Sheila Warren leads the blockchain and ledger technology distributed at the World Economic Forum.
The following is an exclusive contribution for the 2018 year of CoinDesk under consideration.
After about a year of market upheaval, some things seem clear: blockchain technology is even more suited to basic use cases that imply demands such as resistance to censorship, and a lot of nonsense has come out of the market (although with many cash in hand) .
However, many brilliant minds remain committed to solving some of the technical challenges of technology. Several second-level solutions, aimed at increasing the throughput and usability of blockchains, will probably emerge in the course of 2019. But what is significantly less clear is the potential, if any, that blockchain technology actually holds for achieving of a positive social impact.
In this area, we are still waiting for the case of the killer who really uses what technology has to offer.
The good news is that, together with the cooling market, the blockchain technology hype as "mother of all solutions" has finally begun to quell, and we are starting to see renewed attention to empowerment. Decentralization and democratization are probably two of the fundamental principles behind the development of technology.
In theory, we are able to include more voices in the community and reduce financial inequality by providing greater access to capital to a wide variety of people. Greater inclusion in traditional systems, either through the expansion or disruption of these systems, remains one of the most exciting possibilities that this technology could bring.
Access and power
Many people dodge the word "power" (or replace it with "wealth"), but the blockchain technology has the potential to give the citizen actors a greater interest, and the ability to influence, the systems that now control and trap them, or that exclude them altogether. Exploiting this potential requires a thorough consideration of the policies that accompany any blockchain implementation, as well as the consideration of everyone's favorite topic: governance.
One trend we are witnessing is the growing skepticism of the "solutions" supported by blockchain which are of a unilateral or bilateral nature; cases of bankruptcy abound, in many cases regardless of whether the proposed solutions are public or authorized.
As a result, we are starting to see more and more attention to consortium models that bring together a multiplicity of actors to design solutions that are at the ecosystem level (MOBI is an example of many). We are also seeing a new recognition that a system can not be transformed effectively unless the needs of a wide range of stakeholders are taken into account.
This is part of why the world of cryptocurrency has started so quickly to resemble the traditional financial infrastructure.
In addition to a multi-stakeholder approach, which is slowly gaining momentum, a solid and well-founded political framework is needed to ensure that the "neutral" qualities of this technology are not limited to replicating the problems of existing systems, as is already the case with cryptocurrency, with its often opaque centralized intermediaries, the manipulation of the market (intentional and involuntary) and the counter-trading counter, which imitate or replicate the problems existing in the financial system.
For example, since private key management remains a challenge for the lay user, outsourcing custody services have proliferated. In many cases, these services actually use the same methods as the legacy financial system, including bank deposits and safety deposit boxes.
New attention, new promise
Fortunately, ethics, civil society and other guard dogs are starting to pay attention and launch cases where things can go wrong, or where there is a quick default for the same old brokers who inject the same preconceptions into the system.
At the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we focus on pilot policies that take advantage of some of the key attributes of blockchain, such as increased access to information. For example, we are conducting a pilot project in Colombia focused on reducing corruption through the implementation of a blockchain-based system that improves transparency.
Of course, it is by no means obvious that greater transparency of information or process flows will lead to greater accountability in a system; on the contrary, there are numerous examples of cases in which greater transparency has simply led to greater exploitation by bad actors. Therefore, our project focuses on creating a formal political framework that strongly influences design decisions.
We are involving a diverse group of stakeholders, composed of government officials, civil society, media and other observer groups, businesses, academics and stakeholders affected by corruption in the public procurement process. Our first pilot project focuses on providing food to schools and, as part of the stakeholder group, we are engaging with schools, parent associations, teacher associations and students themselves.
While this approach adds time and complexity to any pilot, the responsibility created by this methodology will help to mitigate the risk of unwanted consequences and ensure that the promises of blockchain technology can be realized within this specific context. In short, we try to import the community-led technological methodology into our policy and technical construction.
Our goal is to create a policy that provides significant, multi-party access to reliable information (via a blockchain) that helps to report potential or actual instances of corruption with definite consequences (potentially through smart contracts). Who will get access to information and when and for what purpose? How do we significantly anonymize identity to protect people who want to report potential or actual corruption cases?
All these questions will be addressed both in the policies and in the technical build. Although our pilot is necessarily context-specific, we keep an eye on the potential for downsizing so that the policies we create can be used to combat corruption in other geographical areas and in different circumstances.
Of course, we are far from the revolution, but the same happened for every great transformation in the course of history.
Change takes place so that it is well. Now that we have eliminated some of the clutter, we can go back to the things that make this technology interesting from a social perspective in the first place, but this time with more humility about limits and challenges.
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