Blockchain for transition towards sustainable and resilient societies

Author
Barbara Rosen Jacobson

This side event, organised by UNOPS, UNECE, and the Republic of Slovenia, aimed to explore the potential of blockchain for achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in a discussion with all relevant stakeholders. In her opening statement, Ms Olga Algayerova (Executive Secretary of UNECE) explained that blockchain is one of the most talked-about topics today, opening up many questions related to its promise for sustainable development and the ways in which its greater adoption can be encouraged for the benefit of the SDGs. At the same time, how can the sustainability of this tool be ensured? What kind of standards and regulations are needed? Algayerova concluded that answering these questions will require the collaboration between different sectors.

Presenting the Slovenian government’s attempts to facilitate social innovation in blockchain, Mr Tadej Slapnik (State Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister of Slovenia) provided several examples of companies that use blockchain for the support of a resilient and sustainable society. Slapnik also provided a number of initiatives that have been taken at the European level to foster partnerships and collaboration, share knowledge, and prepare the regulatory environment.

Mr Yoshiyuki Yamamoto (Special Advisor on UN Engagement and Blockchain at UNOPS) pointed out that while there are many initiatives related to blockchain, they often lack coordination. It has become fashionable to ‘do something blockchainy’, yet Yamamoto argued that it is more important to start with a problem and only then identify what kind of technology could provide a solution. For example, blockchain could potentially be used to provide solutions to challenges in supply chains, identities, and cross-border remittances. However, this requires collaboration between different actors and a proper understanding of the value of blockchain for the specific problem at hand.

Mr Ad Kroft (Chair of the National Blockchain Coalition of the Netherlands) offered an overview of the Dutch National Blockchain Coalition, which brings together government agencies, as well as different industry sectors, to identify the building blocks that need to be in place for blockchain to add value. In the context of sustainable development, Kroft provided examples of ‘field labs’ exploring blockchain solutions in the fields of education, energy, food safety, and the public sector in the Netherlands. Finally, he highlighted the utility of blockchain for trade and logistics – according to him, the ‘most powerful use case’ – which increases trust, reduces transaction costs, and ultimately diminishes barriers to market access.

Demonstrating the potential of blockchain for humanitarians, Mr Ben Siegel (Global Project and Partnership Lead, ConsenSys) explained that his organisation provides support in the creation and eventual implementation of blockchain based humanitarian solutions. While ConsenSys provides general support in research design and project implementation, it is also moving into capacity building and empowering communities to develop their own technological solutions, while involving beneficiaries or their representatives in the process of project design.

Providing a specific example of the utility of blockchain in the energy sector, Mr Gregor Novak (CEO of SunContract) explained that blockchain allows people to directly buy and sell renewable energy. This allows for a greater uptake of renewable energy, the removal of intermediaries, and the encouragement of self-sufficiency in the generation of energy. According to Novak, the biggest obstacle to blockchain initiatives are the legal barriers, which need to be modernised through updated regulation.

The panellists’ presentations were followed by a discussion moderated by Ms Maria Ceccarelli (Chief of the Trade Facilitation Section of UNECE), which addressed a number of issues, including the need for a basic understanding of blockchain within governments and the importance of appropriate regulation. In addition, Siegel emphasised the necessity to be realistic about the current potential of blockchain, as it might not be as ready as people expect it to be, especially for the design of complex solutions in sensitive areas, such as the provision of identities to refugees. Kroft added that while the technology might currently be too immature to be used in sophisticated ways, it could be helpful to provide industry with timelines (e.g. a requirement to be fully compliant with blockchain by 2030) to both encourage the use of the technology and give organisations time to prepare.

In a discussion with the audience, the panel touched on a number additional issues, such as the importance of trust, the interplay of blockchain with privacy and the right to be forgotten, the potential uptake of blockchain by central banks, and the involvement of local populations in the design of blockchain solutions. Ceccarelli closed the session by reminding the participants that the development of blockchain might be similar to the start of the Internet: we do not yet know where we are going, the possibilities are huge, yet it needs to be handled with care.

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