Can transnational identities enabled by blockchain facilitate democratic participation which transcends beyond the bounds of a traditional nation state?
This was one of the questions raised at the Procivis Think Tank (http://procivis.ch/think-tank/) meeting, which took place at Switzerland’s largest blockchain hub (https://www.trustsquare.ch) on Thursday, 26 July 2018.
While the midday sun had the temperatures soaring outdoors, the discussions in the meeting room were no less heated. The meeting delved deep into the most fundamental building block of digital interactions between citizens and the state, a digital identity. Two models were analyzed: state-authenticated digital identities and non-state authenticated solutions.
The first model typically reflects an initiative to try out new technology to rewire the machinery of the state. While a number of governments across the world have deployed digital identity programs, few have been met with success. A significant gap in the literature lies in the lack of academic material critically evaluating the factors which contributed to the success or failure of these digital identity programs. This presents an opportunity for the Procivis Think Tank to contribute to the existing body of knowledge on the topic and contribute to the design of the successful deployment of future digital identity programs.
To set the tone for the discussions on the topic, a representative from the Canton of Schaffhausen, Ramon Göldi, explained how the government was implementing a digital transformation of the canton, with the digital identity serving as a key enabler.* Göldi made the case that the enabling environment in the Canton of Schaffhausen, including its smaller population size, allowed them to be more experimental. At the Think Tank meeting, this led to questions about the critical mass (and the budget) needed for a viable state-authenticated digital identity system. There were also questions about how to incentivize residents to make the switch from paper to an online system: Just because an innovative government wanted to try out new technology, it did not mean that the citizens would switch. It was also noted that top-down, state-led IT initiatives could sometimes be so unattractive for the end-user, that they fail, or that there are cases where parts of the public service resist a switch to a digital system (e.g. of the case with healthcare data). The discussions then moved on to explore learnings from the digitization of service delivery in the banking and airline sectors which could inform policymakers as digital identity programs enter a new phase of maturity.
The second model serves as a crucial lever in the global development agenda to facilitate the inclusion of the 1.1 billion global citizens left unserved by state-authenticated identity programs.
The discussion on the topic was facilitated by Monique Morrow, President & Co-founder of The Humanized Internet and Adithya Pradeep Kumar, Business Development Manager at Procivis AG. They presented the potential held by blockchain-based digital identities in aiding inclusion and the key challenges which stand in the way of universal access to identity.
The presentation was followed by a discussion on privacy challenges and the risk of surveillance posed by issuing digital identities to marginalized populations. The emergence of self-sovereign identity solutions enabled by decentralized identifiers (DIDs) offers promise in tackling these privacy concerns. The persistence and transnational properties of self-sovereign identities make it a potential vehicle to facilitate democratic mechanisms across national borders and on multi-lateral issues.
Discussions then addressed the emerging consensus on the use of blockchain in the context of self-sovereign identity. The transition to digital identities also brings with it pressing debates around e-literacy and the risk of exclusion in geographies lacking access to reliable ICT infrastructure.
By bringing together experts from many different fields, including practitioners dealing with actual implementation, the Procivis Think Tank aims to deliver superior outcomes for its stakeholders. As we move from a paper-based society to an increasingly digitized one, there are many opportunities to redesign the machinery by which citizens interact with their state. This Think Tank meeting served as a useful stepping stone to launch a series of research projects related to governance in the digital age.
*Disclaimer: The Canton of Schaffhausen officially launched the Procivis digital identity solution in June 2018, following a successful pilot phase.
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