Blog Post

Blockchain for Impact Workshop: Perspectives on International Development, Public Goods, and Regenerative Economy

| May 26, 2023

On April 25th, the Technology and Public Purpose (TAPP) Project hosted the “Blockchain for Impact Workshop: Perspectives on International Development, Public Goods, and Regenerative Economy“ at Harvard’s Belfer Center, with coordination help from Polygon Labs and Impact Plus. During the half-day hybrid event, we had engaging discussions with thirty in-person participants, all of whom are experienced professionals and researchers in web3, joined by additional speakers and audience members on Zoom. 

Over the last decade, developments in blockchain and various decentralized technologies have spurred the evolution of “web3,” introducing significant disruptions across various industries and sectors. For many innovators, these technologies can significantly improve existing transaction and verification processes, by making them more transparent, efficient, and trustworthy. For others, web3 serves as an ideal platform for developing and scaling innovative economic and governance models towards a more sustainable, collaborative, and democratic future. However, the clear evidence of frauds and scams accompanying these advancements make some critics question the credibility and legitimacy of the field. As such, it is vital to critically examine the field and pinpoint areas and use cases where these technologies can truly bring positive change and impact. The event offered an opportunity for practitioners, academics and researchers to explore the most promising approaches and use case areas for employing web3 technologies and blockchain to promote positive social impact. Through a combination of presentations and interactive sessions, attendees have engaged in rigorous debate and analysis of the opportunities and challenges of blockchain technology, including discussions of the technical, economic, and social implications.

The event was organized into five segments: the first three comprised thematic panels that examined the potential applications of web3 technologies in the realms of international development, public goods, and regenerative economy. Next, we had a virtual talk delivered by Taiwan's Ministry of Digital Affairs (MODA), highlighting web3 as a digital public good in Taiwan. The event culminated with a compelling panel discussion on collaborative futures, focusing on industry-academia collaboration to fully harness the potential of web3.

Here are the key takeaways from the event: 

  • It is essential for practitioners to prioritize the problems they are trying to solve, rather than primarily focusing on the technology.
  • Web3 technologies such as blockchain possess inherent attributes such as transparency, immutability, pseudonymity, security, disintermediation, verifiability, and controllability. These characteristics present the potential for them to influence the domains of international development, public goods, and the regenerative economy.
  • Blockchain can address the problem of duplication and efficiency in international development and humanitarian aid in emerging markets, but security vulnerabilities remain a challenge to be solved. 
  • Innovations in web3 currently revolutionize public goods by fostering community involvement, addressing "free rider" problems, empowering participatory grant distribution, and providing incentives for infrastructure upkeep. 
  • The web3 technology stack is a complex sociotechnical suite of technologies, meaning that it consists of a technical layer as well as a social layer. Innovation in the latter is required to unlock the potential of the technology. 
  • Regenerative Finance (ReFi) offers a promising path towards a more sustainable and equitable global economy. By reclaiming externalities and redistributing wealth, we can create an economy that benefits both the environment and its inhabitants.
  • Web3 has the potential to build a future towards Plurality, or “collaborative diversity” that is based on principles of interoperability and co-presence. 
  • Open challenges in the space include scalability, durability, identity verification, access, security, data silos, regulations and complexities of industry-wide cooperation. 
  • Collaboration among academia, government, and the private sector is crucial for maximizing blockchain's potential while mitigating risks addressing existing challenges, with recent innovations such as Zero Knowledge Proofs (ZKPs) offering potentials to increase privacy and security.

The day commenced with a guest commentary by Rebecca Rettig, the Chief Policy Officer at Polygon Labs. As an industry veteran, Rettig emphasized the paramount importance of strong, global policy for blockchain applications. Her keynote message underscored the need for a delicate balance between fostering innovation and meeting regulatory goals of consumer protection and market integrity, and highlighted the importance of impactful real-world blockchain cases, particularly in the areas of social impact. Rettig noted Polygon Labs' 'Use Case Database' initiative, a project designed to gather, highlight, and make available an open-source database of significant use cases. She further stressed the necessity of collaborative dialogues amongst academia, web3 companies, startups, and government agencies for policy and regulatory development and innovation, advocating for a balanced and non-partisan approach. 

Panel I - International Development 

The first panel on international development featured five speakers: Ian Vickers, Senior Program Officer at Research for Development; Isha Varshney, Head of DeFi at the Celo Foundation; Karam Alhamad, Ethereum Foundation Fellow; Stan Byers, USAID Cybersecurity Team Lead; and Eduard Peris, Founder and CEO of Impact Plus. The session explored a variety of use cases where web3 innovations hold the most promise for international development and humanitarian assistance, particularly in the context of the Global South and Emerging Markets. In the realm of international development, humanitarian aid is notoriously known for its duplicative nature, and de-duplication is of paramount importance. The humanitarian aid sector ought to seek strategies to enhance efficiency, curtail duplication of assistance, and maximize the impact and reach of assistance more effectively. Several of our panelists embarked on their careers in post-conflict regions such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, various parts of Africa, and other areas around the globe. Their experiences in these regions served as a catalyst for their interest in and subsequent involvement with web3.