Blockchain and Social Impact Research: Preliminary Findings

Blog Post
Andrew F. Kazmierski /
Oct. 22, 2019

Earlier this year, the Blockchain Trust Accelerator at New America created the Blockchain Impact Ledger (BIL), an online database of global projects that seek to create positive impact around the world leveraging blockchain technology. The BIL seeks to address an information gap in the blockchain for social impact space, one we’re filling to help organizations best understand how blockchain is being leveraged to address some of the world’s most pressing issues. The BIL is a deliberately early iteration of a resource for the space, and we invite feedback as we continue to research the field of blockchain and social impact. [Note: We accept projects for consideration at this link].

The UN General Assembly meetings last month discussed how best to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and build a more peaceful, equitable, and prosperous world. The BIL uses the SDGs to categorize areas of impact of listed blockchain projects.

Despite the relatively early state of our research, some interesting findings have begun to emerge in the 51 blockchain for social impact projects currently listed in the BIL.

1. Blockchain projects that address SDG #16 (Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions), #11 (Sustainable Cities & Communities) and #8 (Decent Work & Economic Growth) top the list

Our preliminary results show that SDG #16, which promotes just and strong institutions, indexes high on our blockchain project classification. Blockchain technology addresses a difficult governance challenge in systems where participating parties lack a commitment to transparency. “Bad actors” in these systems might engage in identity fraud, ballot stuffing, unethical sourcing of materials or labor, and hazardous material dumping. Blockchain applications in identity, supply chain, voting, and energy are all designed to create immutable records of exchange and ownership that corrupt parties cannot exploit for personal gain.

SDG #8, which promotes decent work and economic growth and SDG #11, which promotes sustainable cities and communities, are also well-represented. Tamper-resistant records in supply chains also shine light on unethically-sourced material or labor practices, encouraging decent work in developing countries. A number of initiatives leverage blockchain to create decentralized energy markets, promoting sustainable energy in communities. As we add more projects, other related SDGs such as Climate Action (SDG #13) and Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG #12) may become more prevalent due to their close association with clean energy markets and sustainable supply chains.

2. Over two-thirds of the blockchain for social impact projects we are tracking are less than two years old

Despite the groundswell of interest in blockchain technology, 41% of blockchain projects in our study are less than two years old and 68% are less than three years old. This reflects just how nascent the blockchain for social impact space really is. Organizations are still determining how to sustain blockchain project development over the long term, and it is still too early to pinpoint any specific factors that predict project longevity. Potential factors such as the role of regulation, key coalition partners, or talent constraints will be studied more in future iterations of the BIL and related research.

3. Ethereum is the most commonly-used blockchain in the social impact projects we are tracking

Even though Bitcoin is the most widely known blockchain, 49% of social impact projects in our sample were built on the Ethereum platform.

Bitcoin was designed for a specific purpose: to serve as a publicly-accessible global payment system. Conversely, Ethereum was designed to be a multi-purpose platform, on which various applications could operate and benefit from the Ethereum network’s decentralized computing power. This customizable nature of Ethereum permits platforms to offer unique benefits such as smart contracts and ERC-20 tokens. Smart contracts are automatic agreements that will execute on a blockchain when certain conditions are met. ERC-20 tokens are digital assets with programmable characteristics that sustain an in-platform economy.

4. The average number of partners an organization collaborated with to get their blockchain system off the ground was 3.5.

It takes a village to get a technology platform developed and adopted, particularly for blockchain. In the same way blockchain wants to break down data silos, you can’t build a platform in a vacuum. Successful project managers must incorporate the perspectives of policy leaders, technologists, end-users, designers, non-profit practitioners, legal counsel to ensure the development of useful, functioning, and sustainable platforms. The blockchain initiatives we’ve researched typically use a multi-stakeholder approach, consulting with an average of 3.5 partners to aid in product development and deployment.

Building strong coalitions at the beginning of an initiative helps ensure that blockchain solutions are comprehensive and address the challenge at hand. Partnerships also serve as a conduit for expertise, resources, and business opportunities to reduce the risk assumed by any particular member and to nurture a solution to scale more quickly and successfully. These are findings the Blockchain Trust Accelerator at New America published in our Blueprint for Blockchain and Social Innovation, which have been validated by our survey of other blockchain initiatives.

The future of blockchain and social impact

While our preliminary analysis was performed on a limited data set, it sheds light on the future of the blockchain and social impact community:

  • Blockchain technology is addressing trust, accountability, and transparency within and across institutions, supporting efforts to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • This field is just beginning to take off, and we are still discovering what ingredients go into a successful blockchain for social impact pilot.
  • Collaboration with multiple stakeholders creates blockchain platforms that benefit diverse audiences, and remains a key ingredient to successful blockchain initiatives.

Moving forward, our research will cover additional blockchain and social impact projects. By adding to our pool of data, we expect to discover new correlations, such as how a funding source affects project sustainability, or how open source platforms affect adoption and scaling. If you haven’t already, please visit the Blockchain Impact Ledger and submit recommendations for new projects we should consider.