Digital Democracy at Work: The Network Nervous System on ICP
Last week, I was listening to an episode of the excellent The Internet Computer Weekly podcast in which Arthur Falls interviewed DFINITY Director of Product Diego Prats and Cryptographer Manu Drijvers about the Internet Computer’s governance structure, the Network Nervous System, or NNS. Towards the end of the interview, Prats shared that the NNS was at the top of his list for what he’s most proud of at DFINITY, calling it “a marvel, a self-upgrading system” that is “massively underrated.”
I rewound the podcast and listened again. Of all the innovations Prats could have listed — the reverse-gas fee model, the breakthrough chain-key technology, even the forthcoming direct integration with Bitcoin — he called out the governance system as the highest peak of the ICP mountain? I wondered: What makes the NNS so groundbreaking? Why is it so important to ICP? And how does it differentiate ICP from the rest of the field?
Stake Your Claim
To help me dig into the details, I got in touch with podcast host Falls. Falls is a great advocate for the ICP platform, and as the founder of cycle_dao, is deeply engaged in the politics and inner workings of the NNS system.
Falls started with the basics of how the NNS works: If you hold ICP tokens, you can stake those tokens with the NNS. You set a stake timeframe, ranging from six months to eight years — the interest you earn goes up pro rata with how long you commit your coins into the system. This staking generates “neurons,” or a voting power, on the Internet Computer’s democratic decision-making system, which dictates all aspects of ICP, ranging from feature upgrades, to governance, technical issues, network economics, and node management. Basically… everything.
According to Falls, this is the value at the heart of the NNS: It is “a solution for everything,” providing a built-in path to future-proof the Internet Computer. The NNS lets the community set the direction of the Internet Computer, allowing it to self-upgrade as Web3 and Crypto technologies evolve. This is why Prats called it “a marvel,” combining community engagement, technical progress, and roadmap creation and execution. Want to add a feature to the Internet Computer? You can, thanks to the unique NNS. Unlike other blockchains, where adding features is a nightmare that involves convincing node operators to get onboard, the NNS is a true decentralized system, led by the community. DFINITY didn’t just create a new type of blockchain and launch it — they created a way for it to naturally evolve, learn, and meet the needs of its users and developers over time.
Follow the Neuron
Even as I write this, the NNS system is evolving. Nuerons are currently voting on proposals to add new default “Follow Neurons.” The idea is super useful: While voting on each proposal increases your interest payments, not everyone has the time or desire to be super involved at such a detailed level. Instead, you can take your voting power and “follow” another neuron, run by an operator you trust to represent your interests. For example, you could choose to assign your voting power to T cycle_dao, a political group that includes Halls and that represents the voice of the users and community. Alternatively, you could choose to follow the DFINITY foundation or other groups who align with your views. Even the exact mechanics of this process are being refined as NNS voting evolves ICP like a Pokémon, adding abilities to better suit challenges that lie ahead.
Developers have a term called “dogfooding,” which refers to the practice of using the software you are developing, so you gain real-world experience to know how to improve it. Like a chef tasting the food they are serving, if you don’t interact with the product you’re creating, how can you know if it’s achieving the goals you have for it? The NNS is the ultimate dogfooding example, providing a clear path for real-life users to add new features, new governance, or new anything to the Internet Computer. The new Bitcoin integration we are super excited for? It was voted on and passed by the NNS. The result is a clever system that acknowledges how big projects actually evolve, and embraces the biggest asset the Internet Computer has: its community of users.
The Network Nervous system itself is growing in novel and interesting ways, too. One change on the roadmap is adding NNS-style services to individual Dapps and projects, bringing a decentralized democracy into their own governance and creating more voting opportunities and community involvement for projects.
Ultimately it’s the flexibility to change that gives ICP’s Network Nervous System its power: No engineer or architect can predict the future, and with the NNS they don’t have to. The Internet Computer can upgrade itself on every level via its democratic voting system, ensuring that, as the needs of the blockchain evolve, the Internet Computer is there, adding features as quickly as the community needs them.
I think Prats is right to single out the NNS as a crowning achievement — if anything he undersells it a bit. The NNS is “a marvelous piece of design and engineering” that creates a virtuous cycle of financial rewards for participating in the governance democracy, the ability to dynamically grow and evolve in response to the community, and a means to equip ICP for whatever the future holds.
Want to learn more about the NNS?