Blockchain is more than just Bitcoin – how WEF is sitting up, taking notice

DAVOS — San Francisco is the home of WEF’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution where it is looking at the advent of various technologies, ranging from drones to AI. But the centre is also focusing heavily on blockchain, the distributed digital ledger technology underscoring cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The media’s focus, in recent times, has been primarily on the surging prices of various cryptos and their subsequent dramatic cooling off. However, as Sheila Warren, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Blockchain tells me, blockchain consists of far more than just cryptocurrencies, and could one day change everything, from identity management through to contracts and finance. Take a listen. – Gareth van Zyl

This podcast was made possible by Brightrock, the company that introduced the first ever needs-matched life insurance.

I’m Sheila Warren the Head of Blockchain at the World Economic Forum based in San Francisco.

Sheila thank you for chatting to us. Can you tell us what you do at WEF exactly in terms of looking at the Blockchain?

So I work at the new San Francisco Centre, which is called the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and we’re looking at four technologies from the governance and policy perspective. So what I do with Blockchain is I think about ways in which we can create multi-stakeholder partnerships to co-design governance models and pilot them, prototype them, and test them to facilitate a doctrine of this technology for good and social impact.

Sheila Warren, Head of Blockchain, WEF

How does the WEF see Blockchain technologies because Blockchain has become a buzzword in recent years, like what Cloud was many years ago, but there’s this mania around anything that’s Blockchain cryptocurrency.

Well first of all I’ll say that we think of Blockchain well beyond digital currency or any sort of monetary application or even values to our application and while I think that that is, as it turns out highly successful, I think we could argue a use case of the Blockchain platform. There are many other things Blockchain can do. When you think about what decentralised, immutable record ledger actually means, how it can reduce inefficiencies, reduce corruption across sectors, we see a tremendous amount of value. I can give you examples if that’s of interest and one thing we’re thinking about is land title registries. Now the ownership of land is something that is an economic stimulus or incentive to businesses and people to stay in a community or in a society and invest in it, both with their labour and with their money. The lack of clear title to ownership is a clear problem.

Now leaving that aside, even in countries where there is a very clear record of ownership where you can really trust the government to create such a record of ownership on the path to citizenry, there are many inefficiencies in that process, many of which can be addressed by Blockchain. So this is kind of an use case where it may be about moving a land title registry to a distributed ledger on its face but it’s really about the underlying economic system, family structure and bigger broader things. So we’re looking at big systems, big change and big themes. It’s the exact opposite of what’s happening in the ICO craze, where it’s very narrow use cases proliferating very rapidly, some would argue, with perhaps not the rigour that one might attach to something if you were engaging in systems that gave certain design.

So you aren’t just looking at the impact that Blockchain would have in the financial sector for example, but actually on the government sector in essence.

That’s right on to society.

Identity on society.

We’re looking at identity, not just in the sense of digital identity and self-sovereign identity, which has become a buzzword in this space, but we’re also looking at identity for volatile populations. So what does it mean to be somebody who’s trafficked or vulnerable children, or workers who are enforced in a slavery situation, even refugee asylum migration cases? These are edge cases. You can call them in digital identity they need to be incorporated into the broader model that’s built so that we can ensure that any solution that we come up with really is relevant to all of society and not just a handful.

Sheila, if we start putting identities on the Blockchain, does that mean we start to rid ourselves of the concepts of nation states because Blocks and Blockchains often have hashes that can become your unique identifier.

I always find the country is so fascinating because it really depends on where you come from as a political animal. So there are many obviously crypto anarchists and libertarians in this space. That’s not my personal orientation. I can certainly see the arguments there, but to me, you know I feel like it’s human psychology that’s fundamentally going to drive the adoption of Blockchain and where we fail to adopt Blockchain and I think that people still tend to be quite nationalistic, even in a global sense.

People have a lot of pride in their country as an origin and it would surprise me tremendously if that all went away. Now what I think Blockchain can do is remove a central authority figure so you would have a little bit more input if we can imagine, into what you considered your home, your nationality and in some ways that could be a quite interesting transformation of society but do I think that I’ll never not consider myself an American if I had a digital identity. I don’t know that that would affect me as much as where I lived, where I grew up, who my friends were, where my family was from, all those things would still remain more important than the fact that I didn’t have to get my identity from a centralised database of the government.

Do you think that governments would be comfortable with something like that because for eons they’ve been very centralised?

It’s as great question and this is I think what governments are starting to really think about and I think it’s the same question that banks have asked themselves. Banks, I think are a potential for being more disruptive than governments in some ways because I think when you think about the ways that human populations view those different services, depending on where you are in the world, you may really trust or not trust your government or take your government completely for granted. You may really trust or not trust your bank and so depending on society by society, the views that the society and the people basically hold with their institutions, I think are what is going to eventually establish whether or not aspects of those institutions are modified or disrupted by this technology.

The centre that you work at is based in San Francisco.

That’s right.

That must be an incredible place to be in terms of talking about Blockchain. You have Facebook just down the road, Google.

Yes and I think it’s an exciting place to talk about any kind of technology but one thing I love about Blockchain is that it’s one of the emerging technologies that’s not really US-centric. There are really exciting innovation hubs, there’s technology all over the world. It’s really not necessarily valley driven in the way that many other technologies have been and I think what I love about that in addition to just being really exciting from a global perspective, is that I think we’re going to get to much better solutions because we are already baking into our processes, a transnational global view and I think that again because this technology is so foundational as you know, like the internet. You know we need to really be thinking about as much inclusion as possible when we think about setting our protocols and boundaries in the States.

Fourth Industrial Revolution

What are some of the challenges or some of the obstacles lying in the way of broader Blockchain adoption?

Honestly lack of understanding is the key right now and I think we have to begin at the beginning. So right now if there is one thing that I wish I could change about the environment, it’s the conflation of the Bitcoin Blockchain and the fact that many people just still believe that those two things are the same thing, that Bitcoin Blockchain is the only kind of Blockchain that there is and that the only thing it’s good for is digital currency essentially and every one of those sentences I just SAID has counterpoint. So that I find challenging and I think that as we get to more use cases and examples of this technology, people are beginning to understand globally not just in the sort of tech savvy cities, let’s say, but these things are different and that the potential is really vast.

Would you then be looking more at the Bitcoin Blockchain or the Ethereum Blockchain or both because they’re two different Blockchains essentially?

That’s right and there are many others as well. We are officially and also truly Blockchain agnostic. To us and to me, we’re agnostic and by the way, we’re also distributive ledger agnostic. So it’s not necessarily that everything has to be Blockchain. There are other forms of distributed ledger, as you know and so I think we’re very open to all those different kinds of distributed ledger and depending on the situation, depending on the context one or the other may be more appropriate because I do think that they differ as do we all. No they are different in several significant and important places, so to us that really isn’t the point of the endeavour.

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We’re not here to support one versus the other; we’re not throwing our weight behind one versus the other at all. What we’re simply trying to do is, remove the regulatory governmental policy obstacles, and try to encourage strategic thinking, smart thinking and future thinking in policies being created around the technology itself and around the space. So when you think about the deployment of Blockchain as an example and the energy space, there are many regulations around how you can share energy and many of them are for protection but the distrusted ledger can actually work around consumer protection principles because you don’t have a central authority distributing energy anymore. If you don’t have that consumer protection becomes an interesting concept.

You still want to have that as a frame because I think that’s really important and obviously access to electricity is a fundamental, it’s a very important thing. If you don’t have a central authority that’s dispersing it and you can share it peer-to-peer what does that mean for consumer protection laws and do those laws pour over effectively into this new environment. So it’s those kinds of changes that we are trying to talk through with or get a lot of stakeholders in the room and we also think about, by the way, not just industry to be very clear, it’s labour, academics, civil society, really thinking thorough and inclusive model that embeds ethics and values in the development of these policies.

bitcoin necklace

Sheila, what do you make of the boom in cryptocurrency prices last year? We saw Bitcoin exploding. Several other cryptos are just going through the roof in a correction in December and it’s now beginning to look like the start of a crash but nobody knows.

You know and there are definitely others who are going to say more on this than I will but I will say I think every gold rush looks the same. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this and to me the takeaways are – you know, we don’t know if Bitcoin is Myspace or Facebook, we have no idea? We don’t know and I have an opinion on that, which is my personal opinion and many others have different opinions. So I think we just don’t know is right, but what I do know is that digital currency in some form is here to stay, you just don’t unring that bell.

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Similarly to the fact that once we had social media, we were always going to have social media, to me those distinctions are somewhat semantic, right like we have Blockchain, we’re never going to not have Blockchain; we have digital currency, we’re not going to not have digital currency. Now does that move into digital currency and away from cryptocurrency as they call it, do the number of ICOs wane? All those things to me are somewhat semantic because you don’t un-ring this bell. We’re in this world now, we should take advantage of this, of the exciting opportunities, this technology it affords us, and we should be doing that in a way that’s really thinking not about wealth creation, but about societal improvement.

What was it about Blockchain that attracted you to the space?

I have a civil society background, I’m also an attorney and in my last position I was working on a database for non-profit organisations and we realised that the sensitivity of the data we were collecting including such things like address location could be secured on Blockchain in a way that was actually going to be very beneficial to the organisations that we served. We also realised that we were in the business of distributing software licences and we realised that using smart contracts for that distribution was actually more efficient and it’s a more secure way of doing that. So once I, in my own brain divorced Bitcoin from Blockchain my brain began to explode with the potential for civil society and thinking through things like human trafficking, the environment, all these different kinds of opportunities that this technology can provide and to heal the world in many ways. I’m just super passionate about it.

Sheila, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you today, thank you very much.

Thank you Gareth. The pleasure’s mine.

Great, thank you. This podcast was made possible by Brightrock, the company that introduced the first ever needs-matched life insurance.