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Mayor Schieve wants to ‘save the Space Whale’ by turning it into an NFT


You may not be familiar with the concept of a non-fungible token (NFT) or the meaning of a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) or blockchain technology in general. But, if you’re a local, chances are you’re familiar with the steel and stained glass sculpture of a humpback whale mother and calf—the Space Whale—that sits on City Plaza in downtown Reno. 

Stay with us, and we’ll explain the connection.

Damage to glass panes in downtown Reno’s Space Whale. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

The 50-foot-tall Space Whale was a Burning Man project. It’s been sitting on City Plaza since 2017 when the City of Reno entered a contract with the artists behind it to display it—temporarily. 

There have been plans to remove it several times following failed attempts by the artist to sell it to the city. Now, it may stay there forever, and the plan to make that possible centers around the blockchain concepts of NFTs and DAOs.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to save the whale. No pun intended, but we are,” said Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve.

The city is working with an undergraduate researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a tech firm called TQ Tezos to create its own DAO and NFT system.

But wait. What are those things?

A DAO is an organization represented by rules encoded as a computer program that is transparent, controlled by the organization members and not influenced by a central government. A DAO’s financial transaction record and program rules are maintained on a blockchain.

You may have at least heard of NFTs. They’re all the craze right now, with celebrities, sports stars and artists making them. The key part to understand is the “non-fungible” bit. It basically means something that’s unique, something that can’t be traded for something similar.  

An example of something “fungible” would be physical currency. You could trade five single dollar bills for five different ones or a single five-dollar bill and have the same thing. An example of something non-fungible might be a piece of artwork, say van Gogh’s Starry Night. Lots of people can own a copy of it, but only one original exists. An NFT might be a digital photo or painting or a GIF. When it’s sold, only one person owns the “original” on the blockchain, even though many people can access and see it. 

Basically, NFTs can be anything digitized, including art or music. In this case, the planned NFT is going to be a digitization of the Space Whale in some kind of photographic form, perhaps virtual reality photography.

Schieve in early March made an appearance in an online forum with representatives of the Tezos company to announce the plan to create a Reno DAO with an accompanying cryptocurrency that will be called RenoCoin. RenoCoin is planned to be distributed to Reno residents initially—and the first NFT proposed to be sold through the DAO is the digitized Space Whale. The profits from it will go to the Generator per its creator’s request, she said, to help fund more artwork there.

The city will build its Reno DAO and RenoCoin on top of the Tezos blockchain network. In addition to digitizing artworks, the DAO and associated cryptocurrency will be used to explore potential further benefits of blockchain and cryptocurrency and its potential to address some of the city’s biggest “pain points,” Schieve said.

A plan in its infancy

She stressed that the plan is very early in its development. As yet, there is no firm timeline for it. Right now, she and her undergraduate researcher are working to assemble a board to oversee the DAO. Those who are interested in being a member are advised to contact the mayor’s office.

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve

Eventually, the hope is that the city will be able to start accepting cryptocurrency to pay for things like parking tickets or sewer bills in addition to using the DAO to digitize art and use NFTs to fund more art, Schieve said.

This Is Reno caught up with Schieve in March to discuss the nascent plan.

“The artists have been so hard hit in this pandemic,” Schieve said. “They’re not working.”

The NFTs, she said, could provide a solution to funding their work.

“We want that money to continue to build more art downtown,” she said. “I think art is the way that you package a city. It’s really significant. … When you mesh art with entrepreneurs and tourism, it’s a really important facet to building the culture of a city and why people are attracted to cities. People don’t go to empty cities. They go to cities that have something to see, something that creates emotion. And I think art creates emotion, and I think those can be incredibly powerful messages when you’re a city.”

In the case of the Space Whale, Schieve is aware that some of the emotions it creates are negative. During the years it has sat on City Plaza, the whale has fallen into disrepair. Turning it into an NFT will raise money for new art, and Schieve said the city will take over maintenance of the whale at that point.

“I do think the city should pay to keep it safe and in good shape because it isn’t looking good at all, and I think that poses a problem,” she said. “That’s another reason why—let the artists go create, and we will make sure that it stays intact and that it’s safe. I think the city should play a role in that. It’s no different than how we help businesses. … We’re your partner in some capacity.”

Schieve hasn’t provided any updates on the project within the past month..

Experts weigh in

In the meantime, This Is Reno has been working to get a firmer grasp on how the technology works. For a start on this, we turned to local blockchain consultants Robbie Moen and Nate Jones of Sagebrush Consulting to ask their thoughts on the feasibility of creating a Reno DAO and turning the Space Whale into an NFT.

Robbie Moen, Sagebrush Consulting.

“We’re very excited about the possibility of municipalities, especially Reno—being where we live—being one of the first municipalities to step into this space,” Moen said.

“In a nutshell, creating a DAO for Reno—it’s definitely a profound concept because, for all intents and purposes, we’re creating the city bank of Reno, so to speak,” Jones added.

Both said they could get on board with the designation of “at least feasible” for the project. They think that will hinge in large part on educating the public about how it will work.

“Feasibility—that is always the question on the frontier, isn’t it? I think in a general sense, it is a feasible concept, but it really is going to come down to execution,” Moen said. “And, I think more than execution, it’s going to take a high level of cooperation between the government and, I would say, local industry experts because [of] … the impacts it will have on a local population, you know, the taxpayers, citizens of a municipality.”

Nate Jones, Sagebrush Consulting

Transparency will be crucial, according to Moen and Jones. It’s Reno’s taxpayers who would be the stakeholders in the case of a Reno DAO, and they should be involved in the process as early as possible.

“As proud as I would be for Reno to successfully implement this, it needs to be more than just a trophy for the community. It really needs to be done right—and for that, it really needs to have the input of the community,” Moen said.

Jones and Moen said they’d not heard of the project until they were contacted by This Is Reno and that, in and of itself, sparked questions for them. They’d like to see the city focus on getting local industry experts involved and educating the public about it. Even a citywide Zoom session regarding the project would be a good start, Moen said.

“Again, not the government working towards this frontier is a bad thing, it’s just very complicated because now you have a centralized governing authority creating a technological space that is supposed to be inherently decentralized and autonomous, with no centralized authority,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean, inherently, that it’s going to fail. But again … it takes transparency, and it takes a lot of attention being paid to it. Otherwise, a DAO could create a lot of liability and a lot of distrust between a public and its leadership.”

Jones said this is especially true considering that there are no real examples of something like the Reno DAO project being done before. The closest, he said, would be Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proposed legislation for the creation of “innovation zones” within which companies would build smart cities powered by blockchain technology—a proposal that’s now off the table for the 2021 session of the Nevada Legislature and will be studied by a special joint committee.

“It’s fun. I mean, I love it. Especially for Reno, it’s a beautiful idea,” Moen said. “And, again, as a participant in the industry, it’s very exciting to have leadership who are open to this. But just the way that it’s been—well, I guess the way we’ve found out about this or not found out about this raises a lot of questions. And I’m confident that leadership is doing the best they can to consider all of the angles to this. But, as a citizen of Reno, I would really love to get more details.” 

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.