just 2 million — one percent — have been double-vaccinated. “It really is a case of keeping those down further down, while giving booster doses to those that have already been vaccinated,” she said. “We don’t have diagnostic data, so people are slipping underwater and the world has no idea.”

It’s worth noting that Nigeria houses some of the megacities of the world, not just in the African continent. So according to Dr. Alakija, “we don’t solve this with a medical lens, we solve this with a whole-of-society lens.” We must, she argued, because in an interconnected world, no one exists in isolation.

Alberto Valenzuela’s work is a great example of this. In 2019, his team led organizing efforts for the Pan American Games in Lima, relying on extensive partnerships between public organizations and corporations. In 2020, though, as the world shifted, the government called on the team to transition into something much different – COVID-19 relief efforts in the country.

The results are staggering. In just 5 weeks, the Pan American and Parapan American Games Legacy Project built 10 hospitals in 5 regions of the country. The implementation of 31 vaccination centers throughout the country resulted in a tripling of the number of people vaccinated per day in Lima. To him, this work “proves what’s possible when private and public sectors merge.” In other words, remarkable things happen when all of society tackles a societal issue.

Slide from Alberto Valenzuela

So where do we go from here? Perhaps the biggest thing that stood out was the need to empower low-income countries to make decisions that are best for them. In Dr. Alakija’s words, “we need to lose the charity model in favor of a partnership model.” Dr. Lindstrand pointed out that there’s a deep know-how in the Global South of how to roll out mass-vaccination efforts – but only when we “lay down our organizational hats” can we move to what Dr. Lindstrand termed “more coordination and less confusion.” Valenzuela emphasized the need to integrate many sectors, not just healthcare, to mobilize the COVID-19 response in countries. But above all, Dr. Alakija said, “there will be no endgame until we have equity, inclusion, and health justice.” 

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

The Black Wealth Gap in Modern Day America

“White Americans have been provided with up escalators they can ride to reach their goals without hurdles. Meanwhile, Black Americans have been forced onto down escalators which they must run-up to reach their destination.”

The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University recently released a striking report on Black wealth in America, entitled “Still Running Up the Down Escalator: How Narratives Shape our Understanding of Racial Wealth Inequality,” This 36-page report, written by Natasha Hicks, Fenaba Addo, Anne Prince, and William Darity examines the stark inequalities in the economic situation of Black Americans.

The cover page of the 36-page, in-depth report, published earlier this fall.

“Despite a decade of philanthropic investment and renewed attention from progressive elected officials, policymakers, and advocates, we have yet to make discernible progress in ensuring Black families have the power and freedom wealth bestows,” the report says (page 1).

“The typical Black household’s wealth (in 2019) was $24,100; for White households, it was $188,200. This translates into the typical Black household holding about 12 cents for every dollar of wealth held by the typical White family– a disparity that has remained largely unchanged since 1989 (Kent and Ricketts, 2020).” ( page 6)

Black families are disproportionately shut out of access to opportunities that would improve generational wealth, such as home loans, business loans/ownership, and financial assets. Because of the long history of these inequalities, Black wealth in America has improved little in the last 10 years.

The report continues by analyzing how Covid-19, the worst Pandemic in US History, has widened the wealth gap in America.

“Racial wealth inequality remains a persistent defining American issue, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate toll on the physical and financial health of Black people,” the report says. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis have only exacerbated what was already a collective failing by policymakers and elected officials, who continue to invest in solutions focused on individual behavior instead of systems change.”

Covid-19 placed over 114 million people into unemployment over the course of the pandemic, with an overrepresentation of Black Americans in these figures. The figures below were published in the report to highlight the number of liquid assets and wealth available to white families versus black families in 2019, just one year before the pandemic.

This figure taken from the report shows the median liquid assets by race and income. ( figure 1, page 8)
This figure taken from the report shows the median wealth accumulated by race and wealth quintiles. (figure 2, page 8)

As illustrated by these figures, the average White family in America maintains a leg up financially through both income and assets, which is why when the pandemic hit, black Americans were the ones disproportionately affected. Without access to high wealth modules or liquid assets to lean on, the economic wealth gap in America grew bigger.

The next part of the report talked about how false narratives in America regarding economic inequality is leading to unsuccessful aims of correction. In America, it’s a common theme to assume the problems faced by Black Americans are a cultural or personal issue, instead of a systemic one.

“Harmful narratives that characterize Black Americans as unintelligent, lazy, and criminal reinforce the notion that racial wealth disparities between Black and White households arise from differences in culture, values, skills, and behavior.” (page 10) Themes of anti-Blackness and personal responsibility, or a bootstrap mentality, were key systemic factors noted in the report. These factors impacted almost every aspect of Black America, including education, homeownership, entrepreneurship, family structure, and income and employment.

The report concludes by bringing up tangible solutions for these structural problems.

“The past year of crises is exposing the fact that we created systems, rules, and policies that actively and intentionally harm Black people. In order to truly address racial wealth inequality and the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, policymakers and funders must move away from solutions focused on behavioral changes and individual choices. Rather, they must take bold actions (backed by large scale financial investments) to shift dominant narratives and reimagine economic structures that support, uplift and protect Black people.” (page 23)

The authors make four broad proposals: shift harmful narratives, eliminate the racial wealth gap, dismantle extractive policies, and design programs to seed intergenerational wealth.

Economic disparities in America are a systemic issue, not a cultural or personal one. This report examines the interplay between this issue and the current pandemic, maintaining that the only way to create tangible change is through systemic solutions.

“America offers a false promise of equal opportunity and individual agency. For Black Americans, making all the right choices does not equal all the right outcomes. Just as wealth-building for White people in America was by design and government action, we need intentional and structural wealth-building strategies for Black Americans with investments compared to those given to White Americans. This requires a paradigm shift to truly tackle racial wealth inequality.” (page 36)

Written by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

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