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Tech for Good 2.0

There is a strong argument that, until very recently, social economy organisations were laggards with regards to technological advancements. Sure we’ve seen informal groups and even lobbying campaigns spring up on social media, but only after the advertisers got in and made theirs the native model.

It is sometimes easy to forget that Facebook and Twitter are not public services, but large, centralised and privately held databases vacuuming up lots of information. At some point there may have been an opportunity to leverage this primarily for social good, but the fact remains that the raison d’être of social media companies is primarily profit.

One of the latest developments no one’s heard of is the innovation which underpins bitcoin, a crypto-currency you most likely have heard of. Bitcoin is an exception to my earlier mass generalisation, and several charities occupy the ‘early adopters’ segment on the innovation curve, having already set themselves up to accept bitcoin donations.

In fact, they’re so ahead of the curve on this one that it may be a long time before they see the results. The RNLI for instance has received 250 Bitcoin transaction donations since launching the service last year, totalling little more than £2,000.

What if there was a new technology, even better and more powerful than anything in recent memory, which could be leveraged for good?

Enter the blockchain

Underpinning crypto-currencies such as bitcoin is an innovative new way to store and record information known as the ‘blockchain’. The blockchain is a peer-to-peer ledger of all transactions which have ever taken place within a network. Each time you make a transaction using bitcoin, all or part of this information is recorded in a ‘block’ (much like Scrooge marking debt repayments on the pages of his ledger book). New blocks are stacked on top of each other every time a transaction is made, creating an unalterable record of who has spent what.

The key innovation is how this information is stored. Previously, we needed banks to record who owns and spends what, but the blockchain disperses this information across a network, with each computer connected to the bitcoin network able to access records of every bitcoin transaction ever made. This means that a social entrepreneur using and accepting bitcoin doesn’t need their bank to speak to their customer’s bank to find out if their customer has the money to buy the product they want to sell them. It’s already there to see in the blockchain.

Whereas a lot of the technological innovations adopted by social economy organisations have essentially been about rearranging the furniture — disseminating information via tweets instead of letters, accepting donations via crypto-currencies instead of cheques — this is one which promises genuine structural change.

The third party’s over

A small but significant movement has popped up in the US and Europe looking at how the blockchain can be applied to political and social life. One such example is the tech firm Ethereum, which is developing an open-source platform that, it says, will enable ‘the development of applications with no middle men’.

That means for example that this technology could be used to create and regulate contracts between individuals, removing the need for third party regulators. As Adam Lent of the RSA writes, this has the potential to undermine the very notion of a ‘company’, as workers could contract with each other to pursue a commercial endeavour, without the need for a management team to provide coordination and oversight.

As well as turning business on its head, this technology also has the potential to change politics. The centre-right Liberal Alliance Party in Denmark, for instance, has started using the blockchain for internal voting, with votes recorded and logged in the same way as bitcoin transactions.

For libertarians such as these, this technology is a godsend. Because information is dispersed across computers on a network, no one can control it. This also means no one can censor information on the network, posing a further challenge to existing centralised authorities such as the police and other security services. There’s no longer a need to rely on centralised, untrustworthy and completely fallible institutions any more. Laws, rules and processes can now be enshrined, and enforced, through code.

This may seem rather utopian — or dystopian — depending on your viewpoint, but the hype and the momentum surrounding this means it is getting more and more difficult to ignore the potential of this technology. For example, as well as people voting individually on issues, these same people could coalesce around shared values and issues using exactly the same technology.

Or what about companies and other types of organisations using the blockchain to involve all their stakeholders in decision making? Imagine if welfare provision were provided by a plethora of voluntarily organised and democratically self-governing associations, rather than unaccountable corporate bureaucracies.

People would move from being clients and passive recipients of services, to citizens able to actively shape them by leveraging this technology. This would be a genuinely social economy.

There is a window of opportunity for social entrepreneurs and others in the social economy to apply this technology for good before it becomes appropriated for ungood. In doing so, tech for good could become more than simply re-arranging the furniture, and serve up genuine structural change: Tech for Good 2.0.

Originally published at www.pioneerspost.com on January 28, 2015.

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