Is blockchain the link that global citizenship is missing?

Once upon a time, as an 11-year-old I was enthused by OXFAM’s ‘Poverty Make History’ campaign. Once I believed that changing one life was enough. How often do you hear that story? And how often do we find a way to ignite that passion again? Well, for me, Tuesday evening at Tech For Good’s Blockchain: Hype or Hope? at TechSpace was one of those nights.

Previously, it’s been possible to disregard the idea of a ‘new face of capitalism’ or responsible capitalism as utopian, but listening to Cecile’s manifesto for blockchain for good, humanising the blockchain, it seemed that people could matter, wherever they are in the supply chain. Could blockchain be the new face of responsible capitalism? Of consumerism?

Kate Dodson’s example of ethical mobile phones, such as Fairphone, such a vision a reality. Kate, consultant and Project Manager for HumanityX,  discussed the potential to transform supply chain tracking and therefore consumer behaviour. This would put individual choice and ethical decision making right back in our hands as consumers. She envisioned a world where you could track the source of a product, such as tin of tuna or the cobalt in a mobile phone at the swipe of a finger by scanning a code on the packaging. This way consumers have a meaningful way of engaging with that product’s supply chain and have the opportunity to balance economic cost with human and environmental costs- the ‘true’ or ‘triple’ bottom line.

Cobalt sourcing in the DRC. Photo credit: Fairphone

With the increasing demand for ethically sourced products, this could be the ‘magic bullet’ for systemic positive social change through consumerism. It could be means of connecting the admirable and tireless efforts of customer boycotts, regulation and policy, undercover investigative journalism and human rights watches. The reality of consumer experience that Kate envisioned is still a way off, but the principles and the feasibility of using blockchain is there. It suggests that to truly realise Blockchain’s potential for good, we need to first recognise the individuals and human stories behind each of our economic transactions, and then allow the technology to positive reinforce this recognition rather than degrading it. Maybe blockchain is the ‘voice of the next billion.’

Maybe blockchain is the ‘voice of the next billion.’

However, a note of caution was obvious too. For all its thrill and hype, blockchain is still immature technology. Just because blockchain promises complete transparency in every transaction doesn’t mean the technology could deliver this, or even that we want it to. To be truly ethical, a balance needs to be struck between amplify workers’ stories and protecting their identity. Revealing too much about someone’s identity could be more harmful than a lack of data. For example, the amazing work of FairPhone and the ethical consumerism industry will not transform the forces of capitalism overnight. There will still be a demand for cheap goods and the temptation to down-play workers’ rights in return for higher profits. Therefore, at the moment, maybe blockchain technology isn’t a one-off magic bullet enabling total supply chain transparency, but is a way to target and effectively enforce and nudge supply chain practices for the better. It could be a more effective tool in the race ‘to stay one step ahead’ of the latest worker exploitation cases.

Blockchain is only as socially impactful as its creators and its users. Technology is not neutral.

Overall, at the end of the day, blockchain is only as socially impactful as its creators and its users. Technology is not neutral. Whether techie or luddite, citizen, social impact professional or consumer, we all have a role to play in creating a better world. I remain sceptical of anything that promises total, systemic change instantly. But then, that’s what they said about the internet. Not all social impact can be achieved through blockchain technology, but in some sectors, the impact could be immense. Get it right and we could kick social change into the stratosphere.

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