Introduction – Blockchain for Social Change

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Purpose of this Field Report

Blockchain technologies are digital ledgers that provide one or more permanent and validated records in a distributed manner, with the possibility to provide a level of guaranteed privacy and security, data integrity, and increased trust. The disruptive potential of blockchain technologies (hereafter referred to simply as ‘blockchain’), and distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) more generally,23 extends beyond private-sector innovation in products, services, revenue streams and industry operating systems. Blockchain is increasingly believed to be capable of positively empowering underserved populations in a myriad of ways,24 including by providing a means for establishing a trusted digital identity. As such, blockchain is seen as an avenue for creating positive social change, or “Blockchange.”

Yet for all the enthusiasm, we in fact know very little about how blockchain can impact social change — what kinds of applications serve what needs, what technological attributes matter most, what risks are involved, and under what conditions blockchain can have maximum impact. This Blockchange Field Report shares early findings from the GovLab’s research initiative on blockchain’s potential for improving people’s lives, with a particular focus on the emergent universe of Blockchange as it relates to identity. This focus is based on the need for trusted identifiers in accessing a number of rights and services, from banking to the ballot box, as well as identity’s role as an enabler of blockchain-enabled smart contracting and track and trace interventions. As we explain further below, identity is in effect emerging as a core aspect of blockchain and Blockchange, a nexus for many of the associated issues and a vital lever for positive social change.

This field report was developed through a yearlong research project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Our methodology took the form of desk research and literature analysis of current theory, practice and dominant narratives in the blockchain and identity spaces – and at the nexus of the two – as well as the development of nine case studies on specific Blockchange for identity projects and pilots. Those case studies, included in Appendix 1, were developed through in-depth interviews with stakeholders involved in their implementation.

The report has five parts. The first provides a curated primer on key narratives, terms, and guides to blockchain and its potential for creating social change. Part two highlights blockchain’s core and optional attributes and describes three categories of social change use cases.25 The third part dives into the area of identity, analyzing the current and potential value of blockchain across the identity lifecycle, and highlighting findings from case studies completed by the research team. Part four brings all of the above together by discussing lessons learned related to operational conditions that can help to enable successful Blockchange initiatives, as well as cross-cutting challenges. Finally, part five concludes with a set of principles aimed at providing guidance on how to design Blockchange interventions in the identity space that are legitimate, effective, ethical, and impactful.

Summary of Findings

Premise 1: Rapid Evolution

Blockchain technologies are rapidly evolving and subject to constant innovation but also facing deep constraints that impede widespread adoption and broad application.

Premise 2: Core Attributes

The core attributes of immutability, (guaranteed) integrity and distributed resilience of blockchain and other Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) have potential for social impact that extends far beyond merely transforming the way industry records and manages transactions.

Premise 3: Optional Attributes

Blockchains and DLTs are not monolithic concepts, and different types (e.g., private vs. public and permissioned vs. permissionless blockchains) possess varying, optional attributes, which include disintermediation, transparency, and accessibility.

Premise 4: Use Cases

The combination of these core and optional attributes allows for three broad types of blockchain applications that could benefit social change or “blockchange applications”: Identity Management, Track and Trace, and Smart Contracting.

Premise 5: Foundational Use Case

Of those three types of “blockchange applications,” Identity Management – as it relates to people, tangible objects, and intangible objects – appears to be foundational because it a) plays a prominent role prominent role in social change; b) underpins most other blockchange applications; c) provides a necessary missing ID protocol layer on the Internet.

Premise 6: Identity Lifecycle

Identity is not just a set of attributes; it involves a process composed of provisioning, authentication, administration, authorization, and auditing. Each stage has its own unique challenges, each of which may be addressed by mobilizing relevant blockchain attributes.

Premise 7: Levels of Maturity

Blockchange use cases are not equally applicable or mature across the identity lifecycle. It appears that blockchain provides the most potential to improve the authorization and auditing stages of the identity lifecycle – with implications for human rights, national security, voting, and financial services, among many other topic areas.

Premise 8: Operational Conditions

Blockchange implementations are better suited for success when they are responsive to a number of operational conditions spread across four categories:

  • Problem
    • Is there a clear problem definition?
    • Do information asymmetries and high transaction costs incentivize change?26
  • Data & Technology
    • Are accurate and high-quality digital records available?
    • Is there no availability of credible and alternative disclosure technologies?
  • Ecosystem
    • Are there trusted intermediaries active in the space and does their efficiency (or lack thereof) incentivize change?
    • Is there a level of cooperation (or ‘co-opetition’) among players?
  • Capacity
    • Are the parties involved technology aware and data literate?
Premise 9: Cross-Cutting Challenges

Blockchain can promote positive social change by improving the way we provide and manage identity, yet more effort will be required to address some of its current cross-cutting challenges, including: governance structure(s), technological interoperability, scalability, generalized adoption, user experience, and a rights-based approach.

Premise 10: Design Principles

Moving forward, it will be essential for the social change field to define and adopt design principles to maximize the benefits of blockchain while preventing possible risks or harms. A preliminary list of foundational design principles would include:

  • Governance Legitimacy
  • Ethically Sound
  • Not Technology, But Solutions
  • Ecological Footprint
  • Synchronized with Existing Initiatives
  • Interoperability and Open Standards
  • Securing first block accuracy
  1. Anthony Stevens. “Gaining clarity on key terminology: Bitcoin versus blockchain versus distributed ledger technology.” Hacker Noon, April 23, 2018. 

  2. David Hessekiel. “The Future Of Social Impact Is...Blockchain.” Forbes, April 3, 2018. 

  3. Our study is not focused on cryptocurrency systems, like the Bitcoin blockchain, that could be put to use to achieve social change objectives; rather, our inquiry is uniquely interested in uses of blockchain as a potential protocol for good. 

  4. George A. Akerlof. “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 1970.