Could the blockchain revolutionise sustainability?

The Internet is missing one thing and the blockchain has it - trust. Jessi Baker, co-founder of Provenance, describes how a new technology called a blockchain might change how we trust companies and information and empower us as smarter citizens.

It might sound obvious to the point of absurdity to say that the Internet has changed the world forever, but there was a time when it was the niche obsession of a few. At incredible speed we have witnessed it bring fundamental changes to society, with information travelling faster and wider than ever before, bringing knowledge, collaboration and justice.

However, over recent years it’s become apparent that there is a vital thing missing from the Internet. It wasn’t designed for money, trade or trustworthy data exchange. And so within this amazing high-speed world of shared information, data and commerce, trust is absent.

Blockchains have the potential to bring trust to the Internet. At its heart a blockchain is a system that allows people who don’t trust each other, to trust each other. It is a permanent and immutable ledger of actions. With each action being recorded directly, or in an abbreviated form, in a highly secure shared data system. Like the DNA in every cell, a complete copy of the blockchain is held by the entire network. So if anyone tries to cheat, everyone knows about it.

At Provenance, the technology business I founded, we’ve been looking at how we can apply this trust machine to bring transparency to product supply chains and help fuel a more conscious form of consumption. We’re exploring how blockchains can be used to reinforce the collection and communication of data in it’s many forms - from certifications like Fairtrade, to where products are made, to information about businesses and their owners.

In the absence of a mechanism for trust on the Internet, we’ve seen the rise of a new economy with third parties like AirBnB and Paypal being set up to broker trust. There are problems with these ‘third party trust brokers’ though - it’s inefficient to outsource trust and lots of people simply don’t have access to them. In addition, when you hand your data over to one of these third parties they’re able to use it to influence your behaviour, by deciding which adverts you see, for example. And so the question has to be asked, do you even know who you’re actually trusting? And on what terms?

Over very recent years, and in fact months, we’ve seen the rapid evolution of a new kind of data system which has the potential to be as disruptive a force as the Internet. One which can add trust into the equation. Blockchains.

Blockchains provide a new way to trust things on the Internet. Why? Because they allow us to trust things without a third party. The most famous application that runs on a blockchain is bitcoin - a virtual currency which provides a way to transfer money without a bank. It works because everyone can see all the transactions.

All this is useful for more than just replacing Paypal. In fact we might be at the beginning of a radical change to the Internet as we know it.

So how do I think blockchains can make us better humans; fuelling a more sustainable and just world? Well, they can’t do much on their own, just like the Internet couldn’t - and that’s important to bear in mind. We need collaboration, design, business savvy, creativity and masses of hard work for that. But, they are a new tool for helping us make sense of data in a much faster, more robust and equitable way. Blockchains are a trust machine, where technology provides a guarantee that only an organisation or third party could until now.

Provenance is just one example of how blockchains can be used in the field of sustainability and social impact. They are a great way to reinforce and create interoperability between all types of sustainability information and data - from carbon credits to detailed material information for recycling. And that data can be accessed in a trusted way globally without someone like the UN needing to build one big database. Of course, you still need data collection and verification on the ground (and reputation systems to gauge reliability), but once in the system that data can be accessed in a trustworthy way anywhere.

Imagine what this can do for corruption, remittances, climate data, reporting slavery, recycling materials, monitoring air pollution. This is the beginning.

We're dedicating our March Forum to blockchains and the potential they have to revolutionise the relationship between business and society. Click here to apply to attend.

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