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Showcasing the Richness and Diversity of Digital Innovation
World Summit Awards
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Voices of Leaders
We are more than an editorial company. We are a socially-aware company formed by mindful individuals that are actively taking action for the good of the planet. We dedicate our efforts to empower everyone to not only be conscious, but also become proactive in what's happening in everyday life. As a B2B publisher, we inform and connect the voices of prominent leaders in innovation, sustainability, circular economy and impact investing through our exclusive digital magazine and a new B2B connecting feature.
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Blockchain for the greater good - March 2020
The World’s First Solar Energy-backed Currency
World Summit Awards
Across the Digital Divide
Blockchain towards a Circular Economy
Seeing Through the Supply Chain
“Everyone Needs the Lights to Stay On”
Blockchain from the Bottom Up
Spain’s Blockchain for Social Good Giants
Dr. Erick Tambo
Showcasing the Richness and Diversity of Digital Innovation
Spotlight on Uruguay
Click to hear the article,
voiced by author Javi Mínguez
Blockchain is data. Long, incredibly long strings of data that are in constant growth. What makes it so unique is how all of this data is organised in cyberspace.
Blockchain separates the information into pieces, or blocks to be specific, all of which are cryptographed to be of the same size (regardless of the original amount of information they held).
This cryptography is one of the reasons why the blockchain is so secure. By the use of “hash functions” (mathematical algorithms that package data of different sizes into strings of the same size) the information is packaged into cryptographic blocks that are almost impossible to invert (undoing the cryptograph to access the information). In this sense, blockchain is essentially a secure repository of information, transactions and interactions.
Blockchain is also proactive, it can react and initiate processes if certain preestablished parameters surpass a certain threshold, thus automating processes and protocols, all in a way that’s inalterable by malicious intents.
A new era of data management is unravelling in front of our very eyes - one where the possibilities of data management, privacy and security are all in the hands of the users. Through blockchain technology, we are leaping forwards into making a more transparent, safer society, all through the power of innovation.
It hardly comes as a surprise that the pace at which technology advances means it is difficult to keep up with it. Indeed, true to Moore’s law where the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, the trend in technological growth and computational power has clearly been exponential.
Since the 1970s, the number of transistors (little devices that act as switches to carry out the logic operations inside a chip) has gone up from about 2500 to a staggering 25 billion. No wonder the average highschool calculator nowadays has a superior computing power to the computer that guided the Apollo 11 to the moon 51 years ago.
In such a world of wonder, where the data processing capacities of hardware rise meteorically on a daily basis, storage and security of that data has become a crucial issue. Since 2008, blockchain technology has come to offer a solution to that and many other problems. Nevertheless, it’s quite odd how something which has been recognized across common language and integrated into our vernacular by 2020, is somehow so difficult to describe. Indeed, it is peculiar how you could ask almost anyone if they know what the blockchain is (to be answered by a rotund “yes”) only to provoke a rather uncomfortable situation if you request an exact definition or explanation.
So, here we are, to try and briefly explain what blockchain actually is.
Trillions of euros are spent every year to address social and environmental issues, yet there is still little data available on the actual impact of this funding. As such, public trust in charities have seen a dramatic decline over the past decade, reaching a new low in 2018 according to UK-based Charity Commission. Assuaging this decline in public trust was the initial spark of the idea behind Alice Si, a social tech enterprise that has become one
of the first companies in the world to employ blockchain technology to promote transparency in the social finance sector.
A finalist for the “Blockchains for Social Good” EIC Horizon Prize of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative, Alice has built a blockchain-based social financing platform that makes it easier and cheaper for organisations, impact investors and governments to fund projects with fully tracked impact data and impact reporting processes. This informs donors about the impact their money makes based on a “payment by results” mechanism, using smart contracts on the Ethereum public blockchain to lock up funds – in other words, it “freezes” donations until pre-defined goals are achieved. Say, if a charity promises to provide housing for the homeless, it will only receive the donations when that outcome has been met.
“It therefore guarantees that whoever is funding the service knows that something is being achieved with that money”, said Alice CEO Raphael Mazet in an interview with VoL. Before founding Alice, Mazet worked as a corporate and financial communications consultant, last working with a government relations firm helping multinationals shape the regulatory landscape in emerging markets. That led to setting up his first company focused on online advocacy and digital campaigning, “helping people do more than just like a Facebook page or sign a petition, and that led us to working with charities and social impact, and that’s how we got into Alice.” The platform has since enabled the likes of St. Mungo’s, a charity helping the homeless, secure a GBP5 million Social Impact Bond to help 175 homeless people in the UK over the course of 5 years, from 2017 to 2022.
In a conversation with Mazet, we navigated Alice’s earliest beginnings and key milestones, as well as its biggest challenges as it looks to unlocking a future of of possibilities with impact investment.
Voices of Leaders: How did Alice get started up?
Raphael Mazet: Our previous startup was all about helping people organise and campaign online, and that was working relatively well, but our business model required people to
Addessing homeless by ensuring impact | Photo by Srdjan Randjelovic
make donations as well as take action, and they just weren’t giving enough. So we started looking into that and saw that there was this increasing decline in public trust, that people were starting to become cynical about where they were donating, really worried about what the money was achieving, where it was being used. And that was the starting point for Alice: declining public trust, and how we could reverse that trend because it seemed like such a huge problem. That was the genesis of the idea that sparked the birth of Alice, but it’s obviously since then gone further than that. We started looking into impact investing and institutional funding, we saw that the decline in public trust is in all kinds of institutions, and then we started looking at data availability and data sharing problems. And really what we do at Alice now is to provide transparency into what is being achieved with money that’s used to fund social and environmental impact projects and make sure that the data about the effectiveness of these projects is very widely shared. That’s because that data helps cut down transaction costs, due diligence costs, impact measurement costs, while also tackling that very initial problem around public trust.
VoL: Could you explain to our readers just how the platform works and how it uses blockchain technology to track impact data?
RM: Let me tell you about the core mechanism, before getting into any considerations about blockchain technology. We’ve found that sometimes focusing too much on the tech can be a distraction from what we do. It’s a very overhyped technology, that elicits quite a lot of strong emotions, so
I’m going to leave the blockchain aside for just one second.
Really what the whole platform or protocol is predicated on is a kind of “payment by results” mechanism. So whenever you’re funding something, the money is only paid out when pre-defined goals are achieved. If there’s a charity that says they’re going to find a homeless person a home, they’re only going to receive the money as when the outcomes are achieved. That therefore guarantees that whoever is funding the social service knows that something is being achieved with that money. That’s the basic starting point.
Where the impact investment side comes in, is a bit like a cashflow financing mechanism. You probably know what Social Impact Bonds are. The idea is that there’s a sum of money committed to pay for a social service, but it will only be paid once it’s achieved. So if you’re providing that service, what you need is working capital up front to start that service done, and so we allow you take out a loan from impact investors against your future payments. Then what our technology does is that investors automatically get their loan paid back by receiving the future cashflow instead of the social service provider.
Where the blockchain technology itself comes in, is in several places. The first is the most fundamental: transparency. Everything is recorded on chain. No private or sensitive data, but all the performance data: the goals that the social organisation achieve are visible to everybody, along with how much has been paid out. So it makes it really simple for people to then go and audit what’s going on and to extract that information. In terms of restoring trust in social organisations, that’s really key.
Donations | Photo by Lemon Tree Images
Especially in the Ethereum space, there’s a huge and very supportive community of really passionate and dedicated people with one big thing in common which is that all code is open source.
CEO of Alice
The second element of why we use blockchain technology is to automate that entire process. So it’s kind of an RPA (Robotic Process Automation) for social impact finance: when a social organisation achieves a goal, it needs to make a claim and submit proof to a validator. When the validator verifies that, it triggers not only the payments, but also the reporting. That’s important because right now, a lot of the impact reporting done in the social sector is manual, which creates high transaction costs. What we’re trying to do at scale is to reduce a lot of those transaction costs that are involved with setting up a social project and then administering.
VoL: One theme that we seem to be coming across as well is a lot of businesses, and not just tech businesses, are using blockchain technology to talk a lot about this issue of transparency. Has that created a kind of sense of community in the tech sector, particularly those working with blockchain?
RM: Absolutely, especially in the ethereum space, there’s a huge and very supportive community of really passionate and dedicated people with one big thing in common which is that all code is open source. So there’s no real alternative to collaborating, when you’re working in that kind of environment, because your code is there to be used, be reused and be remixed, and what you’re really looking for is for people to build on top of it and add to it, and help debug it. Certainly, probably the biggest use cases in the Ethereum community is decentralised finance where there’s a huge focus on trying to empower people, to give them more agency, freedom and more
control of their data for their finances, and there’s certainly quite a few projects that are focused on funding public goods, public infrastructure, the charity sector and all the rest. And what tends to happen is a lot of collaboration. We’re part of the Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition (BSIC) for example, which is a big global association that brings together blockchain companies and impact funds, non-profits and all the rest. We’re also part of Blockchain for Humanity, it’s another collective of different companies that are working to tackle transparency, efficiency, and just generally increasing the amount of money that goes to social environmental projects – all tackling it in different ways, and in ways that are often very complementary.
VoL: What would you say are Alice’s proudest achievements since your foundation?
RM: There have been quite a few things we’ve been really proud of, the latest one was being finalists of the EU’s Blockchains for Social Good prize, because obviously that is an award recognising what we’ve accomplished in this journey so far. About a year after we started working on Alice, we launched the very first real world use of a stablecoin for a payment by results project on a public blockchain, it was completely regulated, working with a partner called Tramonex in the FCA (UK financial regulator) sandbox
If change needs to happen, I don’t think it’s in the tech sector, but rather in the impact investment sector. People need to allocate more funds to social and environmental projects – we need that. And I think the two are very synergistic, technology advances are helping unlock this capital and that’s something that’s going to happen little by little.
CEO of Alice Si
Tradeable impact investments | Photo by Alice Si
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selects and promotes outstanding digital innovations with a positive impact on society.
Chairing the WSA is Peter Bruck, who heads the International Center for New Media (ICNM) of the Austrian government, which launched the WSA to showcase the richness and diversity of the creative use of ICTs to the global UN family of states and delegates. Since 1996, Peter initiated a number of activities
“Hack the Gap” is the motto and of the 2020 World Summit Awards (WSA) Global Congress hosted this year in Vienna, Austria. It is a fitting call to action combat the recent developments of global digital media – tainted with fake news, cyber-attacks, online bullying and populist mobilisations – with positive social impact. Such is the underlying message of the WSA, a UN-based global award initiative that
to develop best practice in new media and e-content including the Austrian State Prize for Multimedia and e-Business, the Europrix MultiMediaArt – the leading contest for the selection and promotion of e-content creation in Europe – and the UN World Summit Award on e-content and creativity with participation from 184 countries.
In an interview with VoL, Peter talked about the intensified role of the WSA in highlighting the role of digital innovation in finding solutions to some of the world’s most critical socio-economic problems today.
Voices of Leaders: Since its foundation, what do you feel have been the WSA’s greatest achievements?
Peter Bruck: In 2003, WSA was launched as part of the UN World Summit on the Information Society as an Austrian initiative, carried out by the ICNM, on behalf of the Federal Government. We started with participants from 40 countries in the first year.
WSA is now active in 180 countries. A global network of ICT experts locally makes the preliminary nominations for global competition. This enables WSA to present a unique variety of solutions. In the first few years, the award winners were often large companies or government organizations, now 70% of the award-winning innovations come from start-ups, social ventures and innovative companies. The participants and the network have also rejuvenated overall.
From a politically-initiated project with the mandate to report on e-content best practices worldwide, the WSA has developed into a globally recognised seal of quality for digital innovation through close cooperation with United Nations organisations and the strategic alignment to the UN SDGs. Starting as Austria’s contribution to the United Nations, the WSA has developed into a global network of people who want to achieve positive change with ICT.
VoL: There have been many winners and nominations over the years with incredible impacts in their respective fields. Which winners or nominees have really stood out for you?
PB: The most exciting thing about WSA is not that it’s a single project, but the diversity
and innovation of the projects every year. It shows how a simple SMS-based solution in a country in Africa can have a similar social impact as an app based on Artificial Intelligence in Europe.
The creative use of ICT and the inspired variety of solutions open my eyes every year. I see WSA, which I manage as a volunteer Chairman in my spare time, as a source of inspiration and knowledge, and every year I learn through the projects created and developed around the world.
VoL: What is the role of the WSA Global Congress, and what were your key takeaways from the last Congress?
PB: WSA is a global initiative within the UN. As a result, we have been to over 32 countries with our events. It is also about involving as many regions as possible to achieve global inclusion and promotion. In the seventeenth WSA year, it is Austria’s turn, thanks to the invitation of the City of Vienna.
Last year, WSA and its Portuguese partners APDC, the City of Cascais and Nova SBE brought together digital creatives and social entrepreneurs from all corners of the world whose focus is purpose before profit.
At the WSA Global Congress, you always enter a transformative learning journey and join a global, multi-stakeholder community. You will discuss the possibilities of purpose- driven innovation and see bestpractice from around the world.
Every event holds its own magic, but what I learnt foremost in Portugal, was that innovation comes primarily not from the pursuit of profit and quick money, but from commitment to avoid suffering and alleviate need. This results in sustainable positive transformations of our society.
VoL: What are you looking forward to for the next awards? What do you hope to see in a WSA winner?
PB: WSA is about positive social impact. Recent developments with fake news, populist voter mobilizations, hate postings, online bullying and cyber-attacks show the negative sides of digital creativity and global availability. WSA is therefore even more important today than when it started in 2003.
We achieve social or societal impact when new, innovative solutions are found for problems and challenges in society. It is not the quick cash that counts, but the sustainable benefit for as many people as possible – when innovative solutions to local problems are found, with the involvement of the relevant interest groups.
Let me give you an example. In Cameroon, prenatal care and education in large areas is completely inadequate and the mortality rate of newborns and mothers is immense. WSA Young Innovators winner “GiftedMom” has developed an app solution. Correct medical information on birth and pregnancy is offered to mothers, they are brought into contact with doctors and reminded of important appointments with the help of an SMS service.
Digital technology doesn’t have to be complex or “high performing” to save lives and make a real difference. It must be based on need, on the problem. This is how I understand the term impact. In many cases, social potential cannot be recorded in numbers, but rather in the effect of positive and, above all, sustainable social change.
VoL: What changes and developments would you like to see in the world of local digital innovation?
PB: Digitization has made access to information easier on one side and enabled people to live faster and more efficiently. But this access does not apply to everyone and has created new challenges with data theft, fake news and the lack of distribution. 59% of the world population access the Internet, which makes relevant content and sustainable applications that enable global knowledge transfer and added value for society even more essential.
Only through close and strategic cooperation can resources and networks be used effectively. In the rapidly changing, highly networked and digitized world, the creation
of positive social, economic and ecological change requires the cooperation of a large number of interested groups from the digital society and economy. We need to eliminate the digital and social differences that are delaying development and harming people and communities.
The WSA helps to connect people with this goal at eye level and to involve large corporations and organizations such as the United Nations.
VoL: Amid the advocacy and knowledge sharing done by WSA, especially in relation to UN SDGs, are you optimistic that this necessity for change is sinking into the collective consciousness (including politicians, the private sector and consumers)?
PB: The UN SDGs encourage global action by 2030 in three major issues: ending poverty, combatting climate change and fight injustice and inequality. ICT and digital content form an essential catalyst in driving rapid transformation of nearly every aspect of our lives, but it is the creative and adequate use of ICT that proves to be a powerful enabler of the 17 SDGs.
WSA combines two major perspectives in its initiative – first the commitment on the UN SDGs, and how to use ICTs to development. And second the development of a global knowledge society. The UN SDGs must be our measurement – in terms of what to look at and where to look. Today we are living in a completely different environment – through the mobile revolution, through the emergence of the algorithmic age – data has become capital as much as labour, land money and machinery.
Hence, it is more important than ever to evaluate what is excellent content that really offers solutions and impact. Qualitative, local content has become the key and permanent issue. WSA presents innovation that uses ICT for social connectivity. The challenge is and remains: bridging the worldwide divides such as access, education, gender or wealth. Digital innovation combined with the focus on solving local challenges enables a positive, sustainable value for society.
The World Summit on Information Society process towards 2025 is the framework for
WSA and all our shared efforts and work to promote, select and award best practice in content-driven interactive digital applications and solutions. The WSA gets a very broad view about rich and creative content from all over the world and narrows the content gap, gender gap, knowledge divide and skills divide. All social entrepreneurs share the perspective that it is crucial to build the right community, reach users, attract an audience. Technology is not the issue.
Community means a lot of different things but needs to be built by each new project or enterprise. WSA has built a unique global network of experts and ambassadors supporting young social entrepreneurs, developers and change makers and promoting the WSA social entrepreneurs and start-ups worldwide. In a significant and recognized contribution to the UN objectives and the (SDG), WSA is a key factor to give digital innovators a unique opportunity to join a global network of knowledge and inspiration.
I think this is the key to real change, to not wait for something to sink in to the top, but to inspire the passion for change bottom-up. And in the WSA winners and the WSA partners, you can see and feel this will and inspiration of change.
VoL: What is the kind of leadership you wish to see in the coming decade? Both within the field of digital innovation and in a wider sense, taking the public and private sector as a whole?
PB: The world is not fair and the expectations of digitisation from 20 years ago have been disappointing in many aspects. Not everything will get better on its own with the Internet, web and social media. This applies to income inequality between women and men as well as between rich and poor countries. In addition, it becomes screamingly clear that humanity is depriving itself of its livelihoods and producing a climate catastrophe.
The 45 WSA winners of 2019 were selected from the submissions of over 120 UN member states in a three-stage process. These winners are no unicorns, but they show how they can use their technical and design skills to reduce global gaps – in a wide variety of areas such as climate protection and education, health or gender equality, democratic participation and social inclusion.
And this is what I want to see in the coming decade – leadership encouraging positive change and the braveness to tackle real problems.
We need to use digital innovation and creativity to contribute to relieve poverty, combat climate change, injustice and inequality. Digitisation can do more than just make modern life more convenient and efficient.
CEO of Alice
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Through talking to the likes of Alice Si, The Common Good Chain, SolarCoin Foundation, Unblocked Cash Project, Circularise — we can get an idea of the type of values and innovation that NGI (Next Generation Internet) hopes to advocate in their selection of the finalists for the Blockchain For Social Good Awards.
To gain a further understanding of NGI´s values, their link to the European Union and the Blockchain For Social Good Awards, we spoke to Olivier Bringer, Head of Unit at European Commission.
Voices of Leaders: Could you give us a brief background about the NGI Initiative — the reasons behind its establishment in 2016, and key milestones over the past 4 years?
Olivier Bringer: The reason for launching the NGI initiative was the lack of trust of many Europeans in the internet, following revelations about the exploitation of personal data, large-scale cybersecurity and data breaches, and growing awareness of online disinformation. Many stakeholders, from the civil society, governments, the technical community, but also the industry were calling for a restart of the internet, in terms of the technologies, the business models and social impact.
While Europe had replied to these concerns mainly through regulation (on data protection, illegal content or cybersecurity), we felt that technology and innovation also needed to be part of the answer. Privacy-enhancing technologies, decentralised data governance, or technologies supporting accessibility help users regain control — of their data, of their online interactions — and can restore trust in the internet.
To build an internet that meets the expectations of European citizens, we needed the collective vision and the engagement of all stakeholders: researchers, innovators, civil society and businesses. We needed to gather and discuss concepts, technologies and applications coming from the largest possible community.
We launched the Next Generation Internet initiative firstly as a conversation among a broad community of stakeholders. They helped us build a comprehensive vision putting the human at the centre of the internet. Since then we have been working on implementing this vision: with the right regulatory framework and the right investment incentives.
At the core of the NGI initiative is an ambitious research and innovation programme with funding of more than €250 million in the period 2018-2020. The funding covers a broad set of advanced technologies including privacy and trust, interactive technologies, Internet of Things, as well as technologies supporting multilingualism and accessibility.
As part of NGI, we have put in place the mechanisms — so-called cascading grants — to ensure that we attract the talents who contribute to our vision. Too often top internet innovators are not associated with European funding because of perceived high barriers to entry. We lowered these barriers by offering funding opportunities cutting across technologies for accessible, small, focused and agile projects. €75 million are directly supporting innovators (e.g. individual researchers, open source developers, start-ups) who are developing the concrete building blocks of the internet of tomorrow. After one year of operation (the first NGI projects started in 2019) we have close to 300 innovators at work, which we consider a big success.
We regularly post blogs of individual NGI innovators who present their projects on the
Looking ahead, the Commission has proposed that NGI is an intervention area in Horizon Europe, the next research and innovation framework programme (2021-2027), with a view to support in an integrated way the evolution of internet technologies, infrastructures and applications.
VoL: What is the role of the European Commission in the establishment of the NGI?
OB: Our role is firstly to develop the right policy framework. We have set up our key objectives for the next 5 years in the recently published strategy on Shaping Europe’s digital future, which aims to build a European society powered by digital solutions that put people first, open up new opportunities for businesses, and boost the development of trustworthy technology to foster an open and democratic society.
Technology investment is a key part of this this strategy. For what concerns NGI, we have set up a 10-year investment plan under Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe, which will also build on EU investments in data infrastructures, Artificial Intelligence, or cybersecurity.
But changing the global internet is not something we can do on our own. We need the involvement of all stakeholders to make it possible. A key role for the Commission is therefore to convene the largest possible community of stakeholders to build the Next Generation Internet. We do it by engaging with key communities: the innovators and the start-ups; the researchers; the open source community; the governments and the policy makers; the citizens and civil society. This continuous dialogue has been instrumental in developing and implementing our vision for the future internet.
The emergence of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things are already transforming the global job market. What are some of NGI’s strategic initiatives to make the Internet future more human-centric in spite of such advanced technologies that can take over a range of human tasks?
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The impact of digital on the job market is a horizontal issue, addressed in the Commission digital strategy. It includes a Digital Education Action Plan to boost digital literacy and competences at all levels of education and a reinforced Skills Agenda to strengthen digital skills throughout society.
This is a priority area for the Commission and it goes hand in hand with technology initiatives like NGI.
For example, the recent White Paper on Artificial Intelligence proposes to develop concrete measures to develop the skills necessary to work in AI and to upskill the workforce to be prepared for the AI transformation. Particular efforts will be undertaken to increase the number of women trained and employed in this area.
VoL: Could you elaborate on the role of European values that underpin NGI’s overall mission?
OB: NGI is a value-driven technology initiative. This is because Europe has important cultural and societal values and we believe they should frame the digital transformation. As the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said it in her political guidelines: “I want Europe to strive for more by grasping the opportunities from the digital age within safe and ethical boundaries”. In line with our values, we want to build an internet that is trustworthy, resilient, sustainable and inclusive.
To ensure trust we want to design an internet that empowers users with choice and control on the use of their data. One of the goals of NGI is to turn the GDPR into a practical reality for citizens. This will be done by developing new data governance systems and technologies that allow people to control the use of their personal data. In the future internet, people should have full transparency on the use of their data and be able to choose to contribute to social good by sharing their data in areas as diverse as health, democracy, environment, or mobility. This is essential to unleash the power of data both economically and socially. Accordingly, NGI invests in privacy-enhancing technologies, decentralised data governance, or self-sovereign identity.
On resilience, we need to do much more to ensure the security of our networks, of our data and our applications. NGI will look into securing the internet core architecture and protocols, to provide a secure global communication platform to the end-users.
On the sustainability of the Internet, we need to make a special effort to develop green architectures and technologies to minimise electricity consumption and to reduce the carbon footprint of the Internet. We also want to use the internet as the medium of choice to collectively address sustainability challenges, by better exploiting the knowledge and the data of millions of internet and social media end-users.
Finally, a human-centric Internet should reflect the openness, diversity and the inclusion that are at the core of European values. Europeans, irrespective of their age and physical condition should be able to interact seamlessly with each other and their online environment with the help of adapted interfaces and AI agents. NGI will invest in language and accessibility technologies for that purpose.
VoL: How does the “Blockchains for Social Good” competition achieve Horizon 2020 and ultimately the EU’s goal to advance and secure Europe’s global competitiveness?
OB: The Blockchains for Social Good EIC Horizon Prize aims at exploring and stimulating the application of one of the most promising network technology to social areas going beyond its traditional application to the financial and insurance domains. As such, it aims to create the ground for the new economic and social models that can benefit from the decentralisation opportunities offered by Blockchains.
By awarding 1 million euro each to the 5 innovators that come up with the most promising Blockchain solutions to different social good areas, the competition aims to foster the development of decentralised social innovations beneficial for the European society and economy. The predefined prize criteria emphasize that the solutions should concretely deliver social impact, while being environmentally, technically and economically sustainable, be scalable or replicable, and be beneficial for European citizens.
The areas covered in the price are: (1) traceability & fair trade, (2) transparency of public processes, (3) decentralised circular economy, (4) management of public records, (5) financial inclusion, (6) aid & philanthropy, (7) energy, (8) health and (9) quality content. Innovation in these areas will underpin more user-centric business models where citizens have control over their data and privacy and where smaller players stand better chances to compete with dominant platforms. This, together with innovations in the Blockchain technology itself, has the potential to increase European competitiveness.
VoL: Related to the previous question, what is the significance of linking blockchain technology with achieiving the SDGs / positive social and environmental impacts?
OB: Blockchain is a very promising and potentially very powerful technology. By supporting a decentralised way of sharing data and by guaranteeing the execution of transactions between multiple parties without the need for a central party, blockchain can allow communities of end-users to address sustainability challenges and hence help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals
This was well reflected in the topics addressed by this contest, the first to explicitly focus on “Social Good” applications of blockchains. The massive participation (178 applications submitted) makes us think that there is a large interest and impact potential for Blockchain in the field of SDGs.
In the future, we plan to include relevant SDGs as key objectives for our actions in the field, and define technological priorities against concrete sustainability challenges.
VoL: Apart from prestige, what would the winners of the EIC Horizon 2020 “Blockchains for Social Good” competition gain? What has been the impact on past winners?
OB: The financial reward of 1 million euros will give the winners the opportunity to spread and improve their solutions, improve the area they are active in, market their products in new regions, invest in technological equipment, scale up their team, or expand to other applications.
Prize winners will also gain visibility. This was already the case at the finalists’ day, when 23 innovators could present their individual solutions and how they address concrete sustainability challenges. It will continue through the award ceremony and the other events which will be announced in the coming months.
It is worth pointing out that one of the Prize requirement was to submit solutions developed in Open Source. This will enable more innovators to benefit from free-to use advanced technological solutions developed by prize winners and finalists.
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A volcanic eruption in the Philippines was what first sparked the idea for the Unblocked Cash Project platform. Having been in contact with some of the evacuees in real time on Facebook Messenger, Sempo Co-CEO Nick Williams relayed that they were desperate to buy water and gas masks, and needed fuel for their generators, but there was just no way to send them money. “It was bizarre, because we had this
Click to hear the interview, voiced by Nick Williams
Local community store in Vanuatu | Photo by Keith Parsons/OxfamAUS
Local community store in Vanuatu | Photo by Keith Parsons/OxfamAUS
connectivity and yet the one missing link should have been the simplest thing, which is to have money to buy water and masks”, he said. “We were speaking to a lady who was evacuating, and she told me not to even bother sending us money because they didn’t even have a bank account.” What did have a bank account however was the local community store, and that’s when he had an epiphany.
“We thought that this was a pretty cool idea, because we could actually set up this arrangement for everyone in that community, and just have everyone buy whatever they wanted. Doing bulk transfers to the store would be really cheap, and we will have been able to meet everyone’s needs”, said Williams. “The thing that was missing was basically an easy way to actually track that spend, and so we created this credit tracking process where you basically received this through credits or a hotline.” The initial prototype for the platform was born.
Learning from the very people affected by crises on the ground has been the modus operandi of the Unblocked Cash Project, a social impact collaboration between Sempo,
Oxfam and Consensys, and one of the finalists of the “Blockchains for Social Good” EIC Horizon Prize of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative. The platform was first launched in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, where they went in with a touch-to-pay card. They eventually discovered that the Syrian refugees had a very high level of technological literacy, and even expressed their preference for an app for facilitating the transfer. The platform was eventually introduced in remote communities Vanuatu, Iraqi Kurdistan and Kenya, where they worked with NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance.
The platform is based on Stablecoin, a cryptocurrency pegged or tracked to the value of a certain currency, which can be distributed and redeemed anywhere in the world.
“So it’s this incredibly transparent and trustworthy form that becomes valuable and is valued all around the world, which is a real paradigm shift”, expresses Williams. In a conversation with VoL, he shared his proudest moments and memorable experiences on the ground, as well as their biggest challenges in
scaling the project.
VoL: How did the collaboration between Sempo, Oxfam and Consensys come about to found the Unblocked Cash Project?
Nick Williams: What was awesome about the Unblocked Cash Project was that there was this convergence of both Sempo and Oxfam identifying the problem quite independently and deciding that it really needed to be tackled. [Oxfam] were in need of a technological partner to build the technology, we were in need of an NGO to help us implement best practice cash transfers, and so it worked out perfectly. We identified the problem in the early days of Sempo, we thought it would be a good learning experience for us trying to get cash to people affected by humanitarian crises.
VoL: Are there any plans of scaling in the horizon?
NW: The biggest thing that stops us from just scaling arbitrarily is that at the end of the day, we’re an organisation that has decided – contrary to the cryptocurrency philosophy – that we quite like to work as closely within government regulatory expectations as possible. It’s not taking the crypto-anarchist point of view. What this means is that hitting compliance in each region is a non-trivial effort. We need to be selective around where we launch, to a certain aspect.
One of the things where I had become really interested in this company, and I think Oxfam shares some of this vision, is that a lot of the communities where we work in really could benefit from just a greater level of financial inclusion. When we were in Vanuatu, they’d introduced plastic bank notes recently, rather than paper ones, and people in the communities told us that the most exciting thing about the plastic bank notes was that you could bury them in the ground for long without them rotting – which is what savings looks like for a lot of these communities. We were working with Oxfam team members who
... even outside of crisis situations, these communities have really been neglected when it comes to financial inclusion and we’d really love to do our part in helping those communities grow their prosperity and really provide women with a lot of tools that we take for granted.
Co-CEO of Sempo
Using the Oxfam card | Photo by Keith Parsons/OxfamAUS
One of the things where I had become really interested in this company, and I think Oxfam shares some of this vision, is that a lot of the communities where we work in really could benefit from just a greater level of financial inclusion.
Co-CEO of Sempo
were sending money home to their families and losing 20% of that money in overhead, due to transfer fees. Which is to say even outside of crisis situations, these communities have really been neglected when it comes to financial inclusion and we’d really love to do our part in helping those communities grow their prosperity and really provide women with a lot of tools that we take for granted.
VoL: Could you explain how blockchain technology powers the platform?
NW: I see blockchain currency as the natural extension on physical currency, which is to say that when you look at digital finance currently, it’s actually not really that similar to money in that when you have money in a bank account, there’s a bank and it’s designed to add a
bunch of 1s or 0s to your account and then it’s entirely at their discretion how they lend those numbers. Blockchain takes this idea of this one central database that is controlled by one organisation and basically says, why don’t we duplicate that record of every single person’s balance over multiple devices or institutions so that it’s impossible for one organisation to tamper with those records or censor those records.
VoL: Along the same line, what cryptocurrency is being used in the platform?
NW: The type of cryptocurrency we’re particularly interested in is something called a Stablecoin. I’d like to think of it as an evolution of Bitcoin, which is the commonly referred to cryptocurrency - the problem
Sandra Hart, Pacific Cash & Livelihoods Lead for Oxfam and Nick Williams,Co-CEO of Sempo | Photos by Keith Parsons/OxfamAUS
with Bitcoin is that it’s very interesting from a speculation point of view, because its price goes up and down a trillion miles an hour, but it’s pretty useless for lower income communities who just need to know that the amount of money in their pocket is going to remain roughly constant over the period of a week.
If you’re a vendor or a supplier or you’re running very tight margins, you can’t afford to take a payment and for that payment to be worth half as much as it was a week ago, or a day ago. So what we use is Stablecoin, which takes this idea of a record where it’s a distributed ledger, so it’s recorded across multiple devices. Whereas Bitcoin have this fundamentally fluctuating value, StableCoin is pegged or tracked to the value of a US dollar, or a Kenyan shilling, or the Vanuatu vatu and track that instead. This leaves us in a really interesting place, because it means that you can distribute it, you can have this standardised recognition that this is a Vanuatu vatu or a US dollar on the blockchain, you can give that to someone and because it is on the distributed ledger, they don’t even need to trust you or have a correct database. They can then go and redeem that anywhere on the planet where the infrastructure is in place or for a US dollar. So it’s this incredibly transparent and trustworthy form that becomes valuable and is valued all around the world, which is a real paradigm shift.
So this international recognition of the value on this coin because it doesn’t need to be trusted by one institution is very powerful and the thing that we also get on top of that is the transparency of it, which actually contributes to regulations. It’s quite different from the way we think about Bitcoin, which has traditionally been used to get around regulation. To suggest that blockchain can actually help us to make a more transparent, more compliant financial process that is validating, is super exciting to me.
VoL: What would you say are your proudest achievements since founding the project?
NW: Taking it live in Vanuatu. That first moment of someone purchasing something with the platform in Vanuatu was just really thrilling to see that we managed to take something that was previously a fringe idea we now have an internationally regarded
NGO using government funds towards cryptocurrency to help people provide assistance to one of the most isolated communities on the planet. That was a really big moment for me.
VoL: On the other hand, what would you say have been your biggest challenges so far?
NW: I think regulation and compliance just around blockchain is still in its very early days and when people talk about watching a cryptocurrency, the first thing in people’s minds still jumps to Bitcoin to this day. Bitcoin is a 10 year old technology, it is literally a decade old, think about what the iPhone looked like in 2009! So I think to show that the technology while it still does that has moved beyond that and show regulators that there’s actually all this potential that isn’t really threatening to them, they can actually help make sure that money remains a public good, and communicating that is really hard. That’s the biggest existential threat to Sempo and what we worry about the most is just making sure we communicate regulation or we can set up regulation boundaries.
VoL: What would be your strategic vision for the next 3 to 5 years?
NW: One of the things that I didn’t love about cash transfer programming is that you run this program, you spool it up, you have this platform that’s running very smoothly and then when cash transfer funds run out,
It’s this incredibly transparent and trustworthy form that becomes valuable and is valued all around the world, which is a real paradigm shift.
Co-CEO of Sempo
you shut the platform down again. It’s a flash in the pan of excitement, it’s designed for temporal assistance. Strategically, I’d love to see Sempo really engaging long-term inside the community. So I want to see us working inside somewhere like Vanuatu or Kenya where we can just contribute in the long run to communities’ prosperities. And that’s where I’d like to see us really growing into.
VoL: Do you have any final message you’d like to share with our international readers?
NW: Most people in developed regions really don’t need blockchain, that’s not the solution, that’s not where we’re going to see it. The value is going to be for everyone else, I hope this is where we’ll see that change. Blockchain sheds its shackles of being a tool for rich
people to speculate on and something that creates genuine change, and I think people should be looking out for that because when it happens I think it can be really exciting and I think it could really make a big positive impact in the world.
Vanuatu unblocked cash pilot | Photos by Keith Parsons/OxfamAUS
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Blockchain, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence are all exciting new technologies which can bring about any number of changes within numerous fields, and there are few who are better qualified than Dr Erick Tambo to highlight how exactly these technologies can be applied. Associated with both the Institute of Environment and Human Security of United Nations University and the Pan-African University Institute for Water and Energy Sciences (incl. Climate Change) of the African Union, Dr. Tambo’s expertise spans across several technological areas,
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voiced by Dr. Erick Tambo
Project from the RARSUS (Risk Assessment and Reduction Strategies for Sustainable Urban Resource Supply in Sub-Saharan Africa) | Photo by UNU-EHS / Austin Gonzalez
Photo by UNU-EHS
particularly e-learning and how it can help developing countries. His projects include investigation into educational capacity-building in water, energy and food in Niger and Mali, appropriated technological innovations as well as research management in context of institutional capacity-building.
Dr. Tambo is excited about the potential of these new technologies to build capacity and leapfrog classical development pathway in multiple sectors for both social and environmental impact. Whilst enthused by both progress and promise of the technology sector, there are still discrepancies, which are not to be ignored.
Dr. Tambo certainly did not ignore them when he spoke to VoL about the application of these new technologies, as well as what aspects of the sector can be improved to ensure better opportunity, access, and inclusivity both in how technology can be used and in the context of progress within the sector itself. He offered us some visions of the future, other visions through different lenses, and some insights from the other side of the digital divide.
Voices of Leaders: How can e-learning support climate crisis action and general positive causes?
Erick Tambo: There’s a wide range of areas where educational technology can play a role in strengthening capacity and sharing experiences of different stakeholders in different sectors.
Depending on where you are, e-learning, both in terms of conventional learning in a formal setting and in an informal setting, can play an important role. Serious games
and simulation, learning with social media (Youtube, Facebook, etc.) are among other example educational technologies which can be used for disaster preparedness. Another example of educational technology in informal settings could be using a community radio, voice messaging or SMS to strengthen competencies of illiterate people. It is important to use different tools that are appropriate to different specific groups.
One of the main benefits of e-learning is that you can address a wide range of stakeholders in any location at any time. In formal settings, it can also be used to create customised online training programmes for policy makers and/or practitioners to enhance their productivity or support them in making evidence based policy recommendations.
Another example could be creating moderated communities practice with the example of setting up an online platform where farmers can share agricultural practices and their experiences on climate change adaptation with other farmers.
VoL: Could you to talk to us about your views on the “Digital Divide”?
ET: When we are talking about digital devices, we can say that on one side, there is some good development, but there is still a gap in quality and services when you compare the global North and the global South.
If you look, for example in Africa, mobile devices have created a lot of opportunities in terms of entrepreneurship, leapfrogging technology and mobile banking which may give you the feeling that everything is good. But if you are looking from the accessibility perspective for example, in the continent, having a mobile phone doesn’t necessarily mean you will have good and cheap access
to the Internet. In Cameroon, for example, a monthly Internet flat rate could be much more expensive than here in Germany. And the people in Cameroon have a significantly lower income, so there we have an example of a digital divide in access and cost.
Also in terms of hardware, in the African context, you have Internet but not the appropriate bandwidth to have the same services to watch a video, for example.
VoL: What changes would you like to see from the technology industry to narrow that divide, and have you seen any standout examples of companies/organisations taking steps to do so?
ET: I think technology in general, particularly frontier technology — Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Blockchain, Internet of Things —provides very good opportunities for developing countries to create jobs and employability. And I think the industry should play a role in enabling development, in terms of infrastructures, in terms of funding, in terms of supporting innovation coming out of these sectors — because it’s also in their own interest. Africa should not only be seen as a potential consumer. We need more investment to build the capacity of the young people and more investment in infrastructure in order to make the best use of this technology, create local respectively Pan African market with Africa’s led innovators and entrepreneurs and therefore support the development process of the continent.
VoL: Amongst the new technologies you mentioned was blockchain. What do you think blockchain’s potential is for social and environmental good?
Africa should not only be seen as a potential consumer. We need more investment to build the capacity of the young people and more investment in infrastructure in order to make the best use of this technology, create local respectively Pan African market with Africa’s led innovators and entrepreneurs and therefore support the development process of the continent.
Dr. Erick Tambo