I had a rare opportunity to visit one of the epicenters of the blockchain revolution. TechCrunch hosted a conference that drew many of the top leaders in the field from around the world. The events was held in Zug, Switzerland, which happens to be the headquarters for the Ethereum Foundation.
Like any new tech-driven industry, there are two central communities represented in the early days. You have the tech gurus, who strive to improve the technology. You also have the business people, the investors and entrepreneurs and marketing experts, who experiment with business models and ways to make money. Watching this dynamic unfold was exciting.
Techies on Fire
The most significant dynamic I observed was techies on fire. Blockchain is a new technology with immense promise, but many vital issues are still up in the air. The techies are trying to figure this out. They are doing math and running experiments. They are burning to share their enthusiasm and teach more people how to get involved and engaged. Rather than a zero-sum attitude, they have a “more the merrier” worldview.
Presiding over this gathering was the blockchain techie king, Vitalik Buterin. He’s the main founder of the Ethereum technology and the Ethereum Foundation. Ethereum is the leading technology platform used in the blockchain world, even though Bitcoin is better known as a cryptocurrency. He is cut from the same cloth of so many other techie leaders in the industry: brilliant and relentlessly focused on his technology vision for changing the world. His leadership attracts other techies who are excited about helping advance his vision.
In attendance was also a powerful techie queen, Jutta Steiner, co-founder and CEO of Parity Technologies. She has her own vision for solving blockchain’s problems and building its abilities with her Polkadot and Substrate tools.
The assembled techies are sinking their teeth into exciting and challenging problems: how to govern a global enterprise where the rules are set by software and competing economic and technical visions are openly doing battle; where bugs can cost millions of dollars (or hundreds of millions); and where it isn’t clear that our existing legal systems actually hold sway.
Techies are great at deflating hype. They pride themselves on understanding the tech, how it works, and what it is (and is NOT) good for.
The good news is that the field will evolve rapidly. For my social good goals, I can wait and observe these dynamics play out while undertaking small-scale experiments before Benetech places a major bet on blockchain’s social good applications.
Why I Was There
My role was to help represent the social good sector. In general, tech people are favorably inclined to brainstorm about helping society. They want to build cool and important technology. Making money is rarely their sole motivation. The more strategic business people are also favorably inclined to brainstorm about helping society as they understand that a new technology sparks resistance and socially beneficial applications help with policymakers and recruitment of crucial talent.
Benetech also has a strong connection with one of the rockstars of the field, Brian Behlendorf. Brian is a Benetech board member and leader of the Hyperledger Project of the Linux Foundation, the leading open source technology project in the blockchain field.
My goals at the gathering were to both inspire and learn. These are intimately connected. I challenged the audience to think creatively about how blockchain and cryptocurrency could help all of humanity. As a result, I heard many interesting ideas that we would never have come up with without access to the brain trust TechCrunch was able to assemble. TechCrunch programmed me in the middle of the first day for a fireside chat with Megan Rose Dickey, who particularly cares about the social impact of technology. You can see the 20-minute video of the session here: https://techcrunch.com/video/fireside-chat-with-jim-fruchterman-benetech/.
My main points were:
- The unique attributes of blockchain technology make it particularly useful in low trust environments. The ability to confirm a fact without needing all of the supporting information is especially useful. I gave an example of a supply chain solution that could confirm that a given product was ethically produced.
- The Benetech team is working on a challenge around the huge numbers of videos relevant to crimes committed during the Syrian conflict. We plan to “fingerprint” videos held in different archives to improve coordination and reduce duplication of efforts in the pursuit of Syrian justice.
- These are the early days of the blockchain field. It will probably be 3-5 years before blockchain for social good is operating at scale. That means we should experiment now.
I ended my session with a call to action. I exhorted the tech people present to come to me with ideas for applying blockchain technology for social impact. And they did!
Blockchain Applications for Social Good
As a result of throwing down my challenge, I was able to spend much of the rest of my time in Zug brainstorming with a couple dozen attendees. Here are some of the ideas I saw that I’m excited about tracking:
- Menapay and many more are cryptocurrency applications. A common thread among these companies is to reduce friction in payment systems, especially in underdeveloped markets. Many of them put regular currency (aka fiat currency, like dollars and euros) in reserve accounts and create asset-backed cryptocurrencies. Another theme was around exchanges. Groups like Coinbase, Binance, and OmiseGO all have different visions of how to move assets between different crypto and fiat currencies. No surprise: this is the hottest and biggest area of the blockchain field.
- Regen Network wants to catalyze regeneration of ecosystems, such as the planting of trees or switching to no-till agriculture, using satellite imagery and machine learning.
- InsurePal and Asure are using insurance to advance social good. InsurePal wants to help people get affordable insurance by using their social networks to vouch for them while Asure wants to remake the social insurance programs of entire countries.
- AIDcoin experiments in aid transparency made possible by the blockchain. They firmly believe that more charity could be unlocked if donors had more confidence in where the money gets spent.
I also learned about a bunch of other ideas that weren’t yet fully formed. A good bit of my time was spent drilling down into these with the founders to see if they could explain to me how their idea was going to change the world. They didn’t always succeed, but that’s the process of entrepreneurship: honing your idea and how you explain it until it becomes reality (or changes into something else that might work better).
My voyage into Crypto Valley was rewarding. As in previous new technology waves, most of the current efforts will fail. That’s normal. However, it’s a safe bet that many of the players who showed up in Zug this month will be critical to finding the most promising applications that lead to long-term value. I’m excited to look for ways to extend that technology to benefit far more of humanity, or, even better, identify the most promising social entrepreneurs in this area and help them go to scale!
To learn more about Benetech’s software for social good initiatives, visit: https://benetech.org/our-work/.