Dr Jane Thomason believes you can change the world. After 30 years working on problems of poverty and inequality in developing countries, she believes in the transformative power of new technologies, especially Blockchain, to address global problems. As CEO in Abt Associates, she is a global advocate for the role of Blockchain and other technologies in global transformation. Today we hear from her on a fascinating range of topics including how blockchains can help the poorest in society, what blockchain technology is doing to enable digital government, and even helping women work more flexibly.
Why did you first get interested in Blockchain technology?
In 2010 the price of Bitcoin was 10 cents. My son told me to buy Bitcoin as an investment. I ignored that advice, and told him to focus on getting a job! The next time he told me about a new technology – it was Blockchain and then I REALLY paid attention. I started to study Blockchain, and one day, I had a Eureka moment thinking about the Banda Aceh Boxing Day Tsunami (we worked on the reconstruction). Blockchain would not have reduced the tragic loss of life, but all the records were lost, bank records, land records, identity records – I suddenly saw how much easier the reconstruction would have been had the records been stored on a Blockchain. I decided to figure out how Blockchains could help us solve global problems that we have struggled with for decades. Blockchain technology offers immense potential for digital government, online identity, energy, financial inclusion, remittances, supply chain, provenance and improving governance. I have made it my mission to accelerate the development and testing and scaling of Blockchain and other disruptive technologies to address global problems.
When you explain it to new audiences, how do you get people excited about how this technology is going to change the world?
I talk about the changes that we can make to the bottom billion “invisible” people on this planet if we collaborate and realise the promise of technology. Think of a poor villager who today does not have electricity, a bank account, or an ID. If they want to get money (sent from a relative), the villager has to travel by bus to the nearest town (which costs money), Western Union takes 15%, and there is a bus ride home. (Bus fares $120, Western Union $30 – remaining cash from the $200 remittance = $50). Think of the promise of technology – with a 2G mobile phone – the poor can have access to: money, identity, micro grid solar power, direct access to sell produce and handicrafts globally, crowdfunding money for projects, income from uploading photos to news websites, information on antenatal care visits, subsidies from the government and a democracy platform to improve citizen engagement with government. That is inspiring!
As one of the few leading female entrepreneurs in the sector, do you see more evidence that women are being attracted to work in this space and, if so, why do you think that’s changing?
We need to be the change we want to see! We have to create the enabling environment for women to work in Blockchain and tech. I think that tech generally is an ideal area for women – because it allows them flexible working hours and arrangements. Blockchain is a rapidly emerging technology with new use cases emerging on a weekly basis – that means opportunity! We need to get over ourselves and stop complaining about male-dominated industries and create our own future. If we think less about what others think and more about what we can do, individually and collectively – we will succeed. In some ways, I think the next generation of women will be better off because technology will enable flexible working conditions and even transform child care (self-driving cars and robots will be extremely helpful to mums!). So their challenge as has been ours, is to believe in themselves, find a passion and follow it, work out how to successfully integrate work and family and get on and achieve their potential.
We need to create new stereotypes for women in tech who are smart, managing awesome tech and managing motherhood. Maybe something a bit more edgy than “Amy” in “Big Bang Theory” – we need a female “Sheldon!” I like the way “People of Blockchain” are profiling the Blockchain community, maybe we need to do that for women? We need more modern-day women in tech role models, many more. Let’s find our women in tech superstars and role models and give them profile and a voice.
What projects are you currently working on and how do you think they are going to impact on the public sector and government services?
I work at all levels from global to local to get traction. At a global level I speak, write and advocate to and get ideas and information out there. In 2017, I have spoken on Blockchain and social impact in London, Washington, Silicon Valley, Jakarta, Port Moresby, Daejeon, Brisbane and Sydney. I have been a mentor and judge at London Blockchain Week Hackathon, London Fintech Week Hackathon and Consensys Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition Hackathon – all coming up with ideas to tackle poverty and inequality.
In Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, we are working with the Australian and national governments to get Blockchain on the agenda. We have facilitated conferences bringing Blockchain companies to meet problem holders to “match make” and build awareness. In Papua New Guinea we are exploring several opportunities with the government in capital markets, financial inclusion and district service delivery. I am most excited about our proof of concept with the PNG Central Bank and Blockchain developer, Julien Bouteloup. IDBox is a simple, robust device, which has been tested in a low infrastructure setting in Papua New Guinea which will authenticates ID and provides access to financial services, and opportunities for employment and business in clean energy.
I am also working on different projects, including advising startups in ID, voting, financial inclusion and others. My big pitch is getting donors to move the dial and help countries prepare for being digitally prepared and building “Digital” as an economic sector. The world is changing rapidly with the development of new and disruptive technologies, governments everywhere need to be on top of these emerging technologies.
Do you think the developing world has a potential advantage in using Blockchain over the West, in that they may be able to go straight to Blockchain without having to dismantle existing architecture and barriers?
Absolutely! Plus the need to innovate is greater because their problems are so acute. We in the West are too complacent. The countries in Eastern Europe like Estonia and Georgia had no choice when they came out from under the USSR. For developing countries, disruptive change may bring unique opportunities to bypass the legacy issues that advanced economies confront, and help them to leapfrog.
As we start to really see real-world uptake and implementation, can Blockchain technology live up to the hype or will progress get bogged down by scaling and security concerns or regulatory hurdles?
It’s up to us! We (the Blockchain community) need to identify the barriers and address them:
1. People need to know about Blockchain! Too few governments and international development practitioners know about Blockchain and its potential. In order to diffuse, Blockchain technology needs to be socialized, and the use cases implemented to show how it applies to real world problems.
2. Governments will be key, both from an adoption perspective as well as the creation and enablement of the policy and regulatory environment. Governments recently have been nervous about the technology (e.g. US, China, Korea). Government support for financing is also key, as the process of developing bankable projects has high upfront costs, often difficult for small local entities and communities. Public intervention will be needed to develop the cost model for “last mile” users and to overcome impediments of scale (e.g. setting up pooled finance facilities) so that private investments can be fully mobilized. Resistance from institutions (e.g. banks) and actors (e.g. corrupt officials), is to be expected, as they will be disrupted by this technology. Middle men will be disintermediated and will resist the implementation of Blockchain, as will those who benefit from the lack of transparency in financial flows.
3. Operational and regulatory barriers remain. There are a several Blockchain platforms in use and under development, and all have challenges that must be overcome in order to scale. It’s like a “race to the moon!” For all platforms, there remain barriers, such as the high-energy consumption of Blockchain processes, transaction speed, interoperability and the governance of personal data. Infrastructural barriers persist as well, such as low power settings, poor internet, and in some developing areas, low penetration of mobile phones.
4. Payment models need to be re-thought. This is a new technology and there is limited funding to support the commercial scaling of prototypes. Taking successful use cases to scale will likely require new forms of financial and institutional partnerships. Entrepreneurs in emerging markets will face an enormous challenge in accessing capital as the ability to mobilize capital for these sectors will increasingly depend on the involvement of local financial institutions. These institutions have to provide capital to local entrepreneurs, as well as emerging international companies in the Blockchain space. The mobilization of capital to support businesses in Blockchain will require the expansion of a variety of investment vehicles, modernization and innovation on the part of local financial institutions, rapid evolution in the sophistication and capabilities of local entrepreneurs, and a change in the approach to regulation on the part of governments. International banks, investors, and development finance institutions can play a role in expanding the reach of Blockchain into emerging markets.
5. The talent pool needs to deepen. There are simply not enough Blockchain developers. Getting more developers proficient on Blockchain technology is key. Building the next generation of developers means major transformation our education system. Kids in school are being educated for jobs that won’t exist!
6. More funding is needed in venture capital to support the development and testing of new technologies for development, that have longer time horizons, lower financial returns but higher social returns financing. An alternative new method of financing is Blockchain based crypto-currencies, with Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), token sales, and crowdfunding rapidly growing in popularity and scale. Start-ups are raising funds by creating their own cryptocurrencies and offering discounted rates on digital assets before they are released on the cryptocurrency exchanges. Some of the ICO’s are focussing on social value, which presents potential for raising finance for clean energy as an example. The Blockchain community is experimenting with ideas around tokenising social value – so it is likely that this phenomenon may be a means of raising more development finance in the future.
7. Get the Ecosystem Working. The Blockchain for social impact ecosystem remains nascent. There is a need to unite the Blockchain systems and developers in advanced economies with the people that work with the intractable problems of poverty and inequality in emerging markets. This includes: developers, platforms, people who know problems, government, and finance (VC, impact investing, local finance donors, ICOs etc.).
What does a Blockchain-based future look like – what will really change, for example, be it for the average citizen, for women, or for patients?
The future will be fast, secure, efficient, transparent and without third parties! People will own their own identity (self-sovereign identity). People will be connected to a digital government and elections will be conducted from their own lounge. There will be no fiat currency. Renewable energy will power the world. Drones, self-driving cars will be ubiquitous. We will have to find an alternative means of achieving social value – because it will not be though work. Big changes are happening!