How blockchains can tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Written by PA Consulting on 28 August 2018 in Sponsored Article
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Blockchain is fundamentally a technology of trust, but transformative possibilities to benefit society more broadly are emerging

One area of blockchain’s potential that excites me is in helping capitalise on the $12 trillion opportunity of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We’re a partner of the UN Global Compact’s Project Breakthrough, which is helping companies embed sustainability in the innovation pipeline to tackle the SDGs. As part of this, we researched and wrote a series of executive briefs on how disruptive technologies could help organisations do business in a better way. And we’ve found blockchain to be a technology that’s already delivering positive benefits.

As blockchain has trust, openness and transparency built into its design, its benefits are wide-ranging and impact multiple SDGs. For example:

Goal 1: No poverty – cryptocurrencies and other blockchain-based tokens let the world’s 2 billion-strong unbanked population trade and transact. Initiatives such as BitPesa and CariCoin are beginning to gain traction, and blockchain solutions are disrupting the vast global remittances market and easing the burden of migration.

Goal 3: Good health and wellbeing – there are regional initiatives to share patient healthcare records more securely and efficiently. And start-up Gem is putting disease outbreak data onto a blockchain to improve the effectiveness of disaster relief and response.

Goals 12, 14 & 15: Responsible production and consumption, Life below water and Life on land - blockchain can ensure good provenance throughout supply chains and has great potential to enable the Circular Economy. For example, blockchain start-up Provenance is already tracing yellowfin and skipjack tuna from catch to consumer and digitally reinforcing the value of certification with Soil Association Organic.

I’ve highlighted just a few examples of how blockchain could benefit some of the SDGs above, but looking across the full set of challenges is a great way to stimulate ideas for innovation.

Goal 16 for example, focuses on building “peace, justice and strong institutions”. It’s easy to imagine how the transparency and trust that are baked into blockchain could strengthen information sharing between institutions and the public. And perhaps in the future, it could re-engineer our democracy and governance through technology like Coalichain’s blockchain-based voting.

There’s also scope for blockchain to improve the quality of education by sharing exam scores, research data and more across multiple institutions (Goal 4). And to boost energy efficiency and mitigate climate change (Goals 11 & 13) through smart cities and a frictionless market for putting locally-generated energy into the grid.

Bursting the ‘blockchain bubble’ won’t stop innovation

The blockchain market today is showing many characteristics of a bubble. But if this bubble bursts, we’ll see new blockchain-based applications emerge as we move towards a decentralised future based around social infrastructure.

Blockchain’s fundamentals of openness, algorithmic consensus, and shared distributed record-keeping represent a technological genie that’s now out of the bottle. It also looks hopeful that new innovations will overcome many of the problems that limit some blockchain implementations today, such as scalability and low transactional throughput, and the vast amounts of energy used to achieve consensus on some platforms.  

It’s encouraging to see there are already plenty of innovators working to use this technology to address the big challenges facing humanity. In doing so, they’ll also disrupt many long-established institutions, gatekeepers and middlemen of centralised economies.

We’re still in the early stages of exploring blockchain’s potential, and many of the most exciting and compelling uses are still to be dreamed up. But the UN Sustainable Development Goals provide fantastic opportunity and inspiration to create value in a responsible way.

About the author

Rob Gear is PA futurist at PA Consulting

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