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Sowing the Seeds for Blockchain

July 27, 2018

illustrated hands holding a mobile phone which has an image of a chain on the screenOne of the most exciting parts of my job is investigating the ways in which new tools and technologies can be used to improve peoples' lives. Blockchain and its related technologies are in a new camp—exciting, but its application’s aren’t yet obvious. There is a great deal of enthusiasm around the technology itself, and there’s been some great work by our team here at Abt: here, here, and here.

Blockchain isn’t the solution by itself — it’s a vanguard

My years in ICT4D or the 'Tech for Good' space more broadly have taught me to be skeptical of always chasing after the next big thing—of believing that the latest hyped trend is going to be the “thing that solves it.” So take it from me, I'm about as wet a blanket as they come on matters of unchecked enthusiasm.

And yet, I'm fundamentally optimistic and even excited for blockchain. Not because I think it is a silver bullet, or because it's implementations are going to be faultless — it's not, and they won't be—but because the lift to get us to blockchain is going to require a whole lot of digital transformation, of standardizing systems and process, and of "forcing" us to build interoperability into the systems from the beginning, all of which is good for the many people who will benefit from these upgrades. Blockchain isn't the be-all end-all, but it could be the vanguard for a new approach to systems.

Earlier this month at the ICTforAg Conference in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to lead a discussion on the use of blockchain in the global agriculture sector. It was an informal chat with representatives from the U.S. government, international NGOs, implementing partners, the private sector, and many subject matter experts.

Blockchain areas of interest

While the discussion cited many of the possible applications of blockchain in the agriculture space—such as product tracking and more transparent market transactions—we also touched on many more potential issues to be worked out:

  • Laws and Regulations. There are many laws and thorny regulatory considerations to be worked out; which agencies are responsible for oversight, for addressing disputes and for addressing financial issues?
  • Privacy, Security, and Ownership. How best do we manage the ongoing tension between privacy and transparency? Is there something specific to the agriculture sector that requires us to think about the privacy of farmer data and their processes? What about more specific examples like the EU’s recently passed GDPR, which highlights data ownership for users?
  • Cost. Who is going to be paying for these applications, and how will that affect the end product? In addition to monetary costs, there are significant energy and environmental costs to consider.
  • Corruption. How do we ensure that not only the data itself can be trusted, but the people and institutions contributing to and interacting with the applications themselves? Additionally, how do we help policymakers and programs separate out trustworthy investments from simple sales hype?

The final keynote speaker of the day, Jacques de Vos, CEO of Mezzanine, reminded us that "The challenge is not to develop technology, but to develop societies that benefit from technology." While blockchain itself is a fascinating and transformative step forward, its ultimate success will depend on how it can ultimately help improve peoples’ lives.


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