Magda Borowik is the special envoy for fintech to the Ministry of Digital Affairs of the Republic of Poland and the director of technology research at FinTech Poland.
The following article is an exclusive contribution to CoinDesk's 2017 in Review.
The last couple of years were owned by the 'fintech' buzzword.
From startups to investors to government programs, fintech was everywhere. But within the last year, "regtech" and "govtech" have joined the conversation. Very often, you can spot the three in a thought-provoking proximity.
But, do they have something in common?
I believe they all can be described as transaction technologies that enable the secure transfer of value online – be it monetary or non-monetary value. Alternative financial technology, the use of modern computing, and also, technology as a means for building trust, all are tools that are needed by every government.
It's no surprise then that applications are popping up in many areas – regulators and supervisors using DLT or cognitive computing, governments providing electronic payments for public services or social security. In Poland, strides have been made to harness emerging tech for digital identity, in such a way that it can be provided by the state along with banks and other institutions of trust.
Importantly, our national scheme of electronic identification is based on federated model, which means citizen's identity is not only served by the state – banks, insurers and telecom providers are able to contribute, too.
This is an important distinction as transaction technologies are defined by the use of a special type of data, data that documents an exchange, agreement or value transfer between parties.
It's a bit of information describing an event that includes the time and numerical value, and that specifies an agreement or value exchange of commercial or legal significance. Very often it relates to personal data and falls into the scope of banking secrecy.
A natural fit
In a digital dimension, all relations are transactions. Like it or not, that’s the way it is.
Administrations transact with citizens to provide them with trusted public services. They transact with businesses and governments, too. Sometimes citizens transact with government through business. Within strategic sectors, like energy or utility business, transacting is key.
In an increasingly data-focused economy, transacting data can even be said to be a special type of virtualized critical infrastructure. This is why states and businesses need to focus on assuring trusted data structures.
Blockchains and distributed ledgers, then, can be considered a tool for ensuring data integrity, immutability and trust. It does not mean we need to port everything to blockchain. But it can mean provide an additional, transaction layer to existing data structures, a robust audit trail on what happens on our critical infrastructure.
In this way, the possible role of distributed ledgers within digital state infrastructure too often goes unrecognized.
They can be a tool for licenses, rights and entitlements management. What the modern state mostly does is endorse, manage and verify ledgers of social relations; be it property titles register, ledgers of social security entitlements or identity ledgers – of who is a citizen and who can therefore participate in political dealings.
It’s a huge, important and largely under-appreciated and even overlooked function that state fulfills. Based on a social contract, the state is a large trusted entity.
How much we trust the state today is questionable, but the invention of distributed ledgers introduces a way of building a new type of institutional trust – trust in the computer code an institution operates, instead of relying only on trust in its human representatives. Human-to-machine is a new type of trust, which complements the one we traditionally put in people.
In order to progress with digitization, we need to ensure new type of digital trust, where appropriate investments are of highest priority.
Harnessing the potential
So, if distributed ledgers can act as a trust machine, what then?
The first step would be to audit our existing data resources – identifying, cleaning and structuring them in order to achieve organization. Then, a trusted transaction layer may be put on top. This means there won’t be an easy jump onto distributed ledgers for state-owned big data lakes.
Ensuring the integrity and immutability of random, inconsistent data makes no sense.
Still, within the scope of emerging transaction technologies, digitization can benefit from distributed ledgers in many aspects. Trusted data structures, arising from handling data with decentralized consensus mechanisms, can bring in additional value to many horizontal challenges, like e-commerce and legislative processes (where document version control and oversight is critical).
Ultimately, value transfer protocols and distributed ledgers may enable the functional digitization of public services, transforming the service stack together, not just rewriting each physical element to a digital twin. Particularly, if we consider value transfer protocols as digital public services, their use by the state becomes a bit more obvious.
In the coming months, governments around the globe will become more and more aware of the meaning of transaction technologies and the role they play in digitization. Having policies enabling experimentation with emerging transaction technologies will be key.
At the Ministry of Digital Affairs, Republic of Poland, we recently published a new industrial digitization strategy, in which transaction technologies are one of three key areas for growth.
Understanding requires experimenting, and experimenting is an act of humility – to acknowledge that there is no way of knowing without trying new things, making your hands dirty.
Understanding that truth is a first step, but it is important. I wish all government policymakers to act on it, in order to get well prepared for the future to come – sooner than later.
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