Updates on the strategic planning process
Strategy is a roadmap for your organization. Strategy is a theory of change and some metrics. Strategy is a series of choices to solve a problem.
For Hypha, strategy is all and none of the above. For us, it’s an evolution of organizational thinking, an ongoing conversation with colleagues and collaborators, a super messy Miro board. Since the beginning of 2023, the Strategy Working Group has been meeting weekly to figure out what strategic planning looks like for a three-and-a-half year old worker co-operative.
2022 was an amazing year for Hypha; we hired a bunch of great people, secured contracts with some amazing partners, and finally refreshed our website. But we’re a small team. We struggle with overwork. The tech sector is having a reckoning and we’re not immune to the effects of any of these macro forces at work. On the balance, the time is right for the introspection, foresight research, and planning that strategy entails.
Often strategic planning is a long-term, top-down process, propelled by the C-suite to fine tune an organization’s competitive edge and capture market share (hello, capitalism). Or it’s a deep look at redefining mission and vision, and some soul-searching about the systematic nature of the challenges being addressed (namaste non-profit sector). Being a co-operative that essentially operates as a service provider and consultancy, but also a nonprofit organization, Hypha feels awkward in either of the aforementioned logics. So instead, the working group has come up with a new way of strategically organizing our work that feels right to us, and also serves as a jumping off point for our next move (more on that in a moment).
In conversations with colleagues, diversifying our revenue base came across as the most pressing concern for Hypha. But it also became clear that there was no consensus on how or where we should diversify, partly because our small project teams are tightly focussed on single projects, rather than working across initiatives. As a strategy working group, our first task has been to develop a clearer sense of our service offerings. Because much of Hypha’s growth has been organic–we work on projects that interest us and are values aligned–there is an element of looking backwards to make sense of the future. And here is where we see Hypha moving ahead in 2023 and beyond:
Building on our strengths in the Cosmos ecosystem
Hypha has been a contributor to the Cosmos ecosystem since 2021. We currently manage the testnets program for the Cosmos Hub, a flagship blockchain among a network of interconnected and interoperable blockchains called the interchain. We’ve also been a vocal contributor to Cosmos Hub governance, having crafted and advocated for a number of governance proposals (including 63, 75, and the infamous prop 82). In late 2022, we refocused our efforts to help launch Interchain Security, a pivotal technology that will expand Cosmos Hub’s partnerships with aligned projects (this alliance of Cosmos Hub aligned projects has recently been termed the Atom Economic Zone).
The value that Hypha brings to this ecosystem is our blend of skills in both the technical and social aspects of running blockchains. If you view blockchains as complex socio-technical systems, it’s apparent that actors who not only understand the technology, but its social dynamics, are better equipped to shape the system. This is the reason why Hypha has excelled at coordinating the testnet program: we know how to work with bleeding edge technology and coordinate the developer and validator teams to run blockchains. While we are currently managing testnets, our value proposition is that we are experts in any form of program management or stakeholder relationship management in highly technical contexts.
In 2023 our strategy is to diversify the Cosmos team’s project work. We understand this in two ways:
- Bring our existing expertise to new Cosmos projects
- Grow our expertise in areas that may be important to Cosmos in the near future
The first is more straightforward: we are actively working with new teams to help them design their own testnet programs. The second is far more interesting because it challenges us to think about what the future holds for Cosmos. We are particularly excited about tools for cross-chain coordination, on-chain privacy, private DAOs, and notions of citizenship.
Thinking about strategy for a crypto project while in the depths of a bear market can force one to take a conservative posture. But the reality is that Cosmos is an incredibly diverse ecosystem with abundant niches to grow into. If we continue to invest in continuous learning and collaboration, the future is bright for our team and Cosmos as a whole.
Investing in data provenance and interoperability
We are living in a data deluge–high noise but low signal–and it’s increasingly difficult to tell what is what as we skim articles and scroll feeds. The recent AI chatter has only served to muddy the waters as online spaces such as Twitter, which typically behaves as an expensive human-powered generative AI, decline in influence and the question of what comes next arises. The answer, most likely, is more sh!ty generative AI that is worse than Twitter. In short, content is in abundance but effective curation is an unsolved and increasingly wicked problem.
While Hypha doesn’t have all the answers to the curation problem, we have been working on projects (or products, in a loose sense) that provide organizations options for asserting the cryptographic provenance of their data assets, preserving data using decentralized infrastructure, and ensuring interoperability across tools and actors. Examples of this work include the award-winning Rolling Stone article The DJ and the War Crimes and authentication of newswire photos at the Starling Lab.
Working with a range of teams from civic tech groups to providers of enterprise solutions, Hypha collaborates with them to deploy data products that are portable, resilient, scalable, verifiable, and sustainable–both in terms of finance and longevity. We’re also applying our expertise in cooperative governance and business models to data ventures because we think everyone can learn something from being more cooperative (Data DAOs would be in the centre of the Venn diagram of this work). In this practice area, we’re excited to work in environments ranging from open source projects to enterprise clouds to build on our expertise in designing tooling, devising strategies, and implementing existing data platforms. All of this with the intent of participating in the much-needed discussions about how we can ensure the signal can in fact cut through the noise.
Fostering “holistic local-first software”
The World Wide Web dream has never been a reality for millions of people. Technical factors (low bandwidth, mobile-only connectivity, high costs for infrastructure and labor) and policy forces (censorship, government spying) or a combination of both mean the global internet experience is uneven and compromised. The work of supporting communities–both in the global south and right here at home in Canada–so that they can share local news and build their own digital ecosystems is something we feel strongly about at Hypha (fact: the co-operative grew out of the Toronto Mesh network project). With the expertise of Mauve and key partners around the world, this is an area of work we’re excited to build on.
The main project we’ve been working on in this initiative is Distributed.Press, a tool that enables people to publish their websites on peer to peer protocols. Once a website is published, it can be loaded from anybody in the world (or on your local network) that has a copy. One of our goals with Distributed.Press is to make it easy to publish across several protocols at once and to integrate with existing website publishing flows. As part of this effort we have partnered with Sutty.nl to use their static site publishing tool, and we’ve also released a reusable Github Action. This gives people a graphical interface using Jekyll templates, or a step where they can add their own static site generators. Next up, we’re looking at integrating everything with a new ActivityPub-based social layer that will enable people’s sites to receive and create comments between each other and platforms like Mastodon or Calkey.
Outside of Distributed Press, we’re looking for opportunities to highlight our local-first expertise within other Hypha projects; many of Hypha’s projects make use of decentralized systems and the tools we’re building in one area can be reused to strengthen others. As we create more tooling we can reduce costs for communities to use resilient data, reduce dependence on always-online cloud infrastructure, and create more enduring foundations for information technology.
We’re calling our approach “Holistic Local-First Software,” which plays off the term coined by Ink & Switch. The ‘holistic’ aspect means the focus is not only on software, but also on the social and physical layers of a project. For example, peer to peer protocols can be used to share data across different network configurations, and mesh networks can be used to connect devices together either in a permanent community, or for ad-hoc connections where people are temporarily near each other. We envision having groups cooperate and connect to each other based on shared needs and values from the bottom up instead of everyone being funneled into the same infrastructure from the top down. The different pieces, technical and social, work together to strengthen each other and give us a holistic approach to connectivity without having to concede to Big Tech centralization in order to connect.
Creating the Department of Decentralized Digital Culture (a.k.a, that art/policy thing we’re doing)
Over the past year, Hypha has acquired worker-members with interest and skills in a cross-cutting area that touches on decentralized tools, art, culture, advocacy, and collaboration. Hypha occupies a unique position of delivering both the technical skills in a nascent space (i.e. Web3 or DWeb), and also having a small r research understanding of the work and how to make it accessible. In other words, we can think and do. This nebulous mix is still in the framing stages as a business offering per se, but it’s useful to highlight the motivations that are driving us to expand our work in this corner of the interwebs.
Convivial tooling: “A tool is convivial if people have access to the design and knowledge needed to create it; if it allows creative adaptation to one’s own circumstances; and if it’s appropriate in the specific local context.” Inspired by Ivan Illich, this concept from the awesome book Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons can be distilled to a desire to empower the people we collaborate with in our ongoing work. Yes, it means working with free and open source tools, but it also means scaffolding the necessary skill to allow for effective use of said tools (as an aside, there is a lot Web3 community builders can learn from the field of community informatics, but that’s a post for another day. But this is also, in part, where we bring a policy lens to our work.)
Imaginative solutions: For us, creativity is paramount. We’re artists and writers, and we don’t leave this behind when the work gets technical. We’re still figuring out what this means in practice and finding the balance between budgets and beauty, and how to make projects sing while working as a small team. This goes beyond making nice things; a thoughtful and empathetic process of design and discovery are central to how we work.
Deep knowledge: the tech sector has a notoriously short-term memory. Everything is innovative, everything is cutting-edge if you can’t remember whose shoulders you’re standing on. We like to think that we bring a more nuanced and informed perspective to bear; collectively, we have decades of experience to draw on, helping us see where technology is going by understanding where we’ve been.
The ideal projects we’d tackle as part of the cheekily named D3C are with digital savvy, mid-to-large arts and culture organizations who are interested in pushing the boundaries of how they use and interact with technology; that’s a pretty wide-open field, but we’ll refine this as we go. Everything is iterative.
While we’re working on defining what we do at Hypha, we’re equally attuned to how we’re doing it. As a nominally flat organization, which is worker-owned, our internal processes are a messy but functioning mix of explicit processes and tacit agreements that keep the ship sailing (relatively) smoothly. When thinking through how we can move ahead in the strategic planning process, our key realization is that Hypha is, in the words of Udit, “an untamable beast.” Our goal is to create a strategic plan that unleashes this beast, rather than tames it. In other words, Hypha functions best when we empower ourselves and our colleagues to make bold moves, take calculated risks, and be comfortable with a fair degree of uncertainty. This fits neatly into the co-operative value of self-autonomy, and helps frame the vision of how we want to see Hypha grow as it accepts new members in the coming year. The challenge that we face as a strategic working group is how to surface or articulate transparent and accessible guidelines for how we work together. More on that in a subsequent post.