Blockchain for humanitarian supply chains — project launch!

Hi! My name is Leon Kronqvist and I am working with Charlie Habershon to support DFID in designing a pilot for the use of Blockchain for Humanitarian Supply Chains. We both work for the Technology and Innovation firm PA Consulting, and we will spend the next month convening FTL’s network of experts and facilitating design thinking sessions for a future Blockchain pilot.

What is Blockchain and how can it be used in supply chain?

Blockchain is an alternative system of record keeping. It holds data in a decentralised ledger (the Blockchain) which is maintained across a peer-to-peer network rather than at a single server. Blockchain provides a chain of trust by maintaining a log of all transactions in its chain. It also uses participants to confirm transactions without need for reference to a central authority.

The essence of blockchain technology is that it is a form of decentralised storage of transactional data. Transactions are stored in groups or “blocks” which are themselves stored in a chronological order or chain. So new transactions are stored in new blocks at the end of the chain. Each transaction is time stamped and encrypted so it is a logical sequence of these transactions that can be traced back in time. This chain is like a database that is continuously being updated but by several inputs at once. It is not stored in a central location, instead it is spread out across the network of users so there is no central point of failure and it becomes essentially tamper proof.

For supply chain purposes blockchain technology can be used to track the progress and conditions of supplies throughout the manufacturing, storage and shipping process. Each supplier can update the status of a shipment or product to the network and everyone else in the supply chain can be made aware of this without the need for lots of middle-men or mass communication. Allowing only those who actually need to know to check the state of the supplies.

For more insight on using a blockchain infrastructure to distribute foreign aid, see this link

The Humanitarian Supply Chain Blockchain pilot

The project’s objective is to gain an understanding of how distributed ledger technology could improve the speed and efficiency of humanitarian delivery.

Our first week has been focused on forming a common understanding of the principles and goals for the project, and after an initial meeting with representatives from various Humanitarian organisations it is clear to see that there is already substantial interest and activity in Blockchain.

So what are my 3 key reflections so far?

  1. There is lots of great work already happening — The Humanitarian sector is exploring Blockchain in different ways (often for payments), and there are plenty of Blockchain initiatives in play. We hope to gain a solid understanding of the innovation that is happening, and consult with various actors from DFID and the wider humanitarian community. Our pilot must aim to bring new learning to the community and test new areas.
  2. We need to think big, but start small. We will conduct a set of workshops based on the principles of Design Thinking (for more on Design Thinking, read more here and here). These workshops will focus on a subset of potential future use cases, users, supplies, and supply chain processes. This will allow us to go into more detail when it comes to pain points, understand user needs in a particular part of the landscape, and ensure we gain enough detailed understanding of how Blockchain can be of use in Humanitarian supply chains.
  3. Blockchain is not a silver bullet — No surprise here. While Blockchain can bring huge benefits, it is only as good as the process and the need for cross organisational collaboration is massive. But we like a challenge!

We are really excited to be kicking off the project and look forward sharing our process and findings along the way.