James Souder

What brings a fashion designer, a law student and an economist into the same room? It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but, in fact, it’s something that only a discussion on blockchain technology could do.

The first-ever Blockchain for Sustainable Solutions Conference was held Friday in Kroon Hall, bringing together more than 200 students and innovators focused on subjects ranging from voting to renewable resources. Attendees discussed the question of how blockchain technology can be applied to environmental and social challenges as well as the current and potential applications of the transaction technology. The conference also served as a kickoff for the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale Blockchain Initiative, designed to encourage blockchain entrepreneurship on campus and beyond.

“Financial innovation is a technology for making the world better,” said Robert Shiller, an economics professor and Nobel laureate who gave the conference’s keynote address. “The world will be different because of this experience.”

Blockchain is a technology most often associated with cryptocurrencies like bitcoin but which can also be used as an alternative to traditional transactions that often require a middleman. Martin Wainstein, a Tsai CITY open innovation fellow and a speaker at the event, explained the technology in four steps. Step one, he said, is the transaction event, or an exchange of goods of some kind in which Person A sends something to Person B. In step two, this online transaction is bundled and referred to as a “block.” The next step is validation, when the “block” is broadcast to the parties involved in the exchange, who approve the transaction. The final step is an update to a record of past transactions, or “chain.” Through this process, Person A transfers something to Person B without paying a third party to verify the transaction.

According to conference chairs Elle Brunsdale FES ’18 and Viktoriia Shvydchenko FES ’19, the purpose of the conference was to foster an inclusive conversation about how blockchain can be used to solve environmental challenges. Although there have been many blockchain events focused on the applications of “blockchain for good,” this conference was the first to focus on “blockchain for sustainability.”

The conference was broken into three panels. The first panel, moderated by Wainstein, focused on applying blockchain to energy and water and featured speakers from the energy sector. The second centered on supply chain, included a representative from IBM and a fashion designer and was moderated by Shvydchenko. The third focused on governance and blockchain’s potential in more social affairs, and was moderated by Brunsdale.

Several conference attendees spoke about their lack of understanding of blockchain and their desire to learn more from experts on the technology.

“Blockchain is a buzzword these days,” Billy Marks SOM ’18 said. “I wanted to go and understand it, so I’m here to educate myself.”

Luke Elder SOM ’19 said he was interested in thinking about the potential sustainability applications for blockchain technology, which was one of the conference’s aims.

Launched in fall 2017 to support entrepreneurship at Yale, Tsai CITY is set to hold several “intensives,” or deep discussions into topics ranging in length from one day to several weeks, according to the program’s website. One such intensive will address blockchain technology; others will tackle topics like food, fake news, gender equity and biotechnology.

Madison Mahoney | madison.mahoney@yale.edu