Can blockchain serve business, people and planet?
Jochem Verberne is the Global Partnerships Director at WWF International, with oversight of WWF’s global public and private sector partnerships covering business transformation and sustainability. Follow and contact him on Twitter @JochemVerberne
Can blockchain serve business, people and planet?
It comes as no surprise that most of the top risks identified in the latest World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, from biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse to water crises and extreme weather events, are environmental.
Make no mistake, addressing their impact on our wellbeing, enterprise and prosperity requires a profound shift in how we produce and consume, as well as in our orientation to nature — from egocentric to ecocentric, balancing human and biosphere needs.
Nevertheless, technology and human ingenuity have a significant role to play.
From quantum computing and artificial intelligence to DNA sequencing and advanced robotics, we have an opportunity to create transformative approaches for sustainability. And of all new technologies that make up the Fourth Industrial Revolution, perhaps blockchain shows the most promise for radical disruption.
The introduction of the revolutionary technology to the Pacific Islands’ tuna industry — where WWF has teamed up with global blockchain venture studio ConsenSys, ICT implementer TraSeable, and tuna fishing and processing company Sea Quest Fiji Ltd., to help stamp out illegal fishing and human rights abuses — is just one example, albeit the first of its kind in this region.
As a digital, tamper-proof record of information accessible to everyone, blockchain means that soon a simple scan of tuna packaging using a smartphone will reveal where and when the fish was caught, and by which vessel and fishing method. Consumers will have certainty that they’re buying legally-caught, sustainable tuna, free of slave labour.
Along with platforms like Global Fishing Watch that are harnessing big data to crack down on the $23bn annual global cost of illegal fishing, through blockchain, we are beginning to see how new technologies can secure sustainability across the ocean economy — valued by WWF and strategic partner BCG at US$2.5 trillion.
Besides seafood, blockchain can transform certification and traceability for all manner of commodities — by tracking products from producer to consumer, by creating binding contracts without the need for third party enforcement, and by eradicating the manipulation of data on origin, content, production, and health and safety.
Beyond supply change management, blockchain could be a game-changer in tackling numerous sustainability challenges and driving change across all sectors.
Programmes such as Recycle to Coin and Plastic Bank are using blockchain to reward recycling with cryptographic tokens as well as to track quantities, costs and impact. Extended and replicated, such approaches can turbo-charge development of circular and shared economies.
Emerging platforms like Electric Chain could help people invest directly in renewable energy installations, and blockchain could support a clean, resilient and affordable energy system that integrates centralised power with distributed renewables, distributing energy from where it is produced to where it is needed with maximum efficiency.
Tracking carbon footprint, blockchain could drive the production and consumption of low carbon products and help establish appropriate levels of carbon tax. And by tracking compliance with global environmental agreements — without the need for third party auditing — it could incentivise governments and corporations to deliver on commitments and reporting.
Last but not least, blockchain can support civil society accountability by tracking funds and ensuring they support conservation, as well as by tackling bureaucracy and corruption, and releasing funds where needed without sophisticated banking infrastructure.
In essence, a distributed, transparent, autonomous and immutable peer-to-peer system for exchange, blockchain can help individuals, government and companies see the real impact of action in a complex world — something especially useful in delivering sustainability.
Dubbed a new operating system for society, blockchain has been compared to the creation of the internet for the extraordinary impact it could have on how we transfer things of value to each other.
Yet while it has tremendous potential, the technology is in its infancy. We need to overcome potential weaknesses, and we need to experiment. And we will likely need to fail before we fully understand how we can harness its power for a sustainable future.
In doing so, we must remember that change does not happen by itself. Technology is no silver bullet. It will not magically protect forests, save tigers or restore ocean health but used well, it can facilitate smart choices by producers and consumers, governments and corporations, whether for sustainable tuna, distributed energy, or other system change.
Mission Earth is too big a challenge for one organisation, business or country to deliver alone. And along with robust regulation and public policy, it is only through dialogue, collaboration, commitment, innovation and imagination that we will succeed.
We should embrace the revolution — but beyond radical transparency, automation, smart contracting and elimination of uncertainty and blind trust, only the vision and ingenuity of people and partnerships can realise the true potential of blockchain technology for our wellbeing, enterprise and future prosperity.