Could blockchain be the new ‘pound in your pocket’?

Innovation is happening in some unexpected places; the streets of Hull and the notoriously shady world of charity fundraising. Right now, its blockchain that is rapidly building momentum but is still largely unknown- a bit like the internet 20 years ago.  At TechForGood’s Blockchain- Hype or Hope? HullCoin and Alice.si shared their insights. Maybe with blockchain, we finally have the tool to fight back against this tide of inequality. Here’s two projects that combined cutting-edge technology with the reality of everyday life and the need for ‘old-school’ community engagement.

Hull Coin aimed to put individuals’ rights back at the heart of the economic system. It is an alternative currency system based in Hull, Yorkshire based on Bitcoin, one of blockchain’s most popular crypto-currencies. It allows individuals that cannot earn wages in traditional ways to engage with the local economy. Through local organisations or charities, an individual may volunteer to help clean a building, which is then rewarded in HullCoin which can be spent at local retailers. The ‘real’ experience of earning and spending a token was at the heart of Hull Coin’s ethos. Their driving mantra is that Hullcoin is a cross between Groupon and Facebook; HullCoin had to be as simple as posting on Facebook or using a Groupon discount code. HullCoin truly put technology right into the hands that need it most.

Hullcoin is a cross between Groupon and Facebook – Peter Kemp, Hull Coin

Next up, was the Alice.si platform. The desire to make a difference to individuals is at the heart of so much volunteering, charity donations and community action. Yet, according to Raphäel Mazet, many charities face an existential threat’ due to lack of public trust. The Alice.si platform aims to be the answer to this problem. Alice.si allows you as donor to track  your donations, so you can see the difference you made to individual lives. It also allows you to see if your money has had any impact and be returned to you, the charity hasn’t met its targets. Just like using blockchain to make supply chains more transparent, this level of transparency is only possible through blockchain because of its capacity of tracking each transaction’s unique identifier on the decentralised distributed ledger. Moreover, Blockchain technology has the power to instil a ‘payment by results’ mentality through its use of smart contracts. With smart contracts, donated funds are held back until pre-agreed targets are met. This process happens automatically, making the process truly fair and non-corrupt. Therefore, blockchain has the potential to transform the way we think about measuring the impact we have on people’s lives and enabling us to choose to ‘do good’ better.

“Many charities face an existential threat’ due to lack of public trust.”- Raphael Mazet, Alice.si

However, both projects still have a long way to go. At the heart of both projects was the need to value each worker’s efforts, but human lives are complex and it may be impossible to quantity the value of work or social impact programme, regardless of the currency system used. For example, the small-scale nature of Hullcoin was one of its biggest attractions; is it possible to keep this as the project expands? By using Alice.si platform, could the ‘payment by results’ mentality end up harming the very people it aimed to help? Would there be a tendency for projects to focus on ‘quick wins’, easy to measure outcomes, or simply choosing projects that are easy to solve (the proverbial ‘low hanging fruit’). This is not the genuine social engagement and impact measurement that it was designed to deliver. For example, how do you quantify ‘soft skills’ such as the increased confidence of a young person in a life skills programme? This is already a well-known issue within the social sector.

I’m going to say honestly that I remain a ‘blockchain agnostic’*; open to the possibility but not committed either way. Despite all the promises of blockchain the thorny issues of social impact and measuring social impact remain. Blockchain is another tool in the toolkit, albeit a very powerful one. Hull Coin and Alice.si show another way forward and the creative meeting of new technology and old-fashioned social engagement, listening and community action. It’s up to all of us not to waste this opportunity.

*Thanks to the amazing Kate Dodson for this wonderful phrase.

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