Building peace in the minds of men and women

UNESCO conference explored how Blockchain technology can foster inclusive knowledge societies

24 May 2019

Highlighting Blockchain-based innovations for education, democracy and artistic expression, the first UNESCO Conference on Blockchain practices and perspectives took a stake at promoting the debate on technology’s applications for social good, beyond cryptocurrencies.

“Blockchain” is often associated with “bitcoin”. The UNESCO conference, featuring 42 international panelists and over 400 audiences, revolved around a different message: Blockchain presents the potential to transform and innovate different sectors of society, including science, education, artistic creation, democratic governance, sustainable territories, social innovation and finance.

Held at UNESCO’s Headquarters on 17 May 2019, the conference devoted its morning sessions to highlight theoretical elements of Blockchain technology, including its technological, political, legal, social and economic implications. The afternoon sessions aimed at presenting specific and practical applications of Blockchain technology in various UNESCO’s fields of competence, ranging from education to art.

In his welcoming remarks, Moez Chakchouk, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, reminded that “UNESCO’s work in the field of emerging technologies, such as Blockchain, is informed by our vision of inclusive knowledge societies, of overcoming digital and knowledge divides and of harnessing technological innovations for the social good”. The conference was also opened by Prof. Ghislaine Azemard, Holder of the UNESCO Chair ITEN (Innovation, Transmission, Edition Numerique), co-organizer of the conference. Professor Azemard expressed her wish that the conference not only vehicles scientific information about Blockchain, but that it also helps participants to become active users of this technology to shape the world’s future.

Mr Greg Medcraft and Ms Dorothy Gordon also delivered key opening remarks. Greg Medcraft, Director at OECD’s Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs, elaborated upon Blockchain’s disruptive potential, allowing the opportunity to “transform our economies and societies” as well as the markets. Director Medcraft stressed therefore that UNESCO and the OECD have an important role to play in guiding the future development of the technology. Ms Dorothy Gordon, Chair of UNESCO’s Information For All intergovernmental Programme (IFAP), reminded that the technology is relevant to most, if not all, programmatic objectives of IFAP. For example, she highlighted the importance to raising awareness of ethical issues related to information. Ms Gordon also reminded the audience that those ethical considerations were inextricably related to the Sustainable Development Goals, which Blockchain technology can and should contribute to.

The audience then took advantage of the complementary insights from Ken Timsit, Managing Director at ConsenSys France, and Jean-Jacques Quisquater, Professor at the Ecole Polytechnique de Louvain, Belgium.  On one hand, Mr Timsit offered an historical perspective on the evolution of the Blockchain ecosystem from its origins in “cypherpunks” to the current widespread use in startups and institutions worldwide. On the other hand, Professor Quisquater illustrated to the audience key notions in Blockchain technology, such as timestamping, proof of work and peer-to-peer networks. He also elaborated on different architecture and visions for the internet: centralized, decentralized or distributed.

Five different use cases scenarios were discussed during the afternoon sessions, where concrete applications of Blockchain technology were further explained, such as using it to better evaluate and record students’ education performance, as well as sharing scientific data and information in a more efficient way.

The potential of Blockchain to transform the relation between artists and art consumers was discussed in a panel composed by an artist, a company proposing an innovative model for artistic content dissemination and remuneration, and a specialist in digital artists and start-ups. The incidence of Blockchain in intellectual property and copyright protection of artworks was further discussed. Alexandra Smilek, Artistic Director of EP7, an innovative cultural space in Paris, exhibited and explained the “Plantoid” a work of art based on Blockchain technology.

The theme of Blockchain-based “liquid democracy” in the current political atmosphere was among the examples brought on stage discussing technology as tools to promote democracy. In this respect, UNESCO’s Xianhong Hu highlighted that the Organization’s ROAM framework can be useful to analyze if Blockchain development can enhance democracy by assessing if it respects human Rights, it is Open, Accessible to all, and nurtured by Multistakeholder participation.

Discussing on applications of Blockchain in developing sustainable territories, the panelists highlighted the importance of ethical and transparent use of data which can be facilitated by Blockchain. New models of action oriented social networks for the social good were showcased, where Blockchain based “tokens” can be used to support decentralization of philanthropy and promote social and economic inclusion facilitating interactions benefiting civil society, social entrepreneurs and social good doers.

Finally, the conference discussed about social innovation and finance. Expanding upon the previous panel, the speakers mentioned trust issues in all sectors of society. They illustrated how new technology like Blockchain can be an efficient tool to resolve the problems, for example through establishing smart contract or having direct peer to peer actions. They also talked about how Blockchain transformed the society beyond the economic perspective. For instance, Blockchain can be used as a tool for gender equality and stop violence against women.

Throughout the day, the debates were facilitated by Ms Bianca Rutherford and Mr Matthieu Quiniou, researchers at the UNESCO Chair ITEN. The discussions were illustrated by Mr Michel Diament, a scriber, who provided live artistic interpretations of keynotes and panels.

In concluding the conference, Mr Chakchouk called for a stronger cooperation between UNESCO and the start-ups that are providing concrete solutions to sustainable development challenges through Blockchain technology. He joined Ms Azemard’s wish to foster the debate on the societal impact of new forms of media and the Blockchain in UNESCO’s fields of competence.

The Knowledge Societies Division at UNESCO aims at enlarging access to information, through open science, open educational resources, free and open source software and multilingualism.