Aside from its budding use case in overhauling mainstream finance, blockchain technology has also been lauded for the way in which it can help enact social good.
Jessi Baker, CEO and founder of London-based startup Provenance, established in the summer of 2013, is hoping to channel the potential of distributed ledgers to do just that.
Alongside heading Provenance, Baker is also undertaking a PHD investigating new technologies to build more transparency into supply chains – the lack of which, she said, brings about most of the world's social and environmental problems.
"One of the big culprits of that failure is in the global supply chains," she told CoinDesk in a recent interview. "We have seen products that are still being done by slaves, environments being destroyed by the production of consumer goods."
For Baker, consumers or companies are not inherently bad for purchasing products that have not been ethically produced. Instead, she argued, the issue resides with the lack of information available to people wanting to make those purchases.
This is where the blockchain technology comes in.
"What we see is really exciting with the blockchain in that there is finally a method of perhaps gathering this data from far-flung areas where products are being produced and having that connected to an open ledger that isn't governed by anyone," said Baker. "So, it can be committed there and also help people who are already gathering that information to do so in a more interoperable way from the get-go, such as certificates, for example."
Provenance sets out to help businesses become more transparent, both on a business and product level.
"More recently we have been looking on an item level, so looking specifically at tracking and being more transparent about what is going on with individual items," said Baker.
The objective in doing so, she added, is two-fold: greater transparency will translate in increased information for consumers about the product's provenance, but it will also serve to build trust in brands and producers that behave well.
To this end, Provenance is building on both the bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains. However, Baker was quick to discuss the benefits of using the latter.
"So, with bitcoin, we can do a certain degree of stuff: we can track assets through a chain of custody, for example ... but when you start to look at consensus mechanisms – such as, is this product organic – and therefore carrying that certification along the chain ... Ethereum lends itself a little bit better."
Fish on the blockchain
Provenance has been working with various small- and medium-sized enterprises in the UK to test how the platform performs and is looking to expand abroad with an upcoming pilot. This will see it put "the first fish on the blockchain" in the coming year.
"We are just embarking on a large pilot, which is in the fish industry, we are going to be announcing quite soon who all of our partners are on that ... that's kind of our first big project."
Although she declined to divulge specifics, she said that the project would see her team work with fisherman in Indonesia who catch pole and line-caught tuna for the Japanese sashimi market.
As part of the endeavour, Provenance is set to work with a local NGO, charged with verifying the produce's social and environmental sustainability. The token – in this case holding the provenance information of the fish – would get carried along the blockchain throughout the whole supply chain until it reaches its destination in Japan.
This will allow consumers to observe the produce's attributes, such as its freshness, the day it was caught and whether the produce has been handled in a socially and environmentally compliant manner.
"It kind of gives you this extra dimension to the old shashimi," Baker commented.
Aside from helping to build transparency by leveraging distributed ledger technology, Baker told CoinDesk that Provenance is also seeking to make bitcoin's underlying technology far more available outside of FinTech.
"I think we've made [blockchain technology] accessible to perhaps a wider audience. In terms of just generally designers, design students, business people who perhaps couldn't think of a way that they might be able to use the technology and then seeing an application like ours is not just finance and that kind of stuff."
Provenance's quest to drive awareness about blockchain technology, however, does not come without its own set of challenges.
The issue, Baker thinks, is that currently the industry is fairly dominated by financial services but also "anarchists, super geeks and greedy venture capitalists".
In order for the use of the technology to prevail, Barker said that more diversity is required. "I think that unless we add diversity to that ecosystem, it's going to be a slower uptake before we start to see some real-world, useful application outside of finance," she said.
Baker is personally excited by what blockchains can do in general, primarily in terms of legal frameworks, trust frameworks and the Internet.
"I think at the moment we are not even scratching the surface for its potential because I think there isn't enough diversity in the ecosystem yet to really uncover those ideas," she said.
An asset for authenticity
Provenance, Baker said, is fully funded until 2017 following the procurement of various grants, including funding from Innovate UK and the European Union's Horizon 20/20 fund.
"This year has been a big year for us," she said. At the moment, the startup is upheld by five full-time staff and five freelancers, but Baker said there are plans in the pipeline to continue growing and developing its permanent workforce.
Provenance, she explained, has gone from being a side-project, undertaken along with her studies, to now becoming a full-time endeavour.
"It's not just blockchain stuff ... [we are doing] a lot of data stuff, helping people gather, organise and convey information for their supply chain. The blockchain is a really great asset for the authenticity layer," she said.
Vegetables image via Shutterstock