While the cryptocurrency fever might be in its death throes, the potential the underlying technology has for social good is very much alive
At the end of 2017, the public perception of blockchain technology was quite different from what it is today: Bitcoin was at an all-time peak, crypto-fever had taken hold and it seemed that the blockchain would disrupt everything and anything. Today, with plummeting prices, that hype is fizzling out, taking the sheen off a technology that was once seen as a socioeconomic panacea. The fact remains, however, that blockchain technology has the ability to affect profound change, albeit in specific ways. One way this immense potential is being unlocked is through social impact-focused projects.
For those who do not already know, the beauty of the blockchain is that it provides a way of sharing, storing and securing transactions and other data securely without the need for intermediaries. This enables people around the world to retain full control over their personal data. From a social impact perspective, this can help provide solutions in areas as diverse as fair trade, public spending and administration, democratic decision-making, housing, and financial inclusion.
According to a report by the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford Graduate School for Business, there has been an accelerating growth of new projects, organisations, and platforms employing blockchain technology since 2013. The paper identified 54 new social impact-related blockchain applications in 2016 alone and a further 64 in 2017, with many more likely being developed in stealth mode.
Of the initiatives researched, 20 per cent are providing a solution to a problem that could not have been solved without blockchain
While many of these projects are in the early stages – 34 per cent started in 2017 or later, and 74 per cent are at the idea stage – more than half are expected to impact their beneficiaries in the first half of this year.
The same report goes on to explain that, of the initiatives researched, 20 per cent are providing a solution to a problem that could not have been solved without blockchain, and 86 per cent are bringing forward solutions that are material improvements.
Saving lives, identities and fish
Social good applications for blockchain have seen significant support from businesses, governments and not-for-profits. Not only are there blockchain companies like ConsenSys, or computing giants like IBM, launching social impact initiatives, but there are organisations implementing real solutions. The UN, for example, has teamed up with the World Identity Network to use blockchain technology as a means of storing digital identities for children in a bid to battle trafficking.
Through its Building Blocks initiative, the World Food Programme is using the Ethereum network to enable payments in refugee camps to be more efficient, secure and transparent. As of January last year, over 100,000 refugees living in camps had redeemed their assistance through Ethereum. Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund, with its partners, has used blockchain technology to prevent illegal fishing and abuses of human rights in the tuna industry. By scanning the QR code that is added to tuna packs, consumers can be confident they are buying sustainable tuna with no oppressive conditions involved.
Blockchain technology has the ability to affect profound change, albeit in specific ways
To further seed this kind of innovation, the European Union’s European Innovation Council (EIC) has now launched a Blockchains for Social Good prize. The EIC will award €1 million to each of the best five decentralised solutions tackling social innovation challenges with the blockchain today. The EIC Horizon prize – which has a 25 June deadline for application – will reward individuals and organisations that are developing projects that fulfil the following criteria: a positive impact on society, environment or economics; improvements in transparency, accountability and privacy; usability and inclusiveness; and viability on a large scale. With this initiative, the EU is trying to be at the vanguard of blockchain adoption for social good.
Further down the chain
It is because of this universal interest and proven potential that blockchain for social good is an important area of focus at the Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Innovation at Imperial College Business School. The Centre strives to act as a principal catalyst for linking innovation and entrepreneurship globally, and this focus is part of a broader effort by to be at the forefront of innovation with blockchain and other forward-looking financial technologies.
These are still the earliest days of development, so it may be too soon to tell whether blockchain will become a ubiquitous tool for social impact, but there is plenty to evidence that transformative applications are already emerging. Data offered by the above mentioned Stanford report suggests the majority of blockchain applications can provide incremental or transformative solutions for people solving the world’s biggest challenges.
True, a lot of the recent hype around blockchain has led to it becoming a solution in search of a problem. But if we start with the problems first, blockchain’s purpose – and its potential benefit to the world – will become much clearer.