Blockchain for Social Impact

Sanket Mehta
Mar 17, 2018 · 6 min read

How one technology has the potential to revolutionize the world we live in. For the good. For the better.

Prior to the 1400's, knowledge was limited to a few regions and was consumed mostly through inscriptions on stone, caves and handwritten scrolls. The invention of the printing press circa 1440, helped make knowledge more widespread and solve the knowledge gap. Then came the steam engine giving birth to the industrial revolution and making energy more readily available and solving the energy gap. Combing both knowledge and energy, the invention of the internet in the 1900’s made distances seem small and information was now widely accessible across the globe solving the distance gap. In the current millennium, with the rise of alternative facts, fake news, scandals and rogue traders, we are now facing a trust gap. And how do we solve that ?

One of the possible answers to solving the trust gap may lie in the technology behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies: Blockchain.

So what is Blockchain, you may ask ? Richie Etwaru explains it beautifully in this TEDx video.

Imagine you are purchasing a house. You go to the title search agency to search all the past records of the house — the owner history (since its construction), the re-development information, household improvements, if any, and so on and so forth. Upon advice from the real estate agents, you settle upon a price.

Remember, the price of the house depends entirely on its history. At this point in time, can you really trust the real estate agents (probably leveraging the asymmetry of information to get a greater % commission), or the title search agency (misreporting or erring in historical record collection due to negligence or bribery) ?

What if there was a system, where in the records of the house were secure, encrypted, immutable and accessible to all ?

Welcome to Blockchain, essentially a distributed encrypted database. Think of it as a humongous, global spreadsheet that runs on millions and millions of computers. It’s open source, it’s distributed and if anyone tries to alter any code, everyone can see it and it is replaced with the original true copy of the spreadsheet. It is completely peer to peer and does not require power intermediaries to authenticate or settle transactions. How cool is that ?

The technology is simply fantastic (still underdeveloped but fantastic) with more than hundreds of Blockchain based solutions possible and still evolving — a distributed ledger for public information, direct buyer and seller transactions without intermediaries such as banks or e-commerce platforms, casting votes in an election, and even tracing the origins of a product (say knowing whether a certain bottle of champagne really came from France’s Champagne region) etc. We may even be able to match people to digital records as the decryption technology evolves.

When I first read about Blockchain, I was super psyched. I remember exclaiming to my friends, “What a disruptor, this technology is going to be !” However, as some Harvard professors explain it, Blockchain is not necessarily a disruptive technology i.e. it may not truly undercut costs of a traditional business model rather, it is a foundational technology. A technology which has the potential to redefine the political and economic system (the markets, supply chains, public records etc.) we live by and thereby magnify social impact. The rate of impact, however, entirely depends on how sooner can we adopt Blockchain.

So let us get straight to it. How do we leverage this technology to achieve everything we desire in businesses, governments and communities ? How do we set up systems that are less corrupt, more transparent, more trusting and both ethical and moral ?

Sierra Leone, a country with a population of 7.4 million and a rank of 130 among 180 on the corruption perception index, just ran the first Blockchain based elections and the impact it could have is potentially world changing. The most important one being, of course, reducing corruption in the elections and the voting process (..wouldn’t we all love that). But also extending to reduction in paper consumption and possibly lower election costs compared to the paper ballots.

Sierra Leone’s blockchain powered elections (Reuters/Olivia Acland)

Built by Agora, the world’s only fully-functional Blockchain voting platform looks highly promising. Even though the Blockchain based Sierra Leone elections were more of a proof of concept and as countries begin to evaluate and realize the impact of such a platform, the entire voting systems in global nations could one day potentially transform into one which is transparent, instantaneous, anonymous and for the public to review and validate. In fact, you can check the Sierra Leone election results right here.

Embedding transparency and accountability into elections and the voting process and redefining them are just one of the many applications of Blockchain. It is currently even being used to solve a much larger environmental issue — clean up of oil spills !

Since 1958, the Niger Delta has seen over 7,000 oil spills to the tune of 13 million barrels of crude oil (as compared to BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 4.2 million barrels). Ogoniland, sitting on the Gulf of Guinea southeast of Nigeria, is one of the world’s most polluted regions. Lack of accountability from oil giants and corruption, mistrust and violence between the government and the locals has meant that no clean ups have taken place until much recently.

Ogoniland in Nigeria’s delta region. Image via SDN

The impact, however, is not limited to just the environmental pollution. The oil spill has had a far greater impact than one could even imagine — Economic: Livelihoods of farmers and fisherman has been on its decline, Ecosystem: mangrove and freshwater swamps have been severely contaminated, fish numbers have been on a steep decline, Health: infant deaths have been associated with births occurring near areas of oil spill, Corruption: Oil majors have avoided paying affected communities by wrongly attributing spills to sabotage. The extent of the damage is such that the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates it could take up to 30 years for full environmental restoration.

A man samples crude oil at the bank of a polluted river in Bidere community in Ogoniland in Nigeria’s delta region. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

So how does Blockchain play a role? By creating a platform where in small plots of land/fish farms are cleaned up by locals, digitally (through pictures and mapping) verified by the local community, payed in cryptocurrency and also, rewarded for performance. This is done all through a single platform and mind you, the technology creates an immutable ledger of records for a transparent and trackable flow of cash — from the oil majors to the government and then to the locals in return for the clean up. This is currently being piloted in K-Dere village, Ogoniland by Sustainability International and Blockchain platform SELA

I strongly believe that a Blockchain revolution is on its way (and not just for cryptocurrencies but for the social good, for the impact and for the embedded values). And when it does, it is going to redefine the way we interact with the society, the way we do business, the way we consume information. It is going to redefine the way we live our lives !

But a question still remains. Should we trust a technology more than the one who creates them, more than the people, the society and the businesses ? By allowing Blockchain to prevail, are we going against that one fundamental value due to which a society primarily exists: trust ?

Sanket Mehta

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Envisioning a better future, and everyone’s included. Above and beyond sustainability and social impact #changemaker