Marquis Davis sits down with us to talk about blockchain, social good, and his project Urban Array. Marquis is a tech start-up vet with many successful projects. Check out his unique take on how the blockchain technology can help non-profits impact the world. Watch the video, or check out the transcript below!
To learn more about Urban Array, click here.
How do we build a system that’s both secure and visible to the entire community. On our blockchain what’s held there is not just the asset class.
Who are you and when did you first hear about cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology?
My name is Marquis Davis. I’m the enterprise director of Urban Array.
The first time that I learned about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology was kind of searching for a solution for a problem that we were already facing. The original iterations of our organization started with us trying to use gift card solutions to try to reward volunteers for volunteering and contributing to their community.
So while searching for that solution I stumbled upon blockchain. And I learned that it would give us ten times what we actually need it. Then that really opened up the door to us really being able to develop an even better product and something that was even more useful to our end goals.
What is your role in the blockchain community?
Well in the blockchain community I kind of see myself as one of the proponents of the Blockchain4Good movement — a group of entrepreneurs and and visionaries that are trying to figure out how to use this technology to better benefit humanity and communities both large and small. As opposed to what the crypto space is more geared towards currently, or more known for rather by the outside community.
I mean we try to stay away from like the trading and the monetization of things, and worry about quarterly how to incentivize people, how to collect data and share information to allow communities to become stronger.
How did Urban Array come about?
So the very first business that I started at the very tail end of my undergrad was a nonprofit. It was called Progressive Artists. Essentially what we did — we were naive and ambitious. We ended up acquiring a building from the City Council of Columbia, Missouri. We rehabbed that building, and then we ended up turning it into kind of an artist lab. We took half of it and turned it into a study hall, and then the other half we turned into like a movie production/audio production studio. Then we swapped with the kids — you know one hour of study hall time to one hour of time making music or making documentaries. And that program in and of itself was an awesome experience for me.
But at that same time, that fall Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and all of the fundraising dollars kind of slipped away. It was really hard to raise money. There was nothing really available and that kind of transitions in like a student-run organization by the university. It wasn’t quite a failure, but we definitely had to tell kids that we weren’t able to provide the program the following semester. So that was kind of heartbreaking to me.
So being young and angry at that particular point, I decided to go to business school. Me and my partner went and got a degree in nonprofit management etc. So that’s kind of where I call the origin because that caused us to have a series of conversations that started the process of developing what Urban Array is today. Trying to figure out what kind of organization we could build that could break away from that model, and we could actually build something sustainable and collaborative that wasn’t dependent on donations. But could actually survive in and of itself based on the community’s effort.
So that then cascades into blockchain because blockchain is extremely community centric. It’s about incentivization. It’s about sustainability. How do you build sustainable networks that people can opt into, and they can collaborate together? So that that’s kind of like the short version of our progression.
So we started with the typical nonprofit, and then we decided that we wanted to build a hybrid that was tech enabled and sustainable.
How big is your team? What services does Urban Array offer?
So we have a development team of about 10 currently. Then we have some developers that are kind of peripheral to that — maybe another 10. Then our core volunteer base I think total is probably about 60, and that’s with like no real marketing push and no real recruitment push. This is a kind of word-of-mouth growth. People being really engaged, and not just the crypto space. A lot of the people that are part of our organization we’re newbies or knew nothing about cryptocurrency and blockchain before they joined our organization.
That’s one of the things is we’re a community development organization that’s tech enabled. I’m a technologist, but also a social entrepreneur. So the organization kind of reflects that. Some people from the community could care less about blockchain or cryptocurrency, but you know for mass adoption of this technology that’s what needs to happen. The everyday person who may not know the technical ins and outs, and the whys, and the bells and whistles needs to be able to figure out how it incorporates into their life.
As far as our mission goes, our mission is to do just that. To allow to build a technology that gives people the processes and the tools to build their own communities, and to grow and to engage. And to most importantly be able to track value within those communities. In a lot of under-resourced communities, it’s not necessarily an issue of there’s no capital in those communities, but that the capital doesn’t stay. In a community with no businesses, people live there. But they work outside, and they spend outside of their community.
And cryptocurrency and our Array Coin allows us to be able to kind of trap some of that value. A volunteer can come in and volunteer — create value. We can make that value into liquid, and then we can allow that cryptocurrency to be used within the social enterprises within that community in our network. This allows that value to kind of stay at home a little bit longer. It will provide a bigger anchor for growth, for the communities that are struggling to maintain value within them.
What are some of the challenges Urban Array has faced? How have/will they overcome them?
Well I mean there’s lots of challenges in the work we do. I mean the very essence of our work is a challenge.
It takes a while to convince people that we want to take some of the poorest neighborhoods in this city and create what we envision. So of course that’s a hurdle. But I think that once people kind of understand what it is we want to do, and the benefits that our technology allows us, it allows us a tremendous amount of cost savings. It allows us a tremendous amount of reductions of wastes, and appropriate allocation of those resources. So the hardest part is just kind of getting people to understand that what we’re doing can actually work.
On the blockchain community side, sometimes I find that people in the crypto and blockchain space — I don’t know if idealist is the word — but everything has to be all blockchain or nothing, right? So we do get a little bit of friction from from the crypto/blockchain community because of the nature of our network, and that we’re not trying to be the largest, most open thing. We’re trying to be a concentrated group of individuals who have a very specific goal: to impact other people and to impact communities.
So you know, there’s always that battle between people who believe that the solution is some sort of hybrid –maybe it’s something between a decentralized network and kind of the web app technologies that we know now. And then people who think that everything should be completely decentralized and open networks and all that.
So I mean there’s a little bit of friction from all sides. But I think as long as we just keep doing the right thing with our ethos, I think most people get on board over time.
What seems to make the Chicago blockchain/cryptocurrency community so unique?
Chicago has both intellect and grit. I’m not gonna call out any cities in particular, but I feel like there’s a lot of brilliant, smart, driven, motivated people who are willing to work and to roll up their sleeves and actually get stuff done. We’re both thinkers and builders.
I think that attitude from this community has translated into the blockchain community. And I think that’s one of its greatest strengths.
What are some interesting people or projects in Chicago that have caught your eye?
Well broadly, even outside of Chicago, I mean there is a lot of blockchain for social good projects that are going on. Stanford did a study (and the link is on our website), but there’s over 250 projects currently right now that are tackling all kinds of issues within the blockchain and the crypto space on the social impact side. They’re not all nonprofits, but they’re working on things like identity for refugees. They’re working on management of natural resources, and being able to do more accurate logistics so that carbon footprints can be lessened. So there’s a ton of really, really great projects kind of across the board.
On Chicago the impact space is a little bit smaller compared to some of the other stuff. But some of those projects are starting to kind of surface. I know Democracy Earth has a really strong presence here. A lot of people are really into the governance modeling and stuff in this community. You’ve got Pinkcoin that’s working on helping nonprofits and donors meet and create that transparency and that trust that’s necessary when trying to raise money in that fashion.
So across the board, one of the main things that I’m constantly a proponent of, is for people to kind of eat their dessert and their vegetables at the same time. So if you’re into it for the markets and all that — you know that really cool financial stuff — I really think that people should pick a project or two, and really get to know one that is focused on impact. I think when it’s all said and done that this technology will be innovative in that regard, more than anything else.
Money gets everybody’s attention, right? So the first implementation of this technology is all about money. I get it. But it’s way bigger than that. I mean it’s way bigger than that. It could cost so many problems going forward. From tackling things like climate change, or resource allocation, or migration. Like all that kind of stuff can really be harnessed by this.
And then again the whole peer-to-peer aspect also allowing people to directly be able to interact with one another without having to go through these big power structures — banks or governments. I think that will provide all kinds of different versions of democracy that will make you know the world better, and give people more power.
What causes has Urban Array contributed to?
Our main objective is to facilitate other nonprofits. When we first started, our goal was we’re just going to do everything ourself. We were like, “We’re just gonna build the tech, and then we’re gonna build the buildings!” And then what we learned is that we should probably just focus on what we’re strongest at.
So we partner with a lot of nonprofits in the city. We partner with Gardeneers who has over 30 community gardens. They do elementary school education with their gardening program, and like the North Lawndale, Englewood, all low-income neighborhoods. So we’re facilitating them building a technology template that allows them to be able to do what they do better. You know, build community gardens from a templated model, so that you can find a lot and simply input the details that lot. The lot is forty feet by sixty feet, or in Chicago we want to feed thirty people. What do I need to plant? Where does it need to go? And our system kicks back results: You’re gonna need 12 people to finish this project in two days. Here are all the materials and supplies you’re going to need. Here are all the different skills that you’re gonna need — a fence builder, somebody to dig and build the plots, people to plant seeds and to water them.
So we have these partner organizations that we essentially template what they do. And then we build the applications to be distributed so that they can put out their needs. And the whole distributed community can then pitch in whatever it is that they have. So Gardeneers is our urban farm, vertical farming partner.
We’re partnered with an organization called Hans Irving, which does building construction projects. So now we’ve added an equity element to that which we use blockchain and tokenization for. So they essentially hire people from the community, pay them a little bit above minimum wage, but then give equity in that building project. So if they help build a three flat, and then three flat gets rented or sold, then they know what their equity graph looks like. They know how many hours somebody puts in, and how much of that particular project that person contributed. So they can pay them out.
So tokenization works in traditional businesses or traditional nonprofits. We just partner to help enable them in that way. We also have a business accelerator incubator called EG Wood. So we’re trying to help template some of that basic business startup processing. How do we get them into real estate that we need? We can leverage our network to help rehab a building, and then we can get a business from a low-income neighborhood into that building. Mitigating cost for them giving, them a higher percentage of success.
So what we’re finding is, as the ones with the knowledge and the ones with the key that this great technology is, we can help service organizations by educating them and then building solutions for them to allow them to integrate that into their systems. They don’t need to know too much about blockchain. They just need a functional application that works for them and that gives them the transparency and things that they need.
How does Urban Array go about funding? How can those in the community participate?
So currently, we’re beginning our fundraising round in about a month on the 7th of August. There’s several ways that people can contribute. First we’re opening with the crowdfunding campaign.
So our goal is to — over the next year — build complementary businesses within these neighborhoods. We have a restaurant, a gym, a barber shop salon. There are a couple others that will continue to incubate and to grow. So donors will then be able to use that coin within the network. They’ll be able to spend it to get a haircut. They’ll be able to spend it to get a night stay in one of our rehab buildings that we re-do. So that’s kind of the first here is the crowd fund, and then the actual token for the donations.
We’re also starting, this month, an impact fund which is going to function very similar to a venture capital fund. So it’ll allow us to be able to take traditional investors in that are interested in not traditional VC returns. There’s no promises of 5X, 7X, 10X. But I think 2X or 3X in some of these projects is attainable.
So what we’re gonna do is have that fund be able to be kind of the capital backbone and then to invest in parallel with the actual foundation. So one building project may be 51% owned by the nonprofit foundation. Then the impact fund can come in and put forth the rest of the money. That way the two can kind of work together when they want to, but then the fund can always be separated out so that the foundation can maintain its values and its core goals without having to necessarily be controlled by the investor class.
Where can people learn about you and Urban Array?
So you can learn about Urban Array on our website. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; you know all the traditional stuff.
Our app launches in about 30 days! So we’ll actually be able to run core projects through that. So that’s really exciting. If you sign up on our website, we can get people into that early alpha group. We still need help testing UX/UI and all that stuff. So even if the application isn’t ready for mass consumption, we’re still interested in getting the broader communities thoughts.
We’re very keen on realizing that. With a lot of blockchain companies a lot of the protocols are set by a very small number of people in the very beginning, right? And then you decide to jump onto the bandwagon, and it’s like editing those protocols. We’re very conscious of that, which is part of the reason we haven’t launched our coin yet. Instead of being a traditional blockchain company where you create a coin that has no value, but then you have to convince people of that value. And then if they are, then that is what creates the value.
We’re kind of doing it backwards. We’re not going to create a coin, and then a community. We’re building our community first. And then we’re allowing our community to be able to decide what that coin looks like, what those protocols look like, what the game theory looks like on how we incentivize people, etc.
On our website we’re trying to get as many people on board before we do those next incremental steps. So now it’s kind of the time to join. So you can find all that UrbanArray.org.
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