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Blockchain for social impact

October 23, 2018 By: MaRS Centre for Impact Investing

By George Kawar

In 2008, blockchain technology made its debut to the general public through the launch of its most popular cryptocurrency application to date, Bitcoin. This paved the way for thousands of alternative cryptocurrencies and instigated a market that is forecasted to be worth USD$1 trillion by 2019.

While blockchain technology was initially designed and applied to meet the financial sector’s shortfalls, its core design and engineering makes it a foundational technology that could be applied to almost any industry or sector — even those that are socially-driven.

What is blockchain technology?

To start, it’s important to differentiate between cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, and blockchain, which is the underlying technology that makes cryptocurrencies possible. A blockchain is a decentralized and encrypted public ledger system where transactions of any kind can be recorded and confirmed anonymously by thousands of users, or nodes. Once information is recorded and verified by the blockchain, it can never be changed or modified.

Blockchain is a transformational technology because it establishes trust between various users, making third-party mediums unnecessary. According to Doug Galen, co-founder and CEO of Rippleworks, blockchain does that by:

  1. Solving the identity problem. Each user has a set of two unique digital codes (a private one and a public one) that allows them to easily prove their identity and issue authorized transactions.
  2. Being irreversible. Once data is entered and confirmed by the majority of the network, no entity is able to change historical data, which makes data immutable.
  3. Allowing decision-making (deciding what is true and what is not) to be a public and democratic process in which multiple users participate.

These features make blockchain an efficient, secure and transparent system that allows individuals to conduct and validate transactions with each other without the requirement of trust or a third party.

How is blockchain being utilized for social good?

With blockchain redefining the way we regulate and administer transactions, the technology brings enormous potential to improve how we address some of the world’s most pressing social challenges. Here are just a few examples of how this technology is bringing transformational social impact.

Helping refugees

As of 2018, the number of displaced people around the world has been estimated at 65.6 million according to the United Nations (UN). With mass migrations happening at unprecedented rates, challenges such as accounting for refugee migration, managing personal identification and delivering foreign aid are substantial and costly.

At the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (the world’s largest), the World Food Programme (WFP) has implemented one of the first uses of blockchain for humanitarian aid. As residents of the camp visit local supermarkets to purchase rice bags and vegetables, they can check out through an iris scanning technology that confirms their identity through a traditional UN database and settle their bill without the need to take out their wallets. Through this, blockchain has solved three pressing problems: personal identification, beneficiary location, and ensuring consistent aid is delivered to each and every individual in need.

The program, known as Building Blocks, has helped the WFP distribute cash-for-food aid to over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan since its emergence in early 2017. By the end of this year, the program will cover all 500,000 refugees in the country. If the project succeeds, it could eventually accelerate the adoption of blockchain technologies at sister UN agencies and beyond.

Agricultural supply chain

Access to markets and professional services, food fraud and contamination, and stakeholder transparency and accountability are only a few of the many supply chain challenges faced by farmers and food distributors. With its unique capacity to transfer, record and monitor transactions in a virtual space at a low cost, blockchain is especially suited to respond to the challenges of supply chains in agriculture.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates the cost of food fraud and contamination to be $10 to 15 billion per year, with a single food fraud incident costing a company two to 15 per cent of its total annual revenue. Furthermore, the World Health Organization estimates that one in 10 people fall ill every year from eating contaminated food, making both the human and economic costs of agricultural supply chain inefficiencies severe.

One company that is harnessing blockchain to solve these challenges in emerging economies is Choco4Peace. The Montreal-based company utilizes smart contract blockchain technology to connect cacao growers from post-conflict countries with global stakeholders. These stakeholders provide capacity-building, finance, insurance, technology and certification services to cocoa growers, allowing them to mitigate risk, and to build trust, transparency and a solid traceability system, while also reducing time and cost.

Choco4Peace, which is currently focused on the Columbian market, is facilitating the spread of resources and infrastructure needed for farmers to disengage in coca plant cultivation (from which cocaine is produced) and instead engage in producing quality cacao. In doing so, Choco4Peace can help provide safer and more dignified lives for farmers and their families.

Healthcare

When it comes to healthcare, the isolated nature of electronic records is one of the biggest challenges. Hospitals, labs and clinics all use various record systems with distinctive data storage standards and processes. This makes patient data exchange timely and cost-intensive, while also adversely impacting patient diagnosis and treatment.

A second challenge is the safe transport of vaccines and medicine from manufacturers to end users. Given that most drugs are perishable, a few degrees increase or decrease in temperature levels at any time during shipping can impact their viability, potentially costing companies millions of dollars. Moreover, patient data security and counterfeit drugs also pose major challenges to the industry.

The potential impact of a decentralized, customer-centric health record system is significant. That’s why the healthcare industry is leading the way in the deployment of blockchain technologies. According to a Deloitte study, 35 per cent of health and life sciences companies are planning to deploy blockchain by 2018.

A new Canadian organization, Coral Health, is leveraging the power of blockchain to make personalized medicine a reality. In its white paper, the company describes how stakeholders in healthcare store patient data in different formats and incoherent data sets, hindering exchange and patient treatment. Coral Health aims to create a blockchain powered platform where patients can securely and easily share their health records with other stakeholders, solving both data ownership and exchange challenges.

Immense potential

While blockchain technology has immense potential in transforming the foundations of several industries, many experts think it’s still too early to determine its real impact and potential. Challenges such as regulatory uncertainty, adoption rate, its ability to scale and the capacity to bring different blockchain networks together pose major barriers on the technology. In a 2018 survey, PwC found that 45 per cent of respondents believe that lack of trust among users is the top barrier to blockchain adoption.

Still, the past 10 years have demonstrated that the global community is more than willing to rally behind this emerging technology and push the boundaries of its social applications. Despite the many challenges, there is no doubt that blockchain’s potential for social impact is promising.

To learn more about blockchain’s positive social impact, join us at the Social Finance Forum, Canada’s leading event for people who believe profits should be paired with purpose.

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