by Ralph Tkatchuk

How blockchain is becoming instrumental to social change

Jan 10, 2018
E-commerce SoftwareFinancial Services IndustryInternet

Blockchain's ability to store information has applications and effects across industries.

blockchain code record coding
Credit: Thinkstock

Blockchain is proving to be quite the disruptive technology. At its core, blockchain offers a reliable way to immutably store information. This core functionality has countless applications across industries. Given the number of blockchain projects that have been announced over the past months, it’s tough to spot an area that blockchain hasn’t influenced yet.

In addition, blockchain inspires trust that other technologies have failed to foster. In the case of public blockchains, no one actually owns them and they rely on the cooperation of peers to function. This decentralization allows the technology to avoid being dependent on fallible central authorities. Given all the instances of data breaches, privacy concerns, and corporate greed in the tech industry, blockchain has become a welcome development for conscientious users.

Since the popular use cases of blockchain have been in cryptocurrencies, many of the current blockchain developments revolve around financial technology. However, blockchain’s key features can be used to create services that address not just commercial and business needs but address social problems as well. Here are four areas where blockchain is becoming instrumental to social change.

Democratic decisions

Citizens of democratic countries put faith in elections. However, the democratic process isn’t without its idiosyncrasies. Sometimes electorates choose poorly and some elections can be rigged. These put doubt to the system but many who believe in democracy’s principles wouldn’t have it other way. It is in this regard where blockchain can help fix the system.

Horizon State is a new blockchain-meets-democracy project that offers a decentralized engagement and decision platform. The platform serves as a digital ballot box that protects votes and voter information using blockchain. On top of this, Horizon State allows leaders to present their agenda to their constituents and even seek funding and gain insights from analytics. Through these mechanisms, voters could then choose their level of engagement and securely and confidently cast their votes on issues.

In a talk, Horizon State co-founder Jamie Skella shares, “If [the founding fathers] could leverage blockchain, if they could leverage the internet and if they could leverage smartphones, how would they do things differently? I think it’s pretty safe to say that they would not be asking everybody in their constituency to gather in a centralized location such as a polling booth, do so once every four years, write on a piece of paper, throw that into a box, and then just sort of pray that their representatives are really representing them.”

Horizon State’s technology is already being used by Australian political movement MiVote which aims to have politicians act according to the collective decisions of voters. The platform is also being developed for use by publicly listed companies, unions, non-profits and other communities – basically any group that seeks to hold itself accountable to its members.

Fair value

Large corporations continue exert their influence over markets. In tech, many of the popular services act as centralized authorities. Users have to agree with their terms and conditions no matter how fair or disadvantageous they could be. These companies even have the right to change these terms at any point. For example, independent artists who publish and monetize through platforms like Spotify have little choice but to accept the services’ royalty rate computations even if these mechanisms have been described as “unreliable.”

Blockchain challenges the dominance of these centralized authorities. Many of the blockchain efforts promote decentralization to create fairer markets for a variety of verticals. Blockchain-based marketplaces provide transparency to all participants so it’s easy to spot overpricing and attempts at manipulation. As such, sellers are compelled to price their goods and services equitably.

Several blockchain marketplaces are already promoting this approach. BitBoost aims to decentralize e-commerce through its The Block marketplace. It uses the Ethereum network to handle smart contracts to facilitate transactions and payments. Livepeer and Voise are also offering decentralization for video and audio streaming respectively where broadcasters and content creators are compelled to create high-value content to be able to charge a premium for their work.

In real estate, Rentberry seeks to create a more equitable rent market using blockchain. The service features transparent rental auction that allows participants to see the number of active bids and the current highest bid. Prospective tenants and landlords can also negotiate prices securely. On top of these, its platform also automates other parts of the rent process such as exchanging personal and financial information, agreements, and payments.

“…Blockchain in real estate… eliminates the need for middlemen like banks, notary officers, brokers, and agents. With blockchain, the entire real estate experience shifts towards a peer-to-peer model, which means there is no need to pay agents for their assistance in finding a property, notary officers for their help with validation of documents, and banks for transferring funds and exchanging currencies. With blockchain-based platforms like Rentberry, lots of spendings associated with renting sink into oblivion,” reads the company’s blog.

Financial inclusion

There are also other ways blockchain is helping people become more involved. Billions still live in poverty today and blockchain is helping spread and share the wealth around. According to the World Bank, financial inclusion is instrumental to poverty reduction. 2 billion people still do not have access to formal financial services which include banking and finance. Traditional institutions like banks do have their constraints. Limited physical access could prevent them from putting up infrastructure to remote locations.

Fortunately, access to technology is growing. The proliferation of cheap smartphones and internet access is giving the unbanked access to digital finance. Blockchain has already enabled cheaper and faster financial transactions which is crucial for use in developing regions and markets. Cryptocurrencies are also becoming viable alternatives to fiat in unbanked regions.

Poverty and financial exclusion continue to be Africa’s key concerns but there is now a growing ubiquity of cryptocurrencies in the continent. There are now more than ten Bitcoin exchanges in the region. Platforms like BitPesa and BTCGhana allow remittances from countries like the US and the UK to Africa at affordable rates. In the case of BTCGhana, recipients get the remittance in either fiat currency or mobile money.

Fighting corruption

Corruption continues to be a pervasive social ill. The 2016 edition of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index reveals that, on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) and 100 (very clean), the global average of 176 countries is just 43. More than two-thirds fall below the midpoint.

Transparency and accountability are key to fighting corruption. Progressive nations have now acknowledged the strength of blockchain in this regard and are now developing e-government projects using the technology. Ghana is developing applications to use blockchain for land registry. It is a particularly critical development in such a country where 78 percent of land is unregistered and is at risk of land grabbing.

Other countries are also exploring blockchain for other documentary purposes such as business registration, records of share issuance, and even healthcare. Paper-based systems have been susceptible to forgery and fraud so shifting to a secure digital platform would curb these activities.

Disrupting the status quo

Blockchain has the potential to disrupt the status quo and help solve many social problems. These recent developments can usher in sweeping changes needed by many societies. For this to happen, people must be made aware of the strengths of blockchain and the benefits the technology brings. While the scale of crypto activities grows with each successful launch of a new blockchain app and service, efforts that focus on bringing about social change should not be overlooked. It’s up to people to encourage adoption of technologies that would hold everyone accountable.