In the first of a series of articles about how the newest technologies can help us to be sustainable and ethical, let me introduce you to something called the “blockchain”…
You’ve probably heard of Bitcoin, the digital currency that seemingly appeared from nowhere and hit the front pages a few years ago when its value climbed into the billions of dollars. Today, it’s worth more than Western Union, but for most of us the so-called ‘cryptocurrency’ is still something of a mystery.
Francois Sonnet, one of the founders of ‘SolarCoin’, described Bitcoin as, “… just a database running on a network of servers that has no single authority controlling it, it is run by consensus. The database – a ledger in the case of Bitcoin – is completely secure, immutable, publicly viewable and allows the global transfer of money without a middle-man and essentially without fees. It is very clever”.
On the face of it, Bitcoin would seem to have quite a bit to offer environmental and ethical organisations, workers and consumers, but its design has a major flaw, described by Sonnet as, “… an element of competition in the design of Bitcoin that is there to reward those running the network, but this competition makes it very energy inefficient, most of the computational tasks performed by the network are wasted, pointless, they are just thrown away. When you understand that the Bitcoin servers generate over 200,000 tonnes of atmospheric CO2 every year – which will get worse as Bitcoin gets more popular – you will understand the need to reduce this level of waste.”
“Our network, and others like Felix’s, use a different kind of protocol, one that is equally secure, but vastly more efficient and much more user-friendly”.
Felix Ugoji is the developer of another upstart coin called ‘KoboCoin’, developed to compete with ‘M-Pesa’ in Africa, the Vodaphone-owned mobile-telephone banking system which is taking the continent by storm. Felix continues,”Our coins don’t need vast, custom, dedicated and power-hungry computers to run the network. With our coins you can just have a tiny program running on your laptop; it requires very few resources and pays out everyday. If you tried to do the same for Bitcoin on a laptop, you’d wait years for your first payout, if you ever got one at all.”
SolarCoin is being developed as a way to reward the production of solar electricity. If you have a PV system you can register with Solarcoin and they will reward you at the rate of one SolarCoin for every megawatt/hour of electricity you produce. “At the moment one SolarCoin is worth around ten cents, you’re not going to get rich today, but the value of the coin will go up as more and more people adopt it. As the network develops, it will support itself and provide for a robust subsidy scheme for solar energy, independent from Government-backed subsidies. We envisage people paying for complete solar installations, shopping online, or even at a local store with SolarCoin in the not very distant future. You could think of SolarCoin like airmiles, get them now and be patient for the value to go up. We are working to make this work.”, said François. They seem to be making progress since SolarCoin was recently “recognised as an independent financial tool for financing solar installations worldwide”, by the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Felix agrees,”Adoption and use are the keys to success in the digital currency world. We have already seen that Africa is crying out for a working, mobile payment system when looking at the success of M-Pesa, but M-Pesa is expensive – costing up to 10% for a transaction – and places restrictions on who can use it. We offer an equally viable, easier to use, virtually free payment system without restriction… a digital cash, if you like. If we offer something that people want, it sells itself, we just need to get the idea and the software out there.”
SolarCoin also manages a side-project called ElectriCChain – “7 million global solar facilities watching the skies 24/7 posting live data to 1 blockchain for scientists, researchers and human progress.” – I ask Francois what it means, “It’s a public tool recording the data from 7 million solar electricity generators around the world, in real time. It records this data to the SolarCoin blockchain, the ElectriCChain – what we earlier called the ledger in relation to Bitcoin – and the data is available to anyone who has a use for it, we even supply tools to analyse the data. Obviously, the immediate value of data like this is to enable us to more effectively utilise existing installations. We also aim to enable Scientists better keep track of Global Climate Change, pollution levels, micro-climates and solar radiation values”
Felix’s KoboCoin is ready to go, “Our software is ready, it’s already being used on a daily basis and, although we are targetting Africa, because that’s where we see the greatest enthusiasm, it’s being used by people across the world. It’s available to anyone who is interested in a cutting-edge, secure, quick, transparent and, above all, ridiculously cheap way to move money across the globe, either in person or on opposite sides of the planet”.
Indeed. I’ve used the KoboCoin “wallet”. It’s very easy, looks nice, has all the features you would expect of a bank transfer and works on Android, Blackberry, Windows, Mac and Linux – only IoS is missing. “Apple seem resistant to it. I suppose KoboCoin isn’t too dissimilar to Apple Pay”, Felix says with a wink.
*Francois and Felix have kindly accepted our invitation for them to speak at our annual presentation in the Houses of Parliament on November 11th, 2016 and will be happy to demonstrate their tech afterwards – make sure you’re there!
There’s a good introduction to the possibilities of the blockchain here.
As I was finishing this article, my attention was drawn to Soilcoin, which has another take on the technology.
It’s undeniable that the agricultural sector is dominated by middle-men, each taking a cut, each requiring a contract and always complicating the supply-chain. Soilcoin aims to bypass this by allowing simple, automatic contracts to be drawn-up directly between its users. These contracts are immutable, and Soilcoin’s adopters have the ability to send and receive funds upon completion of the contract, excising yet another layer of bureaucracy and cost.
But Soilcoin’s ambitions don’t end there. The intention is to use the technology to also provide services such as weather prediction, and management capabilities like those needed to run a poultry farm or operate driverless tractors. These functions could be operated on a diverse, decentralised system which, in turn, would reduce costs to almost negligible fractions of today’s costs.
Soilcoin has been improving constantly for the past year as its sole developer, Abvhiael Crowley, fits his dreams of changing the world in-between what he calls his “real-life job and responsibilities”. Abvhiael is as ambitious as he is dedicated, remarking, “This is a cottage industry worked on by people with little time and even less money, but it has the potential to change the way we use the planet for the better and I am determined to see this project through to fruition.”
The scope of Abvhiael’s project is mind-boggling. The technology seems to have the capacity to level the playing field between businesses of any scale, and has as much to offer an African smallholding farmer as it does to a conglomerate. Abvhiael sums up the project thusly, “It sounds complicated, but in essence the technology offers equality, the ability to trade on equal terms with whoever you wish to do business with – we’re trying to make it fair.”
No one knows where this technology is going, but having spoken to these committed developers, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find us all using it in 25 years time, and it’s likely we won’t even realise it.