Phases of Cosmos

This month, September 2022, marks a critical transition point in the history of the Cosmos project. Let this post serve as a guide, both a history and a preview of what’s to come.

September 2022 effectively marks the end of the first major phase of Cosmos development and the dawn of a new one. I will call this first phase Initiation. We could say it began with the Cosmos Whitepaper in the summer of 2016. It was defined by the creation of the Cosmos philosophy and technology stack, the launch of the Cosmos Hub, and the early adoption of IBC. It completely transformed the way the world thinks about building, operating, and connecting blockchains. We have been talking about its end for some time now, at least since the Stargate release was shipped in early 2021. The Stargate upgrade marked the completion of the initial technology stack articulated in the Cosmos whitepaper. In the year and a half since, we have witnessed the early rapid growth of the interchain it birthed into existence. But only now are we seriously entering the second phase of development - a phase I will call Integration.

Cosmos has always been envisioned as a long-term project - we always knew that completion of the initial whitepaper was just the beginning. The Cosmos philosophy is fundamentally long-term - a humble nod to the diversity of human communities, to the fruits of empowering them, and to the futility of frustrating their political economic expression. This humility is deeply ingrained within Cosmos. It is a well-spring of strength, a secret weapon; what others see as a battle for adoption, Cosmos sees as a battle for self-expression. Sovereign interoperability. We say it all the fucking time.

But this humility should not be mistaken for weakness, though it might be misconceived as such. If you constrain your view of an agent to the wrong timescale, you will fail to understand their game; you will underestimate their advantage. Chances are, if you’re another blockchain project, Cosmos is not your competition. Cosmos is altering the landscape in which you yourself are competing. Cosmos competes with incumbent systems of political economic expression. But it will not pretend it knows exactly what to do there, not yet anyways. These are complex systems built up over thousands of years. What we do know is that we’re sure as hell nowhere close to done. We’re just getting started.

So what is this Integration phase about? While Initiation had to create the interchain world, Integration was born in it, molded by it. Initiation positioned Cosmos as the interchain ecosystem; it demonstrated the validity of the Cosmos thesis of blockchain design. It transformed the field in which other blockchains play. But Integration must take us beyond that; it must demonstrate that Cosmos has the fortitude to play in the big leagues, in the domain of real-world political economy. If it is to compete with incumbent systems of political economic expression and organization, Integration is where it must demonstrate it can be taken seriously to do so.

We have not yet tried to articulate exactly what must be done in Integration. It would have been too difficult to say in advance. But clarity on Integration is coming sharply into focus this month, as many threads, years and months in the making, are converging on September, 2022.

The dawn of Integration can only be understood in the context of what came before it, in the particular history of Initiation. That history is complex. While its lore abounds, a canonical formulation has yet to be formally told. Kicking off Integration in earnest requires telling the story of Initiation. That story tells of the emergence of the Mind, Body, and Soul of Cosmos. It culminates in the decentralization of our blockchain project to an unprecedented degree. That decentralization is a core part of our legacy. It is the context out of which Integration begins to take form.

But the Cosmos history is also a story of sacrifice - in particular, of the Cosmos Hub. In the drive to deliver the Cosmos vision of sovereign interoperability, and in the turbulence of unplanned organizational restructuring, the Cosmos Hub lapsed into martyrdom. For the better part of two years after launch, the Cosmos Hub had no more than loosely defined contributors, no dedicated development teams. You praised its original insight, but you questioned its ongoing value. You wailed about deficiencies in its tokenomics and its development. You lamented misalignment amongst its distributed contributor set. And perhaps you couldn’t be blamed. But you missed a bigger story.

While the vast majority of development effort the last few years was focused on the broader interchain, quietly, in the last 12 months, Informal Systems and Interchain GmbH built teams to bring development of the Cosmos Hub back to life, with the Interchain team leading integration and network upgrades, and the Informal Systems team leading the development of the Hub’s most acclaimed upcoming feature - Interchain Security. Together, they invigorated renewed interest amongst a broader group of development teams, including Iqlusion, Strangelove, Hypha, and more, collectively integrating years of experience and ecosystem success into a renewed vision for its future. The Cosmos Hub is a Port City. Its mandate is to service the interchain, to steward it, to nurture its growth. The Stargate release of early 2021, led by Iqlusion, completed the initial formulation of the Cosmos Hub, a mere prototype for a new era. But a new formulation is forthcoming - a collective effort by this decentralized collection of development teams to articulate a vision for the Cosmos Hub’s future that the entire community can work towards.

In this new formulation, the Cosmos Hub ascends from its humble beginnings. It steps up to lead the interchain as it embraces new frontiers. To do so has required a focused effort to reconstruct and reintegrate the Cosmos Hub’s decentralized development team, and to articulate a clear direction for development. With the coming of Interchain Security and Liquid Staking, the stage is set for a new kind of economy to form in and around the security of the Cosmos Hub. The contours of that economy are outlined in the forthcoming paper. But it will be up to the Cosmos Hub community to fill in those contours, and to evolve them over time. In this way, the dawn of Integration is marked by the distinction of the security of the Cosmos Hub, and its realignment with the growth of the broader interchain ecosystem.

Cryptocurrency engineers love to express security in economic terms. But security is fundamentally political as well. Blockchain security is political economic security. In our Proof of Stake networks, we try to ground that security in a staking token, which is expected to carry a kind of “soundness” quality that ensures its sustainability and the security it represents. But the nature of sound money remains very much an open problem. Cryptocurrency engineers have cracked open a new toolset for playing with the problem of sound money. But we still don’t have a particularly sophisticated way of thinking or talking about it. This is something we’re going to have to get serious about during Integration.

For the Cosmos Hub, the combination of Interchain Security and Liquid Staking reduces the need for an exponential issuance model to modulate between security and liquidity above the targeted staking ratio. Which means the way the Cosmos Hub approaches the issuance of its native token can be fundamentally changed. The forthcoming paper proposes one such change. But if by sound money we mean to imply some kind of sustainable political economy, then surely we can’t address that with a simple change in issuance. Necessary? Maybe. But not sufficient. The Cosmos Hub is a site of political economic expression, its native token a reflection of it. Soundness requires us to collaborate in an ongoing exploration. It manifests as the rippling of a distributed, evolving community. What can we say about those ripples? We’ll have to come back to that at the end of this post.

But Integration is not just about the Cosmos Hub, of course. While the Cosmos Hub anticipated the growth of the interchain, continued growth depends on the capacity of chains across the ecosystem to define themselves and their relations to one another, to self-organize, and to determine their respective futures - hence the need for the Cosmos Hub to distinguish itself from the wider network of blockchains it gave birth to. So, let us refer to the Cosmos Hub plainly as Cosmos, and to the broader network of connected blockchains as the interchain. Cosmos more directly means the economy secured by the Cosmos Hub, though it remains in service of the original Cosmos philosophy and vision which can only be fulfilled by a wider, thriving interchain.

Integration is defined by the maturation of that interchain - not just technically, but socially, organizationally. It requires us to confront the complexity birthed by Initiation. The burgeoning network of sovereign interoperable blockchains. The diversification of organizations coordinating its ongoing development. The role of a Hub in a dense mesh. While the later stages of Initiation were steeped in a kind of proliferation, perhaps a diffusion, the task of Integration is a process of, well, integration - integration of organizations, protocols, communities.

Key to the maturation taking place during Integration is organizational transformation. The original Cosmos Whitepaper makes reference to two particular organizations - a non-profit, which we now know as the Interchain Foundation (ICF), and a for-profit, which has been called invariably All in Bits, Tendermint Inc, Ignite Inc, etc. The latter organization built the first development team behind Cosmos. But since 2020, it has taken a back seat to mainline development, which has spread out across a number of orgs, largely under the stewardship of the ICF. The ICF has done a solid job in funding the development of the Cosmos stack, and countless organizations from across the ecosystem have stepped up to make critical contributions, but the ICF wasn’t well prepared for the organizational restructuring that was suddenly thrust upon it in 2020, and it has found itself in a largely reactive mode since. But in September, 2022, that tide is shifting, too.

I have been spearheading an effort to upgrade and professionalize the workings of the ICF. More fundamentally, this is an exercise in trust building between the ICF and the communities it serves. An effort to increase transparency and community engagement. This is not a particularly new effort, and it has been slow in the works, but it is beginning to bear its fruit most visibly this month. The new delegations program is its first clear sign, and the recent action by the ICF to undelegate from an injurious validator a reinforcement of that sign. But there is much more in store.

As an institution, the ICF intends to be around for the long-term. Not as a dominant agent, but as a steward, a service provider, a support organization. A helpful hand in operations and risk mitigation. When asked about the ICF’s long term mission, I offer that it’s to steward the emergence of a sustainable monetary and financial system, by nurturing interchain community computing technology, bootstrapped by Cosmos. It is to nurture a sustainable ecosystem of interchain technology to empower communities around the world. In short: a secure, scalable, sustainable interchain supported by the Cosmos.

As we enter Integration, the ICF is affirming its mission and orienting towards it. And in taking steps to rebuild trust, to professionalize itself, to improve transparency, and to upgrade the organizational structures in Cosmos and the wider interchain, it is inviting in leaders from across the ecosystem to participate in a new governance body to direct technical and market strategy, to guide the ICF’s treasury, and to coordinate it with complementary funding sources for Cosmos and interchain public goods. At present at the ICF, this body is called the Technical Advisory Board (TAB), and I’ve invited Zaki Manian to be its chair. But its aspiration is to be much more than mere advisory, and it will evolve along with the ICF as the ecosystem continues to mature. The TAB seeks to be a beacon of effective multi-stakeholder governance - a symbol of the core Cosmos devs re-integrating formally after all these years, to collaborate more effectively on strategy and funding for core public goods. It is the dawn of a new approach to sustainable development of the wider interchain that will see more of the funding workflows moved on-chain and coordinated by a wider body of stakeholders. If you want to support public goods across the interchain, you should be in touch. The first invitations for TAB membership went out this week. It is, after all, September, 2022.

These are big steps we’re taking towards the sustainability of the interchain. But the interchain is not an end - it’s a new substrate for political economic expression. If we are to meaningfully upgrade legacy institutions we must approach sustainability in a broader sense, beyond the cryptoeconomies of our online communities, and into the material processes that sustain our societies. This requires a more fundamental assessment of the role played by money in organizing political economic life. A deeper understanding of the nature of money, its varying properties, the tensions between them, and what it all means in the interchain.

A new approach to money is something we’re pursuing at Informal Systems. We call it Collaborative Finance. It provides a new way to think about money as a system of promises that weaves together communities. And by understanding better the patterns in the promises we make, perhaps we can figure out what it means to achieve sustainable growth. Isn’t that the whole point of this blockchain revolution anyways?

This is what Integration is all about. And only once we pass through it, can we then move onto our third phase, which we might as well call: Illumination.


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