Blockchain technologies are a new form of data disclosure technologies that have received extensive coverage and attention because of their potential to transform (or “disrupt”) industry sectors – ranging from financial services and publishing to supply chain management and real-estate. Additionally, blockchain is increasingly believed to be capable of positively empowering underserved populations in a myriad of ways – from improving service delivery for homeless people in New York City to bringing the “unbanked” into the global economy. As such, blockchain has been heralded as an avenue for creating positive social change, or “Blockchange.”
Yet for all the enthusiasm, we know very little about how blockchain can actually impact social change — what kinds of applications can serve what needs, what technological attributes matter most, what risks are involved, and under what conditions blockchain can have maximum social impact.
Exploring Three Application Areas
Today, the GovLab is launching the Blockchange platform: a hub for research and evidence into blockchain’s capacity to create social change. In particular, we are exploring the promise and practice of blockchain for creating societal benefits and addressing information asymmetries through three applications: improved identity management, smart contracting, and the ability to track and trace transactions. Blockchange features a repository of Curated Examples of projects that are actively seeking to leverage blockchain for social change across each of the these three areas, as well as efforts to create an ecosystem of blockchain use for societal benefit.
Focus on Identity
In addition, the platform provides access to our first Blockchange Field Report, which focuses on Blockchain’s potential and limitation for trusted identity management.
Of the three types of Blockchange applications, identity should be considered foundational because it a) plays a prominent role in social change; b) underpins most other blockchange applications; and c) provides a necessary missing ID protocol layer of the Internet.
The field report, Blockchan.ge: Blockchain Technologies for Social Change – Field Report on the Emergent Use of Distributed Ledger Technologies for Identity Management, was developed through a yearlong exploration project supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Our initial analysis centered on the current theory, practice and dominant narratives in the blockchain and identity spaces – and at the nexus of the two.
Blockchange also proposes a set of operational conditions for practitioners, providing guidance regarding “when to blockchain” – i.e., questions that, when answered affirmatively, can determine whether a Blockchange implementation is likely to be appropriate and successful. They include:
- Is there a clear problem definition?
- Do information asymmetries and high transaction costs incentivize change?
Data & Technology
- Are accurate and high-quality digital records available?
- Is there no availability of credible and alternative disclosure technologies?
- Are there trusted intermediaries active in the space and does their efficiency (or lack thereof) incentivize change?
- Is there a level of cooperation (or ‘co-opetition’) among players?
- Are the parties involved technology aware and data literate?
The GENESIS Principles
Finally, Blockchange generated, through consultation and research, a set of design principles ensuring that blockchain experimentation supports the public interest from the very first block: the so-called ‘genesis’ block of the blockchain. That is why, collectively, we call these the GENESIS principles.
- Governance Legitimacy
- Ethically Sound
- Not Technology, But Solutions to Real Problems
- Ecological Footprint
- Synchronized with Existing Initiatives
- Interoperability and Open Standards
- Securing First Block Accuracy