Blockchains for development


It seems to accord with sense and experience that technology largely flows down the gradient of development: from rich, modern nations to poorer ones.

Anthropologists and media scholars have long observed the extent to which communication technologies change traditional societies. However, the Orang Ulu (the collective term for the Indigenous up-river peoples of Sarawak), suggest a different possibility, and one that points to the future of that most uber-modern, digital and urban of developments – the sharing economy.

The sharing economy describes people making use of their excess assets by charging others to access them – houses for holiday accommodation, garages for storage, cars (and their drivers) for rides. Some dispute the term ‘sharing’, arguing that these systems are more akin to renting, while others point out that centralized large corporations currently dominate the sharing economy, making it more of a platform economy.

The Orang Ulu have created their own version of the sharing economy, which is operating offline. Perhaps the systems that we interact with will become more like theirs rather than the other way around.

Until logging roads arrived, it would take the Orang Ulu days to get to their kampung (village) by longboat. The logging roads have facilitated old lifestyles and economic systems as well as newer industries and methods of getting by. As only a small number of people in each kampung own a car, the Orang Ulu have developed their own ride-sharing system, whereby you pay someone with a Hilux to take you where you need to go – a lot like Uber but without the technological platform.

A similar system exists for the other dominant mode of transport in the region: motorised longboats that travel up the Baram river and its tributaries. On a recent research visit, my colleague Christine Horn and I paid for boat rides, and to stay in the spare rooms in the houses of the headmen, in both cases directly negotiating with owners.

The system has evolved partly out of traditional economic systems in which sharing was required. For instance, the house of the headman may include rooms for those on their way upriver. One of my fellow researchers, Simpson Njock, a Kenyah man from the region, said that it was once the case that you had to share a wild boar, but now if someone asks you for some of your wild boar you say to them ‘how much’.

These systems have also developed in a region where many fall into the underbanked category and live a largely subsistence lifestyle, but where money is required for schooling, medical treatment, and home maintenance. Many make that money from handicrafts or food they have grown on their padi farms. Some goods are bartered rather than sold.


Uber in the jungle

The sharing and platform economy is a transformative new technology in the rich, urban world that is at the beginnings of being adopted and formalized into our legal and economic systems. But it has long been the main game in remote Sarawak and could potentially be the key to development.

Although it is perhaps unlikely that platforms such as Uber and AirBNB will be big in remote Sarawak (standing on the back of a Hilux to travel on an ungraded private road would seriously challenge even Uber’s low regulation philosophy), other possibilities are on the horizon. Indeed, current technological developments might transform the institutional dynamics of the sharing economy in ways that might make such corporate platforms superfluous.

While the open internet may be over, new possibilities for electronic peer-to-peer economies are emerging. The technology that is most likely to change transactions is called blockchain.


Blockchains for development

Originally developed to support bitcoin, a blockchain is essentially a public ledger, like a giant spreadsheet for recording assets, which can be utilized for any form of exchange and which no individual entity controls. By providing a secure and distributed means of authentication and recording, blockchain eliminates the need for intermediaries that pull information to verify transactions.

While blockchain technology is already being developed in everything from fintech to the GLAM industries, some, such as Backfeed, are looking at how it might induce decentralized coordination. If that eventuates it will bring new possibilities for economic development.

The gold standard in the field of development is to work within and through local systems rather than impose development that might be detrimental to culture or natural resources. The Orang Ulu have a level of trust that comes from getting by across a network of small villages in a country where there is little in the way of a welfare safety net.

Technology is not a solution, but it might assist the coordination of existing systems, making them more efficient, rather than imposing different ones. For instance, it could make possible a shift from extractive forest industries, such as logging and palm oil, to economies that rely on a healthy forest, such as eco-tourism, where natural heritage and culture are valued rather than diminished. Localised peer-to-peer platforms that provide tourists or handicraft sellers with boat rides and longhouse rooms could be of significant benefit for these communities.

Unfortunately, the possibilities for economic development via emerging technologies will be nothing more than an idealistic and novel idea unless internet connectivity is improved. While some communities have mobile broadband base stations, these are often poorly maintained or suffering from over-congestion.

Technology is already changing life in remote Sarawak, and it will continue to do so, as long as the infrastructure is there to support it. Whether LOLcats will adversely affect a culture where it is taboo to laugh at animals (true story) is just one dimension of change. Another not-so-distant possibility is that it will enable them to share a ride on a new path to prosperity.


Blockchains for development