Aiming Blockchains Toward Social Good
*This article originally appeared in the print version of Distributed Magazine
A vote-counting system enabling immutable record-keeping and allowing constituents to hold their leaders accountable. A cross-border smartphone application that allows refugees to retain their savings and educational credentials. A biometric-enabled purchasing and cash-distribution system that reduces transaction fees in refugee camps. A token that allows a unique community to define the actions they find valuable and therefore reward them. A crowdsourced platform that uses the gig-economy model to report crimes in a neighborhood or city. A system that enforces industry standards in a product’s supply chain.
The above examples are just a handful of the concepts that fall under the umbrella of “blockchains for social impact.” Every day we are seeing new innovators tackle existing challenges in the international development, humanitarian crisis and aid industries with a tool that only recently emerged onto the main stage of technology. They are flipping the traditional models on their heads. Blockchain technology as a tool for good is revolutionizing the way that we can change the world.
The power of blockchain technology is multifaceted. The immutable, transparent and distributed nature of a blockchain not only guides the architecture itself but can define the way in which the tool is used to tackle an issue — and even stretch so far as to encompass the manner in which people are crafting such solutions.
The recent surge in interest surrounding blockchain technology for social impact is not a coincidence. We are living in world that is rapidly progressing in terms of connectivity and technology. However, we are also seeing a rise in economic inequality, climate change and power struggles. The world is at a tipping point, and blockchain technology finds itself at the center of it all.
In the wake of recent ethical breaches within the tech space, those of us who are building blockchain tools, and particularly building such tools for extremely marginalized or vulnerable populations, have the responsibility of ensuring that what we are building is not merely recreating the wheel in terms of systems and structures that put such populations in these exact positions of harmful disenfranchisement in the first place. We cannot let our excitement get in the way of thinking critically about an issue and designing a tool that is focused and effective.
In the rise of Web 2.0, we saw global walls fall and access to the internet increase significantly. Email and social media, along with live streaming, allowed us to engage with people around the world whom we previously couldn’t have. However, what we are seeing evolve now is the monopolization of information and user data. People apt to capitalize on such free-flowing information and communication quickly became oligarchs, recreating the silos we once deemed obsolete. These recent conversations surrounding user privacy and data, though, have failed to discuss those who are intentionally neglected and restricted from accessing the very digital freedoms we hold so dear. Blockchain technology, in today’s climate, has the opportunity to allow vulnerable populations to truly stake a claim not only to their personal information but to their access to the world around them.
ConsenSys, a blockchain venture studio, educational institution and consulting group, created the Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition (BSIC) as an effort to connect the technology with those who can utilize it for social good. By bringing together nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies, foundations, impact investors, philanthropists and technologists, the initial aim of the coalition was to gather like-minded, forward-thinking individuals who were devoted to solving global challenges and advancing the well-being of society. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals were pivotal in guiding the focus of the conversations and remain central when engaging with our member organizations.
Founded in early 2017, BSIC now counts over 50 members around the globe and includes industry leaders such as the World Wildlife Fund, Tata Consultancy Services, Acumen and the Grameen Foundation.
Many of us have faced the moment when we are bursting with ideas, desperate to find someone to bounce them off of. Or perhaps we’ve crafted the most incredible solution but lack access to those with funding or personnel in the field. BSIC was created to solve these issues, along with the desire to create opportunities for solutions to be developed and incubated organically, allowing for more coordinated, and therefore powerful, impact.
Looking forward, what began at ConsenSys as BSIC will soon spin out as an independent entity, similar to the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, another coalition that began as a ConsenSys initiative.
As we’ve begun the separation of BSIC, ConsenSys Social Impact has emerged. With a three-pronged mission of use case development, research and design and product implementation, ConsenSys Social Impact is dedicated to tackling the world’s most pressing issues using blockchain technology.
Leveraging the ConsenSys ecosystem, our team serves as advisors, catalysts and architects for government agencies, multilateral international organizations, NGOs and a myriad of other entities. We are also committed to helping craft industry standards and models for how to create blockchain solutions for impact-related issues, as well as building out an open source body of research, case studies and other materials to accelerate the thoughtful and intentional development of such tools.