If the only image that comes to mind when someone mentions the World Economic Forum is Davos, Switzerland, where plutocrats, politicians, and, inevitably, Bono, clink champagne glasses and strike partnerships between panels on trade, you’re in for a surprise if you visit WEF’s San Francisco office. Located atop the Presidio and spread across squat buildings that formerly served as the headquarters for the Coast Artillery Corps., its setup is as austere as an abbey, nearly silent on a Friday morning in early November. Sure, I count at least three pictures of the U2 frontman with various machers in one hallway, but in a town full of ostentatious offices that make Pee-wee’s Playhouse feel restrained, the clean, bland, orderliness is striking.
About the only thing that reminds you that these are the offices of one of the world’s most influential public-private organizations, which counts former presidents and many Bonos among its ultra-elite network, is the luxury view of the Golden Gate Bridge, as sharp as a postcard despite the haze of the Butte County Campfire that started burning the day before.
You can’t buy a view like that. Unless, of course, you can.
In a conference room on the second floor where drab industrial carpeting meets freshly painted, unadorned walls, I’m waiting to talk with Sheila Warren, who heads up WEF’s Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology team. Warren, 41, is set to moderate a panel at a gathering next door called Technology & Ethics in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a sort of humble-bragging title that makes perfect sense for a group whose modest but bold slogan is “Committed To Improving The State of The World.” (That’s all?)
Getting an audience with Warren has been something of a challenge. Warren’s team is percolating projects in Colombia and India, developing blockchain concepts for shipping industries as well as with various central banks around the world simultaneously. She frequently appears on panels, and she’s a go-to talking head for journalists seeking insights into cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. She is a busy person because everyone is talking about blockchain these days and many of them want to talk to Warren about it.
A lawyer by training, Warren spent eight years at TechSoup, a 501(c)(3) that helps get NGOs get up to speed with technology, before joining WEF in 2017. In addition to blockchain, the World Economic Forum has created departments to study and iterate around artificial intelligence, precision medicine, drones, internet-of-things and autonomous mobility. There’s interest from governments, industries, and individuals around each of those areas, for sure, but in the last couple of years, blockchain has been like the new kid at school whom everyone is totally obsessed with.
“This past year, Davos was crypto crazy,” she recalls of the January 2018 gathering where the theme was modestly (but boldly) stated as “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” With panels on everything from blockchain and medicine to blockchain and aid, and nearly every other sector you can imagine, the technology got a lot of airtime even if many people still didn’t understand it. “It was bananas,” Warren says.
“At that time, my soundbite message was, ‘bitcoin and blockchain are not the same thing.’ I just kept saying that over and over and over again. It’s not surprising there’s an equation there. Part of what I tried to do in Davos was create a separation.” That desire to separate the two—here’s a clip of Warren explaining the difference to a reporter from France 24—makes sense since so much of the press has focused on the flashy, tacky world of crypto zillionaires and their improbable fortunes built, in part, on investor ignorance. For blockchain to stand on its own, the right people need to see it as separate from what still seems to most reasonable people to be the digital equivalent of pogs.
A question put to her repeatedly was Should I buy bitcoin or other crypto-currencies?, a perfectly understandable query in a world where teenagers are suddenly becoming millionaires (of a sort).
“I tried to be very clear that I, and we [at the World Economic Forum], do not give investment advice. That is a question for your wealth advisor if you have one.” (Or your 23-year-old hacker nephew.) “We’re here about the technology. If you’re that much of a speculative investor, pick your poison and go for it…You do you.”
Seeing the strong interest in blockchain and the growing concern about missing out on The Next New Thing, among the Davos crowd, Warren’s team published a paper in April 2018 entitled Blockchain Beyond the Hype. Their hope was to throw a little cold water onto the sudsy crypto foam party. As the title suggests, it was not meant to raise the reader’s pulse.
From the paper’s intro: “The very enthusiasm, therefore, to over-promote the technology is also the very thing that is damaging its long-term prospects.” The paper also served to remind the most powerful people in the world (and the swag bag-hoarding hangers-on who swarm the hors d’oeuvres at the annual event) that blockchain has far more potential than its current use as the buzzword of choice among the Lambo crowd.
“We tried to say, ‘You’re not so far behind the curve. You should know what it is, you should be educating yourself. If you’re a big company, there should be somebody on your staff whose job is to pay attention [to blockchain], but if you’re not currently using it, that’s actually okay because it’s not ready yet for a lot of use cases.”
Warren is personally interested in use cases in the social good space: “I think a lot about social justice, civil liberties, civil rights, ethics,” she says. “To me, blockchain as a technology is an opportunity to address some of those questions in a way that is sustainable and transparent.” It goes without saying that Warren is a woman operating in what has been a largely male-dominated space and it’s one of her goals to create a more inclusive community around this technology, to make information accessible to all.
“You can actually shift balances of power by access to information. You can do that in a way where you track access and control. You can actually assess who put information into what when—depending on the design that you do—and who has access to that information. It’s tamper-proof. Nobody can come in and change it.”
But that transparency and inclusivity must be built into any ledger from the very start to avoid building a shinier mechanism for control or exploitation. “It is imperative, particularly with new technology, particularly with something as new as blockchain, that we’re really thinking from the design phase about inclusion of different viewpoints,” Warren says. “It’s the only way we’re gonna mitigate some of these problems.”
"The very enthusiasm, therefore, to over-promote the technology is also the very thing that is damaging its long-term prospects."
Warren, who was a teaching assistant to civil rights theorist Lani Guinier at Harvard Law and sits on the board of directors for the ACLU of Northern California, developed her commitment to progressive politics—as well as a pragmatic understanding of big institutions—more or less in utero.
“I grew up with a mom who was basically a communist, a woman who grew up very wealthy in India,” she says.
Warren’s grandparents owned plantations in southern India where they grew coffee, tea, mangos, and coconuts. They did very well. “My mother was the one who was unionizing the workers, going in and arguing for fair wages,” Warren remembers. Balance that with Warren’s father, “a Republican until Clinton,” who shared an entirely different point of view with his kids.
“Growing up, our kitchen table was very interesting. My mom was like ‘I’m fighting for a better world’; my dad was like, ‘I’m trying to keep food on the table,’” Warren says with a laugh.
Their daughter, it seems, is trying to do both.
Among the projects Warren is gearing up for in 2019 is a distributed ledger pilot program in Colombia focusing on public procurement. Can blockchain bring transparency to government contracts and minimize corruption, graft, and cronyism? Warren and her team, which currently numbers four with one more to be hired soon in India, hope to bring stakeholders together from government, business, media, and the community-at-large to find out. Can a blockchain designed to untangle bureaucratic red tape around government contracts scale up and be used by other government agencies? Can it then be modified for other countries or, better yet, be used to connect neighboring countries to each other in productive, transparent ways? Maybe blockchain can be used—dare we dream?—to bring nations closer together. That’s the hope anyway.
Aside from the technology and the knowledge of the space, the World Economic Forum’s most important quality is its sheer World Economic Forum-ness—it’s ability to draw disparate groups to the table with its glamor power. “We don’t have a stake in the game,” she says. “We’re lucky because we’re not starting from scratch with these relationships. We take advantage of the Forum’s convening power to bring together these groups.”
And, unlike a tech company, if it doesn’t work, there aren’t VCs or shareholders to answer to or a buzz to chase. “If this technology completely failed, the Forum would still be standing. It’s not imperative to our success that this technology succeeds,” Warren says. “We want to see it succeed in a way that’s really focused on bettering the lives of people.” That’s pretty bold. But at the same time, it’s also pretty modest.