Governance in the Blockchain Economy:
A Framework and Research Agenda
IT University of Copenhagen
2300 Copenhagen, Denmark
IT University of Copenhagen
2300 Copenhagen, Denmark
John Leslie King
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109
ACCEPTED IN MARCH 2018 FOR PUBLICATION IN THE
JOURNAL OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR INFORMATION SYSTEMS
Blockchain technology is often referred to as a groundbreaking innovation and the
harbinger of a new economic era. Blockchain might engender a new type of
economic system, the blockchain economy. In the blockchain economy, agreed-
upon transactions would be enforced autonomously following rules defined by smart
contracts. The blockchain economy would manifest itself in a new form of
organizational design—decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO)—which are
organizations with governance rules specified in the blockchain. We discuss the
blockchain economy along dimensions defined in the IT governance literature:
decision rights, accountability, and incentives. Our case study of a DAO illustrates
that governance in the blockchain economy might radically depart from established
notions of governance. Using the three governance dimensions, we propose a novel
IT governance framework and a research agenda for governance in the blockchain
economy. We challenge common assumptions in the blockchain discourse, and
propose promising information systems research related to those assumptions.
Keywords: Blockchain, distributed ledger technology, smart contracts,
decentralized autonomous organization, governance, agency theory, decision rights,
Some argue that the blockchain economy is emerging, requiring new
governance approaches (Niederman et al., 2017). We illustrate this
blockchain economy and explore the case of an emerging decentralized
autonomous organization (DAO) to explore decision rights, accountability,
and incentives related to governance (Weill, 2004). Building on Weill’s work,
we provide a novel IT governance framework and a research agenda to
examine changes to governance that may accompany the emergence of the
blockchain economy. A recent paper suggests a practical research agenda
for studying blockchain (Risius & Spohrer, 2017). Our effort is aimed at
theorizing in information systems (IS) research, and challenging implicit
assumptions from the blockchain discourse. We shed light on some “dark”
issues of blockchain, and identify important avenues for research concerning
governance in the blockchain economy.
Blockchain can be described as a decentralized, transactional
database technology that facilitates validated, tamper-resistant transactions
consistent across a large number of network participants called nodes
(Glaser, 2017). Blockchain is a class of technologies (sometimes called
distributed ledger technologies) that give users confidence that archived
information (e.g., a certificate) has not been tampered with. In principle, this
guarantees a “single truth” across different agents who may or may not trust
each other. Not surprisingly, financial services has been one of the first
industries to express an interest in blockchain (Beck & Müller-Bloch, 2017;
Walsh et al., 2016). For centuries, the financial industry has relied on double-
entry bookkeeping as a trustworthy method of determining “who owns what”
and “who owes whom.” In addition to financial services, however, blockchain
technology has also been explored in other industries, for instance, as a
means of reducing uncertainty in supply chains (Nærland, Müller-Bloch,
Beck, & Palmund, 2017), fostering environmental sustainability (Chapron,
2017), and preventing fraudulent tax returns (Hyvärinen, Risius, & Friis,
Recently, academia has also expressed interest in blockchain (Beck,
Avital, Rossi, & Thatcher, 2017; Tapscott & Tapscott, 2016). Thus far, most
academic research has focused on cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (e.g.,
Böhme, Christin, Edelman, & Moore, 2015; Kazan, Tan, & Lim, 2015; Li &
Wang, 2017; Nakamoto, 2008); however, blockchain has since evolved
beyond Bitcoin. The release of the freely programmable Ethereum blockchain
in 2014 enabled smart contracts, software code that runs exactly as
programmed without risk of downtime, censorship, or fraud (Buterin, 2014).
Smart contracts facilitate many different kinds of transactions, going far
beyond cryptocurrency transfer.
Little is known about the implications of blockchain for the governance
of economic activities. Blockchain and the smart contracts it enables could
give rise to a new type of economic system, which we refer to here as the
blockchain economy. While the digital economy, where “goods and services
traded are in digital format” (Kim, Barua, & Whinston, 2002), has become
omnipresent (Bharadwaj, El Sawy, Pavlou, & Venkatraman, 2013), the
blockchain economy extends beyond the digital economy in that agreed-upon
transactions are autonomously enforced, following rules defined in smart
contracts. The blockchain economy might enable new organizational designs
in form of DAOs, autonomous entities using governance rules that conform to
the business logic of the blockchain (Jentzsch, n.d.). Established notions of
governance are challenged in the blockchain economy. Comparing the
blockchain economy to the digital economy we provide a research framework
and agenda for governance in the blockchain economy.
2. Literature Background
For purposes of this analysis, we consider blockchain to be a
foundational technology for the blockchain economy. The theoretical
foundations for this paper are drawn from the relevant IT governance
literature. In this section we discuss the foundations of the blockchain
technology, introduce the idea of the blockchain economy, and discuss the
issue of governance.
2.1. Blockchain Foundations
Whatever the future of blockchain may be, at this point it is widely
assumed to be highly important. Some researchers describe it as being as
important as the Internet due to its attendant impacts on business and
society (e.g., Beck, 2018). Research suggests that blockchain has the
capacity to reduce uncertainty, insecurity, and ambiguity in transactions by
providing full transactional disclosure and producing a single truth for all
network participants (Beck, Czepluch, Lollike, & Malone, 2016; Nærland et
Technically, a blockchain is a tamper-resistant, decentralized
database of transactions consistent across a base of decentralized nodes
(Glaser, 2017). It is cryptographically armored against retrospective
manipulations, and uses a consensus mechanism to ensure database
consistency whenever new transactions are validated. All transactions saved
on the blockchain are stored in blocks; transaction data are stored within the
blocks in a cryptographic data structure, the most common being Merkle
trees. In Merkle trees, transactions are hashed and repeatedly paired,
merged, and rehashed until only one hash remains, the Merkle root. Each
block saves the Merkle root of the previous block. This creates a chain of
data that are cryptographically secured and linked. Any retrospective attempt
to change a transaction necessitates rehashing not only the block that
contains the transaction, but all subsequent blocks as well. While this is
theoretically possible, it is highly implausible, since other nodes are
constantly adding new blocks to the ever-expanding blockchain (Underwood,
2016). Consensus mechanisms encourage the nodes to validate new
transactions and discourage them from creating alternative histories of
transactions. These consensus mechanisms often employ economic
incentives to keep the database consistent. The most common consensus
mechanisms are proof-of-work and proof-of-stake. Proof-of-work requires
solving a computationally expensive cryptographic puzzle. The node that first
finds the solution to the puzzle validates the next block, and is remunerated
with cryptocurrency. In proof-of-stake, nodes with more cryptocurrency
(larger stakes) have higher probabilities of being chosen to validate the next
block. The stake may be destroyed if the node behaves maliciously, which
thus discourages such behavior (see also Tschorsch & Scheuermann, 2016).
The ability to read blockchain data and submit new transactions is
determined by access to transactions. Public blockchains allow all nodes to
read blockchain data and propose new transactions, whereas private
blockchains allow only nodes that are preregistered by a central authority to
read blockchain data and submit new transactions (see Table 1). Public
blockchains offer either permissioned or permissionless access to transaction
validation. In permissionless blockchains, all nodes can validate transactions,
while in permissioned blockchains, only nodes that have been preregistered
can validate transactions (Peters & Panayi, 2016).
Table 1. Blockchain Typology!
Access to Transaction Validation!
All nodes can read and submit
transactions. Only authorized nodes
can validate transactions.!
All nodes can read, submit, and
Only authorized nodes can read,
submit, and validate transactions.!
2.2. The Blockchain Economy
The first blockchain enabled only the transfer of digital tokens, in this
case the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, and was not used for other more
sophisticated transactions. The launch of Ethereum showed it was possible
to program blockchains to support many kinds of transactional logics through
smart contracts that execute precoded pieces of software on the blockchain
when specific conditions are met (Buterin, 2014). Smart contracts can
execute transactions autonomously, without interference from agents or the
need for approval from third parties. They can be embedded into digital
assets or into the digital representation of physical assets in the form of
tokens that enforce autonomous contract fulfillment (Szabo, 1994). For
instance, through smart contracts, it might become possible to autonomously
and remotely lock a leased car if the owner failed to fulfill leasing obligations.
The blockchain ensures that contracts are fulfilled and not corrupted.
For our purposes, we presume that smart contracts will precipitate the
blockchain economy, a new type of economic system where agreed-upon
transactions can be enforced autonomously according to rules defined in the
contracts. The blockchain economy could potentially facilitate machine-to-
machine coordination within the Internet of things (e.g., Christidis &
Devetsikiotis, 2016; Zhang & Wen, 2017), or the creation of decentralized
electronic marketplaces (e.g., Subramanian, 2018; Wörner, von Bomhard,
Schreier, & Bilgeri, 2016). The blockchain economy would manifest itself in
new forms of organizations called DAOs, in which governance might be
decentralized in contrast to the governance of organizations common today
(e.g., Swan, 2015; Wright & De Filippi, 2015). The blockchain economy idea
is based on a new kind of governance.
We use the theoretical perspective of IT governance, a topic of
interest for several decades (see Brown & Grant, 2005, for an overview).
Weill (2004, p. 3) says, “IT governance represents the framework for decision
rights and accountabilities to encourage desirable behavior in the use of IT”.
Weill’s definition invokes three key dimensions of IT governance: decision
rights, accountability, and incentives.
Decision rights concern the rights governing control over certain
assets. Fama and Jensen (1983) describe two types of decision rights.
Decision management rights allow generating decision proposals, and
executing or implementing decisions. Decision control rights allow ratification
of decisions (deciding whether decisions are to be implemented) and
monitoring decisions (measuring performance of decision agents). Decision
rights, in general, determine the degree of centralization, that is, whether
decision-making power is concentrated in a single person or small group
(centralized), or dispersed (decentralized) (King, 1983; Sambamurthy &
The right to monitor decisions is linked to accountability. To be called
‘to account’ for one’s actions is the core sense of this (Mulgan, 2000), but is
only one part of an accountability relationship. Agents providing an account
must address actions taken and consequences incurred. Enforcement
mechanisms are crucial (Burritt & Welch, 1997); decision management rights
are often separated from decision control rights to avoid self-monitoring, self-
reward, and self-punishment (Moldoveanu & Martin, 2001). Accountability is
enacted, specified and brought into force, through contracts and legal
frameworks governed by institutions, but it can also be enacted through IT
infrastructures (Weitzner et al., 2008)—an important consideration for
Incentives are underemphasized in Weill’s discussion, but have been
recognized as central to IS design (Ba, Stallaert, & Whinston, 2001).
Incentives motivate agents to act. Jensen and Meckling (1976) address two
types of incentives: Pecuniary incentives relate observable agent behavior to
monetary reward (or reward that can be monetized). Non-pecuniary
incentives relate observable agent behaviour to non-monetary reward, such
as privileges, visibility, or reputation. Incentive alignment occurs “when the
system’s embedded features induce users to employ the system consistent
with the design objective” (Ba, Stallaert, & Whinston, 2001, p. 227). A system
with aligned incentives makes agents free to choose their own behaviour but
inclined to choose actions that coincide with goals of the system’s design.
These governance dimensions are anchored in agency theory or
principal-agent theory (Moldoveanu & Martin, 2001), in which one party (the
principal) delegates work to another party (the agent). The objective is to
resolve problems in cases where principals and agents have conflicting
desires, goals, or attitudes toward risk (Akerlof, 1970; Eisenhardt, 1989;
Jensen & Meckling, 1976). Agency theory is a lens to view allocation of
decision rights, to determine how parties are to be held accountable, and
how incentives can be used to overcome diverging goals (Fama & Jensen,
1983). While these theoretical perspectives are common to both economics
and political science, the analysis here takes primarily an economics
3. The Swarm City Case
In order to explore governance issues we analyzed a blockchain case.
Swarm City1 developed out of its predecessor, Arcade City, and was founded
in 2017 as a loosely coupled network of software engineers working on the
development of an Ethereum-based blockchain application to empower
sharing economy platforms. Swarm City is an entrepreneurial network of like-
minded developers seeking to disrupt the sharing economy and the platforms
that act as central authorities and create markets to facilitate transactions. In
today’s sharing economy, platform owners are remunerated for providing
services, typically through a transaction fee. Their business models have
been criticized for exploitative labor practices, and strong network effects
have made some sharing economy platforms quasi-monopolistic
organizations that capture monopoly rents (The Economist, 2014). These
quasi-monopolies are a concern for regulators and politicians alike.
Swarm City seeks to provide a blockchain application for the sharing
economy that facilitates building disintermediated sharing economy
platforms. Developers can customize the design of sharing economy
platforms by choosing application areas (e.g., ride sharing) or by defining
governance rules (e.g., whether or not transaction fees are charged). Swarm
City envisions developing a market for blockchain-based sharing economy
platforms, where different types of platforms compete with each other. As
such, Swarm City serves as an example of how blockchain might engender
the blockchain economy and challenges our understanding of IT governance.
Since there was no well-defined company or location where we could
conduct interviews or harvest secondary data, our data collection followed an
unconventional approach. Our collected data include the original Arcade City
white paper, as well as posts from the Swarm City blog (press.swarm.city).
We conducted five interviews with Swarm City developers between
December 2016 and February 2017, and three additional interviews in
February 2018. Each interview was open-ended and semistructured, lasting
40-90 minutes, with an average duration of slightly over 60 minutes. Data
sampling aligned with preconceptions about challenges in blockchain
governance, but was open to allow for new theoretical insights (Urquhart,
Lehmann, & Myers, 2010). We gathered more than 110 pages of interview
transcriptions plus secondary data (see Table 2).
Table 2. Data Collection!
Type of Data!
Number of Pages!
Interviews (8 interviews with 8 individuals associated with Swarm City:
business leader, principal cofounder, cofounder, system architect,
software engineer, liaison officer, communication officer, member of
Swarm City blog posts (49 blog posts from press.swarm.city)!
Arcade City (predecessor of Swarm City) white paper!
We formulated the problem (Van de Ven, 2007), designed the case
study (Yin, 2000), and engaged in data collection and analysis. This led to
theoretical insights using a pluralistic strategy (Mingers, 2001). The work was
inspired by Mingers’ (2004) recommendation of pragmatics. We embraced
different research perspectives to construct “a useful model of reality” (Van
de Ven, 2007), and followed the principle of emergence from grounded
theory of fitting insights to the data under study (Glaser & Strauss, 2008). By
employing such techniques we increased theoretical scope and
conceptualization, treating literature about governance as additional data
points for analysis (Urquhart et al., 2010). Our background of blockchain
workshops, panels, and events informed the work.
3.1. Decision Rights
Unlike Airbnb or Uber, the ownership of Swarm City is ostensibly
organized in a decentralized fashion. However, this form of ownership is
limited to decision rights and does not include additional property rights,
since anyone can copy the code that instantiates Swarm City and use it.
According to a Swarm City business leader: “There is no real ownership. . . .
If anybody wants to copy the code and create his own project from this, he
can do this.”
Swarm City developers intend to make the code (and the application
itself) increasingly decentralized and autonomous once it is implemented.
However, in its current developmental stage, decision rights are highly
centralized in what Swarm City developers consider a necessary “benevolent
dictatorship.” They say initial “centrality” is a prerequisite for “decentrality”
later. As a system architect explained:
“The first governance structure you might say is something like a
dictatorship. . . . The reason we do this is because we believe that for
building [Swarm City] as a tool, you [need] a military style way. . . .
What we are trying to build is of course a totally decentralized open
platform, that is open source and anyone can use, can add value to.
But in order to make the tools, we need to do the governance in a
really hierarchical way.”
However, the Swarm City development team does plan to relinquish
control once initial development is complete. As a business leader explained:
“Our goal is to go from centralized governance to decentralized
governance over the period of time. That’s something that is totally on
our roadmap . . . , for [us who] are deciding now to become obsolete
so we don’t . . . have that kind of control, that kind of decision-making
power for eternity in Swarm City. The aim would be that all the people
using Swarm City . . . have a decentralized way of managing it.”
Swarm city developers did express some concern about the allocation
of decision rights. In the future, token owners might make joint management
decisions (e.g., concerning new features or whether to offer certain services),
but this joint decision-making may not always be feasible. Another approach
might be to separate decision management rights from decision control
rights, similar to traditional corporations. As a software engineer clarified:
“Owning a number of shares allows you to have a voting right in the
decision-making of the company and then you have a board of
directors that are doing the day-to-day management of the company.
That would be some people appointed by these Swarm token
This suggests that the blockchain economy might have some
centralization. However, there are also tendencies towards a decentralized
locus of control. In particular, users offering services via Swarm City would
be able to determine their pricing without inference from a third party. As a
business leader explained:
“Uber always says how much I can earn per kilometre, per ride. So it's
not really something I can decide. . . . We think that the people owning
the item or the skill [they offer], they should decide how much they
want to ask for and then they will see how the market will react to it.”
Decisions might be disputed, so resolving disagreements in decision
making will be necessary. A drastic resolution is to fork the project, copying
the code and setting up an alternative, competing project. Swarm City forked
off from Arcade City due to Swarm City individuals who disagreed with
decisions of Arcade City management. In the words of one of the Swarm City
cofounders: “Arcade City’s still running, but we forked off into a separate
organization, ‘cause we had a certain way of wanting to do things”.
In Swarm City, legal risks and obligations are delegated to the network
participants. Our findings indicate that the claims that blockchain will entirely
eliminate institutional engagement are exaggerated, since compliance with
legal institutions will continue to be necessary in the blockchain economy.
However, Swarm City neither assumes liability for the transactions it hosts
nor does it compel its users to comply with legal regulations, since it
perceives itself as merely facilitating peer-to-peer transactions. According to
a software engineer:
I think that people who offer some kind of a peer-to-peer service, like
ride sharing, in their local area, they should comply with the local
regulations . . . . But it is up to the people who deliver the service to
comply with those rules . . . . We are not intermediaries, we just offer a
platform and in the end [we are enabling] a transaction on the
blockchain, a peer-to-peer transaction, and we are not involved in that.
Swarm City users may assume some legal liability for engaging in
economic exchange, but mitigation mechanisms such as escrow and dispute-
resolution assistance will be built into the system. Escrow can be entirely
governed by a smart contract, but fulfilment of contract conditions might not
be determined autonomously if transactions are bound to conditions the
transacting parties must agree to after the fact. In such cases dispute
resolution mechanisms are necessary, but implementing such mechanisms
in smart contracts is difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, institutional
engagement may be necessary to resolve conflicts. As the Swarm City
liaison officer explains:
Both [contractual] parties put money on a smart contract once they
engage in a . . . transaction, [for instance] the ride sharing. The driver
and the rider put money on the contract, in the end it has to be
released. So if one of the parties is not satisfied or has a dispute, then
. . . there will be another service like “dispute resolution” . . . that will
be in the ecosystem. So it’s another smart contract that gets triggered
and there will be a person that steps in that has to resolve this
Swarm City grants identity using a public address in the blockchain
network. The user needs this identity to engage in transactions. However, a
user can also choose to use several public addresses. Moreover, the user
can decide to remain pseudonymous. Swarm City tries to encourage users to
identify themselves by tying all public addresses to reputation scores
transferred across the sharing economy applications within Swarm City. This
would make it easy for users to switch to new applications, and can be
implemented fully on blockchain without institutional engagement. As a
business leader explains: “You can earn reputation in riding, you can earn
reputation in hosting or giving, renting out your apartment and so forth. And
this gives you sort of a more realistic view of the person.”
Swarm City’s objective is to cut fees and redistribute to users the
value currently captured by incumbent owners of sharing economy platforms.
Swarm City seeks to remove intermediaries currently responsible for creating
and governing sharing economy markets by transferring transactions and
governance to blockchain in the context of a peer-to-peer economy. As the
liaison officer states:
“The big difference with what we are building and with what blockchain
can bring and how we want to bring blockchain to the people is that . .
. almost all the value that you [create] will stay with you. So if I rent out
a room in my house I [create] that value, if I rent it out to you I want
that value coming to me. So [there is] no central party that is going to
come in and claim a percentage of it.”
It is hoped that lower transaction fees will incentivize the use of Swarm
City. There will also be behavior-influencing incentives; for example, offering
Swarm City users the opportunity to build a reputation that can be transferred
across platforms. As a cofounder explains:
“And the ones with the really high reputations, people are inclined to
trust them more, but the people with lower reputations are more
inclined to offer cheaper services and try and do their best to build up
their reputation, because if they don't, then they won't make any
money, and then what’s the point of them being there.”
Swarm City’s core developer team intends to implement a fee system
to reimburse those who maintain the infrastructure, thus creating an incentive
for developers to propose new features. According to the liaison officer:
“There will be a small fee, but we are talking about one percent
maximum, to sustain the platform. If there are some things to be
sustained, if some bugs appear or something, that will need to get
fixed . . . . We would like to have it more like a cooperative platform
and not like all money coming to one central point and being dispersed
Swarm City developers also derived benefits from issuing their own
cryptocurrency. The proceeds from the issuance were used to finance the
development of Swarm City. In the future, this cryptocurrency might be used
to pay for transactions in Swarm City and might include voting rights or
participation in decision-making. At present, the main motivation for
developing Swarm City is ideological—to drive societal change. A blog post
dated June 2, 2017 states: “Now is the time to change society. We all feel it’s
up to us to try and become the change we want to see in this world.”
For creators of the individual sharing economy applications run by the
Swarm City infrastructure, there is a monetary incentive to set up club goods,
since they can embed a transaction fee in their application. Club goods are
typically co-created and used by members and not owned by a single party.
However, due to the competition of sharing economy applications, it is hoped
that applications with minimal transaction fees will emerge, turning these
applications into de-facto non-excludable goods and thus into public goods.
Public goods are both non-excludable and non-rivalrous in consumption,
which is why there are typically not well-functioning market mechanisms for
providing them. It is hoped that the Swarm City infrastructure will change
that. As a software engineer explains:
“The thing that I think we are changing the game with is that . . .
everybody [will be able] to create these [sharing economy] storefronts
and to suggest their own business model on top of it. You could even
try [to charge] a 30 percent fee like Uber but I imagine that nobody will
use that because there will be other options with much smaller fees –
or a zero fee.”
Incentives play a crucial role in blockchain; while incentives are a key factor
for eliciting desirable behavior by those developing, maintaining, and using
Swarm City, they are also indispensable for ensuring that the underlying
blockchain infrastructure (Ethereum, in the case of Swarm City) functions
4. Future IS Governance Research on Blockchain
As contrasted with the digital economy, the blockchain economy,
challenges established notions of governance. Our research agenda is
established to explore governance in the blockchain economy. We conclude
by examining common assumptions in the blockchain discourse.
4.1. Extended IT Governance Framework
The Swarm City case clearly demonstrates that the emergence of the
blockchain economy demands a rethinking of governance. At this early point
in development, drawing from limited literature and early-stage case studies,
it is not possible to see how blockchain will evolve, but we can begin to
evaluate how the radical changes foreseen for blockchain might affect
governance. By juxtaposing the blockchain economy and the digital economy
along the governance areas of decision rights, accountability, and incentives,
it is clear that the blockchain economy changes how we view governance
(see Table 3). The blockchain economy’s emphasis on decentralizing
decision rights and the technical enactment of accountability underscores the
importance of incentive alignment. However, as our case study suggests,
these changes are fraught with tensions and conflicts, especially concerning
the degree of centralization and how accountability is enacted. We continue
here by discussing the three governance areas in terms of the blockchain
economy using the novel IT governance framework illustrated in Figure 1.
Table 3. Blockchain Economy Governance !
● The specification of
decision rights is a known
Implicit and explicit
contracts define behavior in
● Records are decided
● Strict property rights
prevent forking as a mode
of resolving disagreement
● Transaction parameters
are primarily defined
● The specification of
decision rights needs to be
organized in a
Implicit and explicit
contracts are either not
available or are solely
managed by blockchain,
making technology the
foundation of the network
instead of written
● Records are decided
upon decentrally through
● Forking as a novel
mode of decentrally
● Transaction parameters
are primarily defined
● Initial high degree of
centralized decision rights
to enable decentralized
control later on.!
● Benevolent dictatorship
● Decentralized decision-
making (setting transaction
parameters, voting on
● Hybrid (centralized
decision management rights
and decentralized decision
● Resolving disagreement
● Network as “nexus of
● Accountability specified
in interpersonal as well as
● Network as “nexus of
● Accountability specified
in the network, delegated
to and by the blockchain. !
● Identity (technical origin,
● Digital processes in
hierarchies for value
creation of digital goods.!
● Incentive to create
private goods and club
● Digital processes in
peer-to-peer exchanges for
value creation of
● Incentives to create
private goods, club goods,
and public goods.!
● New network-based
incentivize the peer-to-peer
nodes to reach consensus.!
● Incentives for technical
● Incentives for system
● Incentives for users!
● Incentives for token
Figure 1. Extended IT Governance Framework
The blockchain literature and our case study suggest that the locus of
decision rights in the blockchain economy will be more decentralized than in
the digital economy. The nature of consensus-making underlines this
development in particular. The locus of making consensus is decentralized,
which means that the records that form the foundation of the blockchain
economy are not only kept in a decentralized manner, but also decided upon
in a decentralized manner. Moreover, disagreements can be resolved in a
decentralized manner if users initiate forks by copying existing code and
developing it further according to their goals. Our case study illustrates that
beyond consensus-making or forking, concrete models for decentralizing
decision rights are still under development. Smart contracts might allow for
decentralized governance mechanisms, but the blockchain economy at
present continues to be characterized by a high degree of centralized
decision-making. In particular, for effective system design, the concept of the
“benevolent dictatorship” is deemed necessary. This illustrates that even
though the blockchain economy shifts the focus toward decentralized forms
of decision-making, there is still a high degree of centralization at this point.
In the blockchain economy, accountability in principle will increasingly
be enacted technically instead of institutionally. Smart contracts allow for
specifying and enforcing accountability. However, in some cases it may not
be possible to implement autonomous transaction enforcement; thus, there
will be disputes and institutional involvement will be necessary to resolve
these disputes. A key accountability issue concerns identity in the blockchain
environment, ostensibly granted through the public addresses that are used
to conduct transactions in the blockchain economy. Given multiple and
pseudonymous identities, this could be a problem. While many users will
wish to identify themselves using more traditional institutional means (e.g.,
driver licenses linked to their blockchain identities), a more technical
approach to instantiate identity in the blockchain economy would be to link
reputation scores to public addresses, as the Swarm City case illustrates.
Overall, the shift toward the technical enactment of accountability has only
begun, and we expect that institutions will continue to play important roles for
accountability in the blockchain economy for some time to come.
As the blockchain economy emerges, incentive alignment becomes
increasingly important. While incentives are at the core of all economic
activity, including the digital economy, the blockchain economy adds a new
dimension. Incentives are absolutely crucial for the blockchain economy to
function effectively, because incentives are necessary to achieve the
consensus that forms the backbone of the blockchain economy. Unless
incentives are properly aligned, the nodes of the blockchain will not
contribute to consensus. Improper incentive alignment threatens the integrity
of the entire blockchain and makes the blockchain economy impossible.
4.2. Research Agenda for Governance in the Blockchain Economy
The blockchain economy demands a reassessment of established
notions of governance. How exactly governance will change in the emerging
blockchain economy is however still little understood. Nevertheless, the
promise of the blockchain economy is dependent on the implementation of
effective governance mechanisms, which are, in turn, dependent on a
thorough understanding of the phenomenon. Table 4 summarizes our
research agenda, which serves as fruitful ground for further theoretical work.
Table 4. Research Agenda for Governance in the Blockchain Economy!
● How are decisions made in the blockchain economy? !
● How are decision management rights and decision control rights allocated?!
● How is disagreement about decision-making resolved in the blockchain economy?!
● What is the role of ownership in the blockchain economy?!
● How is accountability determined in the blockchain economy?!
● How is identity engrained in the blockchain economy?!
● How is transaction enforcement embedded in the blockchain economy?!
● How are disputed transactions resolved in the blockchain economy?!
● How is trust affected by the blockchain economy?!
● What is the role of institutions in the blockchain economy?!
● How is consensus incentivized in the blockchain economy?!
● How does incentive alignment work in the blockchain economy?!
● How is system use incentivized in the blockchain economy?!
● How is system development and maintenance incentivized in the blockchain economy?!
● How do business models shape the blockchain economy?!
Future research should investigate how decision rights are allocated in
the blockchain economy. As the Swarm City case illustrates, blockchain is
subject to both instances of centralized as well as decentralized decision-
making. Further research should analyze when centralized vs. decentralized
decision rights are advantageous, and explore the mechanisms of transition
from one to the other. Similarly, research is needed to articulate how
decision-making works, and who is allowed to decide what kinds of things
under what circumstances? Are decision management rights and decision
control rights held by the same individuals or separated, and how does this
affect the effectiveness of decision-making? The separation of decision
management rights and decision control rights has already been discussed in
Swarm City in the context of professional management agents and token
holders who might have voting rights. Resolution of disagreements about
decision-making in the blockchain economy also needs research attention.
With forking a possibility research should investigate the role of ownership in
the blockchain economy. In traditional organizations owners allocate decision
rights; however, in the blockchain economy ownership is not yet fully
understood. Future research might analyze how ownership and decision
rights are interwoven in the blockchain economy.
Researchers should address how accountability is determined in the
blockchain economy and investigate the role of technical and institutional
accountability. The topic of how identity, a crucial dimension of accountability,
is handled in the blockchain economy should also be further explored.
Identity can be both technically and institutionally enacted in the blockchain
economy, but research is needed to better understand the associated limits
and trade-offs. Transaction enforcement is also a fertile area for future
research. Since transactions that are not autonomously enforced might
require institutional accountability, researchers should investigate the
boundary conditions of transaction enforcement in the blockchain economy to
determine how best to resolve problems. Another promising area for
research is the role of trust. Will trust even be needed anymore? Do
individuals trust the technology, expert developers, or the institutions that are
still present in the blockchain economy? Institutions are likely to remain
important in the blockchain economy, but what happens when institutions are
not needed anymore? Will they fight back against the blockchain economy?
Finally, the role of incentives in the blockchain economy should be
further explored. Among other things, research is needed to gain a better
understanding of how incentives relate to consensus in the blockchain
economy. What are the differences between incentive mechanisms such as
proof-of-work and proof-of-stake? How does incentive alignment work in a
blockchain economy that requires incentives not only for consensus, but also
for system development, maintenance, and use? Can incentives be
developed concurrently, how might they be interwoven, and how do
circumstances of incentive alignment change over time? How do incentives
affect system use in the blockchain economy? Do lower transaction fees for
users create an incentive for system use? How can incentives be best
provided for the development and maintenance of the blockchain economy?
What effects do transaction fees, which may be necessary for covering costs,
have on a blockchain? If every node in a blockchain system can use the
blockchain, how are those who create the blockchain compensated? Can
blockchain offer the technological means and the incentives to make the
creation of public goods attractive, given that traditional markets typically do
not? Research is needed to investigate new business models for providing
public goods, and to explore how developers might predict the needs and
incentives of network participants.
4.3. A Critical Perspective
The blockchain economy is predicated on assumptions about several
socio-technical issues that remain open to speculation. The widely heralded
blockchain “paradise” calls for a critical stance. IS research can contribute to
these problems only if research takes a critical view.
Many promises of the blockchain economy are predicated on
technology reducing the coordination costs of economic activities. However,
the costs of governance in the one DAO we studied appear to be high in
spite of smart contracts. Smart contracts are valid indefinitely, but also entail
high risk to the involved parties due to autonomous enforcement
mechanisms in which coding errors or changes in conditions could have
major consequences. The negotiation of smart contracts might bring
substantial coordination costs to mitigate such concerns. It is too simplistic to
say that problems will be handled by smart contracts. Mechanisms must be
specified and subjected to serious criticism and testing. While researchers
may produce evidence that blockchain will lower coordination costs, they
should also study DAO governance negotiating mechanisms, and examine
they are created and maintained. Design-oriented research should create
solutions for the risks of smart contracts, and propose risk management
mechanisms that reduce some of these risks.
While user authentication cultivates accountability, it also invokes
privacy concerns. These concerns could eventually be overcome, but if every
transaction is visible in terms of the initiator and recipient, a cluster analysis
could discern associations between different nodes. Private blockchain keys
could be divulged, either intentionally or unintentionally, or attackers could
eavesdrop on users. Informal exchange of transaction information could be
linked to blockchain transaction data. Such privacy concerns are serious,
particularly when a link is made between identities and transactions. For
example, blockchain-based voting rests on the premise that every vote could
be linked to the identity of the voter, making it difficult or impossible to
guarantee anonymous voting. Pseudonyms might enable user authentication
and thus accountability, but privacy concerns can complicate the use of
blockchain, and trigger institutional pressures that prevent blockchain from
realizing its ascribed potential. IS research needs to explore the
entanglement of accountability and privacy, studying how such issues affect
individual human behavior such as willingness to engage in transactions on
The blockchain depends on the ability to achieve consensus. This
presumes efficacy and efficiency of consensus mechanisms. At present
these mechanisms are flawed. Blockchain depends on consensus
mechanisms that provide the right incentives for nodes to guarantee
blockchain integrity. Proof-of-work, the most common consensus
mechanism, employed by both Bitcoin and Ethereum, relies on computing
power. This causes environmental concern. In early 2018, Bitcoin’s proof-of-
work consensus mechanism was estimated to create a yearly CO2 emission
equivalent to one million transatlantic flights.2 This is hardly desirable if
blockchain is to be adopted on a large scale. Research to design more
sustainable consensus mechanisms is ongoing, but the IS research
community should actively involve itself in this work, studying the impact of
mechanism parameters on the integrity of the blockchain, and exploring the
effectiveness of proof-of-work mechanisms based on remuneration vs. proof-
of-stake mechanisms that rely on sanctioning. Design-oriented research
should craft mechanisms to provide incentives that ensure both the integrity
of the blockchain and environmental sustainability.
In this paper, we discuss how blockchain might give rise to a new type
of economic system, which we call the blockchain economy. Whether or not
the blockchain economy develops as hoped, the ideas it invokes raise
important research questions. Transactions that are enforced autonomously,
following rules in smart contracts, look quite different than transactions in the
digital economy. We set the stage for exploring such questions by examining
the literature on IT governance that focuses on decision rights, accountability,
and incentives. A case study of an emerging DAO examines the blockchain
economy, and the implications for governance on these dimensions. We offer
a research framework and agenda for IT governance in the blockchain
economy, and provide additional important avenues for future IS research
through critically examining current assumptions present in the blockchain
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