Save the World? Blockchain’s Big Dreams Come Back to Earth in DC

Leigh Cuen
Jun 2, 2018 at 12:55 UTC
Updated Jun 4, 2018 at 13:28 UTC
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“Who is actually getting results?”

Whispered between attendees in a crowd of 300 at the Blockchain for Social Impact conference in Washington D.C. on June 1, the statement may have summed up the sentiment at the event.

The group assembled at the U.S. Institute for Peace may have spanned from ethereum entrepreneurs to crypto-curious international development workers, but across that broad spectrum, the sentiment was shockingly cohesive: People want to see results, results, results.

Sandra Hart, Pacific cash and livelihoods advisor at the Oxfam, told CoinDesk:

“We need to stress-test blockchains in complex environments. It’s about being demand driven instead of supply driven.”

Gone are the days of excited chatter surrounding proof-of-concept presentations and lucrative token sales. Here to stay, it seems, is the idea the best way to get results is by engaging the people or communities the product or service is geared to help.

Hart, as an example, is working on a blockchain pilot in Vanuatu, one of the world’s most disaster-prone island nations. This program, which will run from around September 2018 to February 2019, leverages blockchain-linked IDs to deliver credit to up to 1,000 households displaced by a recent volcano.

Across the board, many attendees at the conference noticed the same challenges and opportunities that Hart faces as she sets up Oxfam’s humanitarian blockchain program. Namely, that blockchain solutions for disenfranchised populations work best when they are built cooperatively with recipients and community leaders to complement local habits and infrastructure.

Vanessa Grellet, executive director at the ethereum-centric startup conglomerate ConsenSys, agreed with Hart’s insistence on meeting people where they are.

“I’m the least bullish about projects that try to change behavior without economics,” Grellet told CoinDesk.

The statement spoke to her belief that technologists need to avoid preaching about wealth creation and instead listen to how people already use products or services.

In Hart’s case, Oxfam is working with the Vanuatu Society for People with Disabilities and Youth Challenge Vanuatu to make a smartphone application that represents fiat currencies, since the community is more familiar with mobile devices and cash than credit cards or tokens.

Hart was among many experts at the conference who urged blockchain enthusiasts to build applications alongside diverse communities, not for them.

Remember the real world

In short, Hart put forth another argument that saw discussion at the event, whether tokens are necessary to engage broad communities of supporters. No matter how snazzy the product or service may be, she ultimately argues tokens might not incentivize people who weren’t already interested.

“It’s very common that usability is a question mark, based on the cultural context,” she said, adding:

“Beneficiaries or recipients are used to choosing what they buy instead of receiving in-kind assistance, which takes the dignity and choice out of the assistance process.”

Grellet agreed that two of the major challenges hindering blockchain projects is that many don’t understand the problem they are trying to solve or work with people who actually experience those pain points.

To make matters worse, few teams truly prioritize design, a key component of creating technology that people will actually use. On the other hand, some innovative projects fall short of tangible results because they shoot for the moon before gaining traction on the ground.

“There’s incremental change and there’s system change,” Grellet said. “What you propose is usually system change.”

Therein lies the same issue faced by activists across sectors: Bureaucracy is a slow and stubborn beast.

To counter these common pitfalls, Grellet advised blockchain enthusiasts plan baby steps that leverage existing user habits while working toward broader disruption. This approach can curb impulses to evangelize Western habits to cultural contexts where they don’t make sense.

“We’re not convinced we want to bank the unbanked,” Grellet said. “We don’t want them to go into a system that rejected them. We want to help create new systems and new creditworthiness, capacities, new ways for them to engage with new institutions that allow them to have access to funds.”

Although Grellet is inspired by startups that reduce friction and expenses for remittance, for example, she said those blockchain solutions leave the underlying problem intact.

“We want to solve the fact that they [remittance recipients] have less opportunities,” she said. “You can always reduce costs. But that’s sort of a band-aid.”

Plus, many of these communities don’t have the same connectivity as technologists enjoy in Silicon Valley or London.

“What do you do when you have to do things off the chain?” Hart asked, speaking to spotty electricity in some areas of Vanuatu. “How do we develop these products and say, you [developers] have to tweak this, change this, in order to make these products more adaptable and accessible when you work in humanitarian environments.”

Partners not users

The real trick is decentralizing access to resources.

To that end, startups like RightMesh, which raised $30 million in a token sale that concluded this week, are looking to put their tokens where their proverbial mouth is.

RightMesh’s blockchain product manager, Brianna MacNeil, told CoinDesk her startup has a team of roughly 100 developers in Bangladesh who are building applications for the upcoming mesh network platform. Eventually, RightMesh users will be able to access the mesh network with their regular mobile devices, offering connectivity without WiFi.

This speaks to some of the infrastructure challenges Hart noticed as well.

“They are working on all kinds of open-source apps,” MacNeil said. “We don’t know all the applications of mesh networking. So, we want to put the tools in the hands of these developers so they can build new apps that may not have been possible otherwise, in part because of the lack of connectivity in some communities.”

This is what Gellet said she is most excited about in 2018, diversifying the open-source developer community.

“We’re going to really see internationalization, taking this really global and having local talent create the solutions. That’s not just a U.S., Western conversation,” she said.

During a panel about refugee communities, Techfugee CEO Josephine Goube delivered a similar plea to the audience: “Please stop coming to me and asking me to build [apps].”

Instead, Goube clarified her startup offers resources and opportunities for displaced people to make their own tools. She warned against trying to make blockchain solutions for refugees, a population of roughly 65.6 million people worldwide according to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Next, after empowering these communities, Gellet said the way to scale their local impact is to get enterprises and institutions on board at some level.

“What’s really key in this space is collaboration,” Gellet said. “We will not succeed without the collaboration of governments, charities, NGOs, enterprises, technologists, all together in the same room.”

And yet, for some international development experts, the questions remains: Why use a blockchain instead of a database?

Robert Opp, director of innovation and change management at the UN World Food Programme, addressed this conundrum during his talk about the ethereum pilot program distributing food to 10,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

“If we thought this was the endpoint in the World Food Programme, we would use a database,” he told the crowd about plans to expand the program to 500,000 people and corresponding identity tech tools, adding:

“This isn’t the endpoint. This is the beginning.”

Image of Blockchain for Social Impact via CoinDesk