On 19–20th March, I was honoured to represent Blockchain Philanthropy Foundation (BPF) as the Chief Education Manager at the Blockchain For Social Impact Summit in New York, held by the Rockefeller Foundation. As a 2-Day conference co-hosted by the International Civil Society Centre and MercyCorps, its key purpose was to facilitate early thought-leadership discussion amongst blockchain entrepreneurs and leaders who are currently using this technology to create social impact. This meant establishing our interest in creating a global network where we could safely share our key industry learnings, ideas and resources, as well as create a set of universal standards that will help guide sustainable and ethical blockchain developments well into the future.
This exclusive invite-only event brought together 40 delegates from the civil society, financial, academic, government, technological and consulting industries. Organisations presented included Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF, the United Nations, IBM, Microsoft, University of Edinburgh, Accenture, ConsenSys and, of course, BPF. It was an incredible feeling to be sitting in the same room as so many leaders who wanted to plan for the future of blockchain technology.
Here are some of my key learnings and reflections from this conference:
There is a Need for a Blockchain Paradigm Shift
The first conference topic introduced the concept of the “blockchain paradigm shift”. Whereas organisations have generally adopted a tactical approach to focus on improving the technical efficiency of systems through blockchain technology, this conference signals the start of a new movement where diverse, socially-minded leaders are banding together to form future strategies on a more holistic and constitutional level.
And yet, how can we best collaborate in practice? And how can we ensure that these conversations will produce valuable and sustainable frameworks for future collaboration?
With a mission to develop a collaboration model that would help members of the blockchain community maximise their social impact, this summit sought to discuss these ideas and create cross-sectorial feedback loops. These activities stressed the importance of working together within the blockchain community to not only learn from each other, but also support each other in educating external parties and pushing legislation that will allow healthy experimentation within the blockchain for social impact economy.
Current Barriers to Blockchain Adoption
A main theme that continued to appear over the 2 days was the problems that we commonly faced as blockchain innovators and leaders. Firstly, we agreed that education awareness was a primary issue that threatened to prohibit our entrepreneurial progress. More specifically, it made it difficult for us, as organisation leaders, to get the necessary approval and funding to roll out our projects.
This directly ties in with another huge challenge — collaborating with policy-makers and regulators in developing clear guidelines on blockchain use. From my personal experience, our state government here in Melbourne is extremely supportive towards social entrepreneurship in the blockchain space. In addition, our regulatory offices such as the ATO are very helpful in answering organisational questions and in clearing up any cryptocurrency tax-related issues. However, upon discussing the various problems that other organisations faced, it soon became evident that many other governments around the world don’t share this same crypto-friendly approach. Consequently, many of the delegates mentioned that they would ideally like more assistance from regulators in clarifying legal compliance policies. It is important that we find ways to collaborate with policy-makers in creating economic safe zones (i.e. “sand boxes”) where we could safely experiment with social impact projects without penalty, before rolling these out into broader society.
On reflection, this has made me appreciate Melbourne’s crypto-friendly policy approach so much more. In fact, this might explain why Melbourne currently has such a strong fintech and blockchain social entrepreneurial community, with many successful pilots being based in Melbourne.
Blockchain Misconceptions Still Fuel Distrust in Blockchain Solutions
There were also a number of misconceptions that we, as organisational managers, faced as a collective. Particularly, there seemed to be a huge unease amongst charities in adopting blockchain regarding disintermediation. In other words, many feared that there would be a huge downsizing phenomenon, whereby many of their employees and volunteers would lose their jobs, or their entire operations would be made redundant due to technology. In some ways, this is not necessarily untrue, but this problem may need to be reframed. For example, when Oxfam International recently deployed a cryptocurrency donation solution in the Pacific region, they reported a huge reduction in intermediary steps that they would normally have to undertake to collect, distribute and send donations to the beneficiary. By increasing organisational leanness, this structural change ultimately led to greater social impact being delivered to victims.Additionally, this created new and exciting jobs for people in the education, consulting, research and technological spaces. As such, the main lesson to take away from this experience is to embrace this technology as a tool for developing new jobs and social impact outcomes for the future.
I was highly surprised (or extremely pleased, I should say!) by the high calibre of presentations. Coming from an academic research background, it was truly inspiring to recognise so many pioneers in the field — authors whom I had read extensively while researching material for my own PhD thesis back in Melbourne on “crypto governance solutions for charities”. One of these authors was Rhodri Davies from the Charities Aid Foundation, who had written some well-known articles on the history of charitable gift-giving and how blockchain is a relevant piece of the missing puzzle.
At this conference, I was given the fantastic opportunity to hear some of these revolutionary ideas in person, like the contemporary debate on blockchain vs. “human-based institutions” (what Davies defined as governing mechanisms that oversee, manage and control our societal interactions, including the humanitarian sector’s various donation distribution activities). Normally, we rely on third-party authorities, such as banks and regulatory or government bodies to create a transparent and trusting environment in which donors, beneficiaries, charity managers, contractors and regulators can work together on our charitable projects. Yet with this new introduction of automated technology, would this create new and daring challenges for us all? And would this solve some of our heavily entrenched societal problems, such as no longer mistrusting one another when we attempt to create social impact together? All in all, these questions made me think about the incredible change that’s yet to come. And hearing this straight from the academic who developed the underlying theory was certainly a rewarding experience.
I also learnt that creating a universal set of guidelines on a global, cross-sectoral level can be really challenging. While everyone present at the conference voiced a huge appetite for continuing these important thought-leadership discussions well into the future, it took a majority of the two days simply to identify our main unified goals moving forwards as a collective network. It was inspiring to hear about so many social impact projects around the world that have used blockchain technology with success. We were all willing to share our pilot failures, learnings and challenges in a safe and supportive environment, which I believe is an essential ingredient moving forwards in this highly dynamic, evolving and uncertain technological space. I was immensely proud to represent BPF at this world exclusive conference and am looking forward to keeping you updated on our follow-up conferences in the very near future.