Blockchain has already improved companies’ ability to track the movement of goods. But what if we use it to track how people experience work? That could unlock an entirely different perspective on global supply chain dynamics. It’s now easy to envision a more efficient future in logistics through emerging decentralized technologies that help improve procurement practices and enable businesses to increase transparency about where products were manufactured, how they were delivered and under what conditions.
Allison Price is a senior adviser to the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative at New America. This op-ed is part of CoinDesk’s “Policy Week,” a forum for discussing how regulators are reckoning with crypto (and vice versa).
There are potential upsides for businesses, workers and consumers. But it’s equally important to also weigh the challenges and potential impacts. A healthy balance must be struck between the creative dreamers envisioning a beautiful decentralized future and the question-asking pragmatists who are responsible for effectuating it safely. Thoughtful, inclusive debate is the key to forging a more equitable future supported by technology companies, governments and communities designing together.
Over the past two years, a coalition led by New America, Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, ConsenSys and the Levi Strauss Foundation have collaborated to develop a new approach to factory worker well-being assessments.
By integrating the SHINE Well-Being Survey into a secure blockchain platform that can be deployed in person or remotely, workers are empowered to safely share their workplace experiences. The minimum viable product (MVP), Survey Assure, aggregated survey responses from workers and protected them with the Ethereum blockchain creating an immutable record. The system used this protected aggregated data to create a visual presentation of survey results, which reflect the opinions of an entire factory workforce in close to real time.
This approach wasn’t your typical supply chain tracking pilot. The unvarnished nature of the anonymized survey data of factory workers in Poland and Mexico created tremendous potential for workers, business and human rights. It helped factory management better pinpoint where potential investments could improve worker experiences. These interventions and management’s subsequent actions have the potential to decrease turnover and absenteeism while improving sustainable and productive practices.
This solution couldn’t be more timely as organizations focus more on the health and well-being of workers in the coronavirus pandemic recovery era. And although we were meticulous in testing the concept safely and ethically, it will be far more difficult to do at scale.
This experimental pilot project was ambitious. Blockchain may be going more mainstream, but harnessing it for non-fintech applications is still nascent. We encountered challenges around costs, ease of use, data digitization and integration, engineering talent, literacy, reliable internet access, the lack of hardware needed to take a survey, and an unprecedented global pandemic that has disrupted not just supply chains but also workers’ lives.
But there is real and often unrealized value in identifying what complicates innovation. It allows us to explore where there is need for additional research, structure and investment. We learned a few lessons in civic tech development from our experiences that apply beyond the improvement of supply chains.
Invest in digital infrastructure. If high-bandwidth connectivity and accurate digitized records remain largely restricted to industrialized countries, the impact of blockchain technology will be significantly limited. Access to technology and data remains an issue. About 40% of the world’s population remains offline, according to Statista. Accurately converting physical data to digital form is expensive, time consuming and, most critically, must be done with care. If blockchain is to achieve its full potential as an open, democratic technology, public- and private-sector investment in interoperable but protected data is a core need in both developing and developed countries.
Develop safe and effective identity solutions. Blockchain-based platforms require an integrated identity management solution to authenticate users and maintain accountability. By providing a verifiable identity, many of the services governments and nonprofits provide, including aid distribution, land titling and financial services, could become more accessible and manageable. If developing identity solutions was simple, it would have been done by now. The development of a secure proof-of-identity that integrates with emerging systems and protects the end user could transform the lives of the one billion people worldwide without a legal identity.
Nurture inclusive technical talent and field building. Analogous to the field of computer science a generation ago, only a few programmers and tech firms understand blockchain technology, and they concentrate on applications that are immediately profitable. As the field grows, cross-sector blockchain projects, including those that are in the public interest, would benefit from public-private sector partnerships, fellowship programs, academia and open civic hackathons. Blockchain technology must attract new leaders who see that it has the potential to offer solutions to today’s toughest, most intractable challenges.