As the WEF Warms Up to Crypto, Its Head of Blockchain Talks Empowerment
Cointelegraph talked to the WEF’s head of blockchain several months before the 50th edition of the event.
The 50th World Economic Forum is over, and Cointelegraph was happy to cover the most important highlights from the event and reflect on the role of crypto in Davos discussions.
The person who knows more than anyone about the potential that our favorite technology could have on the WEF community is its head of blockchain and decentralized ledgers. Sheila Warren joined the WEF team in 2018, several months before the 48th event was held. Since then, she has been working on promoting blockchain within the world’s most influential economic community.
I talked with Sheila last year, 11 weeks after she had her third baby. We had the interview over the phone because she was feeding her child while talking to me. I was fascinated from the beginning by her unbounded energy in everything she does. Observing such women makes me believe that the combination of professional and private lives is more than possible. It is enough to have a passion and know the basics of time-management.
Path in tech
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Sheila went to work on Wall Street. There, she worked with traditional banks and hedge funds before getting involved in tech philanthropy.
“So, my clients at that time were people who were really trying to disrupt and apply tech models to philanthropy — i.e., how can we give away money more efficiently and how can we create accountability metrics? And I will say that particularly at that time, West Coast philanthropy was very different from East Coast philanthropy. And it wasn't that much of a leap for me to realize that there was actually a need for tech innovation in the philanthropic space — which is hardly a novel thing to realize.”
With this realization, Sheila built a product called NGOsource designed to streamline due diligence in the philanthropic international grant-making space “because there's a lot of money that was frankly wasted in administrative costs.”
The team incubated it within the company TechSoup, where Sheila became the company’s first counsel. According to Sheila, the company has given away around $11 billion dollars in tech products, and it serves as an educator in the civil society sector around the world on the “ill and good” use of technology.
Discovery of crypto
It was in 2015 that Sheila read the Bitcoin white paper and got really into the technology. Before that, she and her husband even owned some Bitcoin, though she “didn't make the connection between Bitcoin and blockchain for actually quite a few years — like many people who weren't deeply in the space.”
“And I kind of had this big ‘aha!’ moment. And then, like so many people, I went down the rabbit hole of all the social development cases. I was thinking: My goodness! How could this apply to criminal justice and chain of custody? How could it apply to philanthropic aid? How could it apply to development funding?”
During her career, Sheila reflected a lot on technological pitfalls, how a technology can take the best of it and how it can be ill-used. Research on data privacy brought Sheila to another realization:
“It's a very natural extension to thinking about blockchain technology, to realize that a lot of the concerns that we had could theoretically be addressed by this relatively new technology.”
Position at the World Economic Forum
When Sheila learned about a position opening at the WEF through her friends in the State Department, she said:
“I honestly was thinking that they wanted a cryptographer, which I'm not. And it turns out they really wanted somebody who had done policy, who understood tech, and who particularly understood tech-impact and social good — and that was that was pretty much my entire career. And I've just been absolutely thrilled with the openness of the forum to really deeply engage on these questions with impact and try to lay the foundational framework of this technology to really achieve transformational social good.”
Sheila was hired in October 2017, not long before the forum in January 2018. That year, the word “blockchain” entered the WEF space for the first time. I remember those first discussions and crypto events, even if held with an outsider manner that was felt in comments we at Cointelegraph acquired from some important WEF guests. But blockchain entered the agenda of the forum, and that was the beginning.
In April 2018 after a private session with “a bunch of CEOs and ministers of governments,” the WEF published a report titled “Blockchain Beyond the Hype,” which differentiated between crypto and blockchain as well as explained what the technology is useful for.
“I felt a tremendous responsibility after Davos, seeing the absolute insanity in Switzerland to articulate that a lot of this was hype. The idea was: Let's just put our name out there saying ‘look, there is hype, true, but this technology is also real.’ Both those things are true. Something can be overhyped but still useful.”
Pragmatic crypto optimism
The WEF has had a constant and steady voice throughout the highs and lows of crypto. And it is particularly pleasurable to see that Sheila does not share this skepticism about crypto.
“Crypto is the first proven application of blockchain technology. And I think that's a completely fair thing to say. Think about the internet and pornography: No one likes to talk about that, but there's a reason that there's uptake in some of these cases. It doesn't mean the technology itself is flawed or bad or it could only be deployed for evil purposes. None of that makes any sense.”
How to handle the skepticism? Sheila believes we have to design security around the technology. “We have to be that dramatic about it because of the way that this technology is starting to permeate, because of the nature of the transformation that will actually happen if this ever becomes more normalized or more mainstream.”
She described herself as a pragmatic optimist. This means that, in her opinion, blockchain’s application will remain narrow for quite a while — not so different than other technologies that made their path to adoption, such as the internet.
“I am a Bitcoin maximalist — if you want to put it that way — but I have a much longer time horizon. It's going to take quite a bit of time and I actually have no problem with that. I think it behooves us to be very thoughtful.”
Sheila also thinks that the problems that exist with Bitcoin are solvable. “I won't say that they're completely solvable. I won't say they are easy to solve. But I think they are solvable. And again, this is reminiscent of the early internet, right? There were all kinds of problems of the early internet and they were slowly and painstakingly solved.”
“What I like and what I don't like about Bitcoin are the same thing, ironically. I don't like the fact that we don't really know about ownership. But I think that Bitcoin has retained its diversification, its decentralization more than a lot of other protocols out there. And so, I think that Bitcoin has possibly partially saved or possibly has a better chance of remaining true to those roots and to its origins.
“I don't think Bitcoin is going away. I think that it is deeply important to the ecosystem. I think that its maintenance and its enhancement is deeply important to the entire ecosystem. And I think that it will always have a certain unique role to play. Whether that expands and becomes like the one coin to rule them all — or the one protocol to rule them all — is a matter of ‘let's wait and see what happens.’”
How blockchain can tackle the erosion of trust in public institutions
Experiments with blockchain are taking place in various countries, but it is interesting to note that Sheila’s enthusiasm mainly lies in observing developing countries’ experiments with blockchain.
“There's a lot of opportunity outside of the G-7 or even the G-20. I actually think this technology has the potential to elevate some of those economies. Decentralization is not a radical concept in many parts of the world. It's kind of already happening socially.”
As an example, Sheila mentions adoption of such innovations as WhatsApp and WeChat, which first blew up in places outside of the United States “I was on WhatsApp with my cousins in India years and years before any of my friends in the U.S. used it. The world is big.”
Thus, the WEF is conducting projects in such countries as Colombia, where it is applying blockchain to enhance government accountability and to reduce corruption — so practically, to rebuild trust.
“I actually think that this technology — if it's done correctly, and if the policies around it are designed to mitigate human tendencies toward things like corruption — could provide access to information that could enable third parties or other groups to actually come in and conduct audits. You could actually stem the drop off of trust in public institutions because, in my opinion, that is one of the biggest crises we face.”
Latest WEF developments
In May 2019 the WEF announced the formation of six “Fourth Industrial Revolution councils,” dedicated to different technologies — one of which is following blockchain.
That was in part a result of realizing that the WEF has tremendous credibility as a trusted source for cutting-edge information. The forum is also a place that is trusted by institutions, and they participate in its meetings in full privacy.
“We are a trusted place for a lot of these world leaders to come and experiment and share both their challenges and their concerns, but also their successes.Within the six technologies we chose, blockchain is key among these — perhaps even more than any of the others. Because it's such early days still, the forum’s voice can be really important. And central banks really trust us to appropriately share what they're all thinking about, trust us to bring the right experts to the table to help educate them about the technology.”
The council is comprised of geographically and gender-diverse members (over 40% are women) as well as use cases: banks, regulators, governments, social enterprises and startups. It also represents different opinions on crypto — from Bitcoin maximalists to blockchain skeptics.
The discussions on adoption of blockchain technologies keep coming. The WEF is educating regulators and institutions, helping them be less frightened and embrace the new technology. Thus, at the last forum, the WEF announced its decision to establish a global consortium for governing digital currencies, and it also released its “CBDC Policy-Maker Toolkit,” which is designed to help central banks create their very own state-backed cryptocurrencies.
“We need to build this technology because someday, people's lives are going to be at stake because of the security around it.”
“This technology is about empowerment”
Being a powerful woman is also about believing in what you do and its potential to make the world better. I couldn’t help asking Sheila how she would explain blockchain to her daughters. She said: “Now, I'm rather like ‘Mommy is working on a different kind of money’ and ‘Mommy thinks technology can help people.’”
“What I'm going to tell them is that this technology is about empowerment. It's about giving them power in a system that may have been set up to disempower them. I would like them to take away why I am so invested in this technology, why I'm so passionate about it and why I truly believe it can be transformative.”
“We are brown women, we are minorities in the country that we live in. And part of what I always tell my daughters is that ‘your voice is your power and you use your power, you use your voice to not just help yourself, but to help other people — to help people that don't have access to their own voices for any reason.’ We have to be very mindful of the fact that people aren't always treated the same.”
Her daughters should be proud of their mother, and the blockchain community should be proud of its advocate.