With Bitcoin shrugging off a “civil war” to surge almost 400 percent in 12 months while giant cryptocurrency crowd-sales are creating instant millionaires almost daily, it’s tempting to think that blockchain technology’s only contribution to society is as a dubious get-rich-quick tool.
But this misses the great potential that blockchains and digital assets pose for social good. Undaunted by humanity’s past failures to resolve some of history’s thorniest problems, numerous blockchain and cryptocurrency projects — some led by large international agencies, others by tiny startups – hope to tackle issues like poverty and environmental degradation and spread democracy.
There is undoubtedly a heavy dose of idealistic utopianism around these efforts. And the tech is far from being sufficiently developed to operate at the global scale needed – it may never be. Yet there’s no end of outside-the-box ideas from people who foresee a better way of doing things. Just as important, these efforts are founded on something quite real: blockchain technology’s capacity to improve transparency and address the perennial problem of social mistrust.
The tech’s sweeping potential lies in its ability to assure the integrity of valuable data even when that information is derived from multiple sources with potentially conflicting interests. The result is a decentralized, common record of truth, one that is highly secure and resistant to tampering — a centuries-in-the-making breakthrough in the all-important function of record-keeping on which civilization has been built.
Blockchains point to new possibilities for gathering, recording, and using information and for exchanging money and tokens of value in ways that help communities achieve common goals in an automated fashion.
In Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, 10,000 refugees are involved in a World Food Program project that uses retina scans and blockchain-based transacation logs to track food distributions in multiple locations, boosting efficiency, preventing fraud, and ensuring everyone gets fed. It sits alongside a range of projects coordinated by a New York-based ad-hoc intra-agency group of UN blockchain enthusiasts who took it upon themselves to get dozens of like-minded people in the UN system involved. One outcome: UN Women is partnering with Norway’s government to explore a blockchain system for women in developing countries like Rwanda to transfer digital assets without relying on potentially abusive intermediaries. Not to be outdone, the World Bank is getting in on the act, too. It launched its new Blockchain Lab in June.
One hoped-for benefit is that of more accountability in developing-country governments, which could help them secure more investment and foreign aid on better terms. E-government startup NeoCapita is talking to the governments of Afghanistan, Armenia and Papua New Guinea, about potentially using blockchain-based tracking of donor funds to prove they aren’t being misappropriated.
The greater promise, however, may lie beyond governments, in solutions that empower civil society. At the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT Media Lab, a team led by my colleague Mark Weber is developing the technological foundation for an open-source public asset registry that would record people’s claims and transfers of rights to different forms of property in the Bitcoin blockchain. In offering a superior record-keeping function to centrally managed registries, the team hopes to give lenders confidence that, in the event of default, they can seize clean collateral without fear of unknown competing claims arising. With a first application aimed at providing poor farmers in developing countries an immutable receipt for crops deposited at a warehouse, the goal is to unlock affordable finance for small businesses and individuals.
Social-impact projects were also in focus at last week’s third annual Blockchain Summit on Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island, sponsored by blockchain services provider BitFury. I was lucky enough to attend, along with the likes of the Peruvian economist and anti-poverty campaigner Hernando de Soto, European Parliament member Eva Kaili, and groundbreaking Afghani entrepreneur and women’s rights advocate Roya Mahboob. Understandably, the image of a few dozen privileged people discussing plans to save the world on a luxurious tropical island raises eyebrows. But a carefully selected cross-section of influential and committed people from governments, not-for-profits, the creative industry, venture-capital firms, academia, and blockchain startups, ensured that – as with the past two years – a serious action agenda emerged.
Among the many projects floated at the event was Mahboob’s proposal for a decentralized e-marketplace so that Afghan women can trade goods and services, sidestepping male-led institutions that would otherwise prevent them from engaging in commercial activity.
Venture capitalist and summit co-host Bill Tai announced a blockchain project to incentivize the collation of powerful, reliable data from coral reefs that could help scientists learn how to protect them. And Mariana Dahan, formerly of the World Bank, launched the World Identity Network to explore blockchain technology’s potential to provide secure, safe forms of identification for the 2 billion who lack such documentation. It’s a difficult problem, in part because of the privacy challenges of potentially recording personal identifying information in public databases and in part because “identity” can mean many different things in different contexts. But Dahan, who speaks from personal experience about the harm done to those who have no way to prove they even exist, is determined to get the best minds in and outside the tech world to resolve this dilemma.
Many challenges remain to attaining these progressive visions. Vastly more development work is needed to make sure that blockchains scale to global levels and are deployed on an open, “permissionless,” and interoperable architecture that fits the spirit of the Internet. It’s not even clear that the ideal solution to these giant problems should be to tap a blockchain network that chews up large amount of computing and electricity resources.
But even if blockchains end up giving way to other solutions, even centralized ones, this technology’s contribution to these social goals will still likely be highly significant. It has forced people to think outside the box, to address life’s deep-seated problems with a fresh mindset. That, in itself, creates the prospect for groundbreaking change.