Crypto Utopia? Defining the Greater Good in a Blockchain World

Can this radical new technology, blockchain, create the underpinning of a safer, fairer and more prosperous society?

May 14, 2017 at 12:15 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:19 p.m. UTC
May 14, 2017 at 12:15 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:19 p.m. UTC

Cecile Baird and Simon Chan are founding partners of Blockchain For Good (BC4G), a think tank that aims to bring together minds from around the world to explore and debate the development of blockchain, for the greater good of humanity, society, economy and the environment.

In this opinion piece, Baird and Chan argue that we need a duty of care today, for a humanised blockchain future tomorrow.

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Blockchain’s public interface, at its most basic, is a string of shared data made up of a series of uniquely ordered alphabetical letters and numbers, timestamped and immutable.

Yet, through this, blockchain can fundamentally change existing organisational structures, not merely as an evolutionary development, but potentially as a transformational technology. While it continues to develop, we need explore the opportunities that blockchain technology can offer and the consequences of not getting it right.

To do this, we believe we should zero in on one area that has not yet received the same level of attention or investment: the human aspect of the blockchain, and how it could underpin the technologies that impact our everyday lives.

Together, we need to identify some guiding principles on how we can shape an underlying duty of care, bringing together great minds in the fields of entrepreneurship, investing, academia, sustainability, charities and policymaking to tackle this challenge.

Defining 'good' in an age of new value

We are living in a world where ‘for good’ has become zeitgeist and is often interpreted as 'social good'. However to set the scene of the discussion it is really important to note that 'for good' is not limited to non-profit activities or the third sector.

There are incredibly varied views of what 'for good' means – for creative industries, it is transparency and fair distribution of royalties; for refugees, it is establishing or protecting identity; for charities, it is about accountability; and for government, it is about delivering better services to the public.

But what was interesting is the commonality between the interpretations of 'for good' – the notion of creating new value, under a framework of ethics and clear moral intentions. When considering how blockchain can be used for good, it is important that we look at its relationship with creating new value.

Businesses that will continue to thrive tomorrow, will be those with a clear purpose underpinned by a commitment that balances the triple bottom line of people, profit and planet.

Blockchain dystopia

Where there is a vision of utopia, there is an equal possibility of dystopia. We have already seen cases where bad actors have manipulated projects based on blockchain technology quicker than the community can prevent attacks.

There is a second way where we do not get blockchain right, which can be equally systemic. Unless there is an unambiguous and clearly defined ethical system, there can be no ethics.

A lack of an ecosystem and, perhaps worse still, a manipulated ecosystem, would fundamentally undermine the principles on which blockchain has been built: a transparent, immutable and distributed ledger.

The best-case scenario is that we end up with a large number of unconnected, private blockchain networks. But the worst-case scenario is that see the emergence of monopolies that shape the development of blockchain technology that benefit the privileged few at the cost of others.

Recasting trust

Blockchain can recast trust relationships between government, people and business. As the Edelman’s Trust Barometer, a survey of over 30,000 individuals globally, suggests, there is a widening trust gap between these three groups. Blockchain technology offers a new model that can help solve this point of crisis.

We believe we have distilled five areas that should be considered when developing a duty-of-care manifesto:

Distributed power

Blockchain technology does not allow vested interest in any one individual and power is given by consensus. As such, this creates network integrity and enables transparency by design. The principle of users being able to use, but not to manipulate, the system should be an underlying principle for enabling the technology to be used for good.

Authentication and new trust

One aspect that needs to be considered is how a distributed ledger would impact data privacy, data ownership and misuse of data.

Transparency and balance

How can these functionalities be used to enable good? There must be balance and compromise. There is no point using blockchain with the same frame of mind as with our existing economy and system.

Incentivised and accelerated value

The decentralised structure of blockchain technology passes value through to individuals. As such, there is no central authority setting economic policies or regulating the distribution, the incentive for action is open and put in the hands of everyone as there is a fair value exchange.

The role of communications

If we’re integrating blockchain technology into government infrastructure, it is essential that we focus on deployment in places where it is needed most. It is important that decision makers and policymakers are properly engaged. To safeguard the future of blockchain technology, ensuring it is being used for good and trusted, there is an onus for everyone – industry and government, and those communicating on its behalf – to do so responsibly.

What is clear is that we do require a federated model – a guiding hand, to set the vision and principles to enable its success, for the greater good – whilst allowing verticals or countries to govern their specific areas. To be clear, this is not a government, a centralised organisation or even regulation, but policy and principles that document a duty of care for blockchain technology.

The Blockchain For Good white paper and manifesto can be read here.

Hands on a chain image via Shutterstock

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