This is one of those dramatic turning points in history. COVID-19 has already changed our daily lives, and its impact on society will be long-lasting. While we won’t fully grasp the magnitude of loss for some time, one thing is clear: traditional systems have failed us.
It’s time for a new paradigm, one that draws on technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, augmented/virtual reality, and above all, blockchain. These are more relevant than ever — not just to business and the economy but to the future of public health and the safety of global populations.
Given the urgent need for global solutions, we came up with five ways that these technologies could help us manage this pandemic and, equally important, prepare for the next crisis.
Digital identity, health records, and shared data
Data is the most important asset in fighting pandemics. If any useful data exists now, it sits in institutional silos. We need better access to the data of entire populations and a speedy consent-based data-sharing system like the University Health Network’s Patient Consent and Control pilot. The tradeoff between privacy and public safety need not be so stark. Through digital identities that enable us to share only the data needed, we can achieve both.
Just-in-time supply chain solutions
Supply chains are critical infrastructure for our globally connected economy, and COVID-19 has put them under tremendous strain, exposing potential weaknesses in their design. We must rewire supply chains for transparency and immediacy, where users can access information quickly and trust its accuracy. Startups including RemediChain in pharmaceuticals and VeriTX with additive manufacturers are doing just that. Blockchain serves as a “state machine” that gives us visibility into the trustworthiness of our suppliers and the status of the assets themselves.
Sustaining the economy: How blockchain can help
If supply chains are the machinery of global commerce, then money is its lubricant. Yet, credit is tight, and merchants are discouraging the use of cash as a carrier of COVID-19. Last year, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, suggested replacing the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency with a synthetic global currency backed by a basket of government-issued digital currencies. Why not central bank digital currencies as an alternative?
A rapid response registry for medical professionals
Front-line medical professionals are the heroes and our last line of defence. Yet hospitals can’t onboard people fast enough. This is not for lack of talent; it’s the inability to find people with proper credentials. Blockchain platforms such as Dock.io, ProCredEx, and Zinc.work help to co-ordinate different geographies, references, and certifying bodies so that supply and demand for health-care workers — as well as the process for verifying their skills — becomes more efficient and transparent.
Incentive models to reward responsible behaviour
People respond to incentives. Blockchain serves as a mechanism to sync up the incentives of stakeholder groups around issues and activities, changing patterns of behaviour in the process. For example, Interac collaborated with Alectra to create a blockchain-powered app that offered real-time monetary incentives to consumers for making energy-efficient consumption choices and with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada to deploy a similar incentive model for promoting healthy lifestyles. These pilots show how a vital infrastructure player can leverage blockchain to transform even in tightly regulated sectors such as health care.
Many of these changes are beyond the time frame of this strain of coronavirus. But we can implement several rather quickly.
Governments must wake up to the blockchain opportunity. Every national government should create an emergency task force on medical data to start planning and implementing blockchain initiatives. They can stimulate the development of technology firms working on the solutions described here. They should partner with medical professional associations and other players to implement blockchain credential systems.
The private sector affected by COVID-19 must still lead the way. They must start today by incorporating blockchain into their infrastructures. Companies needs to continue their work on pilots framed around medical records, credentialing systems, incentive structures, and other sovereign identity solutions. When designing these pilots, companies could consider embedding incentive systems for socially responsible behaviour.
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Emergencies turbocharge the pace of historical progress. Businesses like Zoom, once used mostly by technology companies, have become ubiquitous tools of daily life. Meanwhile, 20th century titans are asking for bailouts.
We anticipate a real crisis of leadership as the new digital-first and digital-only models conflict with the old industrial tried-and-true. Maybe this awful crisis will call forth a new generation of leaders who can help us finally get the digital age on track? Who among us will step up?