In summer 2018, the beginnings of the Domi team assembled, drawn together by a shared love of using tech—particularly blockchain-adjacent technologies—for social and economic good. Fascinated by the idea of sustainable cities and what life will look like in the future, housing was an obvious place for the Domi team to start. And it quickly became clear that the potential for overlap between sophisticated new technology and the rental market—which has been crying out for digitalisation—was huge.
As anyone who’s spent any time in the city knows, Berlin has a strong renting culture: 85% of Berlin residents are renters. And as anyone who’s spent a little bit longer in the city knows, housing is a deeply entrenched issue in Berlin with no easy solutions. A lack of suitable housing means that competition for flats is high, and the bureaucracy hurdles required to land a flat are multiple. It gets even harder if you’re a member of the hidden renting population: newcomers without a German paper trail, freelancers, people on social welfare, subletters, WG-ers and more.
The systematic problems of Berlin’s housing market extend beyond tenants. Property managers, too, are struggling with communication issues, an overloaded system, mountains of paperwork and an increasing concern about data privacy in the wake of GDPR.
The power of data
Handled responsibly, data is one of the key tools with which we can improve the rental market. Whether for an individual, where control of data privacy is so important, or in larger spheres like legislature and building strategy, data guides the ways our cities are built. One of Domi’s early breakthroughs came in the possibility of working on both the micro and macro levels when it comes to putting the power of data to work.
Improving the quality of data around housing, creating a shared and anonymised pool of knowledge around turnover, vacancy rates, rental rates and more could help developers, policy makers and government all make better decisions about the housing market, schemes for development, design for policy and regulation and an understanding of where to invest.
Along with this, a significant and overarching theme that came up in Domi’s early research was the issue of trust. Between landlords and tenants, between private and public organisations, between government and business, trust is an element that is lacking across the housing market. We believe that data can go a long way towards building trust between all of these stakeholders. Our hypothesis moving forward meant that transparent yet secure access to data would work to address this deeply felt and immense issue.
A lot of renting feels deeply private — and in fact, is currently already more public than it should be. Think of applying for a flat: in Berlin, you’re likely to apply for many apartments before you’re successful. With many if not most of those flats, you’ll share a lot of information that is both private and significant: financial records, credit checks, rental history, recommendations and references, private numbers and email addresses, even criminal history or other social checks. Whether or not you are successful in your application, it’s unlikely you’ll get any of that information back, or ever know what the property managers do with your paperwork.
Now imagine you’re a property manager: it’s quite common in Berlin to receive dozens of applications for flats, even hundreds in the most popular neighbourhoods. Not only do you have to sort through, rank, consider and verify a huge amount of paperwork, you also have to find a safe and legal way of dealing with that paperwork once you have it. For everyone involved, it’s a complicated and stressful process.
What we needed was something that offered more finely granulated control over data. We needed a solution not just for the exchange of information, but for the culture of management of that information. The paradigm of self sovereign identity (SSI) technology was our answer. Using SSI, we could build a rental market tool that carried tenants and property managers through not just the application process but the entire rental relationship.
SSI is a privacy-preserving technology that we’re using to protect data and streamline the entire rental process. For tenants, it means control over your private data that you can easily share with the stakeholders who need to see it, when they need to see it. For property managers, it means verified documents presented in an accessible and manageable fashion that doesn’t leave your company open to GDPR violations.
With SSI, we have the technology we need to build a digital passport to access the rental market everywhere and an end-to-end digital solution for contracts and communication between landlords and tenants.
Beginning with a bang
In September 2019, we took our research, developing thoughts and ambition and founded Domi Labs. We were invited to join the SSI Incubator in San Francisco, which offered an invaluable—and intense!—three months of working on our product and developing our company. We built our first prototype, delved deep into user research and refined our scope.
San Francisco was a pivotal moment that has helped shape the future of Domi. The program specialised in SSI technology and helped us come even closer to grips with this new technology and the people building it. The SSI community is close-knit with a charmingly collective sense of progress: if one of us succeeds, we all succeed!
With our new connections and progress, we returned to Berlin, the home of Domi. San Francisco had given us a sense of the worldwide potential for our product, but Berlin has the creativity, innovations and connections to rival even Silicon Valley, and it’s a strategic stronghold and home for our company. Over the last year, we’ve gone from strength to strength, building our team, refining our understanding of the real estate market and SSI, and securing our next branch of pre-seed funding via two EU-grants from eSSIF-Lab and DAPSI.
Though our roots are firmly set in Berlin, problems with housing and the rental market are, of course, universal. Nor is the rental market going anywhere: it’s established as one of the oldest markers of human civilisation. It can go very well — or very badly. With Domi, we want to help steer it back onto the right track, reinstall trust between property managers and tenants, and make meaningful and positive change in the future of our cities.
In the short term, this means the German launch of Domi, our digital passport for the rental market, in 2021. Using Domi, tenants will easily and digitally provide proof of their identity and rental history without sharing sensitive documents in hard copy. Meanwhile, property managers cut their paperwork in half (or more!) and handle only the relevant information, reducing their data liability.
But we’re planning on expanding Domi to other European and international markets soon, and swiftly. Europe has a concept of free movement, but open immigration standards aren’t always matched by accessible accommodation options. Domi creates a universal standard of documentation that can work from Germany to Greece, from France to Finland, which is both practical and fully digital — something you can “grab and go” as you move.
Beyond Europe, populations and marketplaces are hungry for an option to help us communicate and trust one another in the rental sphere: no matter where you’re going, no matter where you’re from.
That’s why Domi went from asking a local question—why is renting in Berlin so hard?—to providing a universal answer with ramifications across the spheres of identity, technology, privacy and equality.