Interview Hannah RudmanDr Hannah Rudman has over 20 years’ experience leading digital and data innovations through national programs and entrepreneurial ventures. She is the Senior Challenge Research Fellow and Data Policy Lead at Scotland’s Rural College, focusing on how digital and data innovation can help society address the Grand Challenges we face – climate change, food safety and security, loss of biodiversity, and so much more. On the 3rd of March 2021, Hannah Rudman moderated the BLING Mid-Term Conference.
Hello Hannah, thank you so much for being here.
Can you shortly introduce yourself?
I am senior challenge research fellow and data policy lead at Scotland’s Rural College known as SRUC. Previous to being in the academic world, I had a professional career as a digital transformation consultant. Just recently I was an entrepreneur, using distributed ledger technologies and mobile apps to help us make changes to our own behavior around climate change.
You are currently working on solving the world’s biggest challenges, like climate change, with the help of data and digital innovation. Could you tell us how you ended up working on these huge challenges?
I suppose I have always been working on huge challenges but in the early part of my career, back in the 2000s, the challenge was how can we more easily communicate and how we can build better communities. They were the kind of grand challenges of those times and of course digital technologies and data gave us lots of opportunity and benefit to do that better. Of course, now, society’s grand challenges are focused on the climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis, food safety and security, as well as protecting our world from the pandemic. These are now imperative challenges and I think again that digital technologies and data innovations can bring benefits and innovations to these scenarios.
Can you tell me about your current position as senior challenge research fellow and data policy lead and how you are tackling current challenges using digital and data innovation?
My research is grounded in a method called participatory reaction research, which is practice led rather than being practiced based. We are not looking at what people are doing but rather seeing whether using a specific method of doing something or deploying a new product could create an impact. My focus is on how digital tools and data can best assist in assuring, strengthening and improving the natural economy’s impact on the grand challenges. For example, how can agriculture, land management, natural economy businesses positively impact those grand challenges. I think the main way is in thinking about how digital technologies and digital data can help us build trust in the reporting of facts and science about things. For example, food quality and security. How can we prove a supply chain’s provenance, or properly understand through tracking and tracing what is going on in those supply chains from the point of microbe right through to the macro market? One of the projects I am doing at the moment is convening a group of organisations with stakeholders from farmers right through to the financial sector. Trustable Credit (http://trustablecredit.com) is about co-creating, with all of those different stakeholders, open standards for digital devices and their data measuring improvements in e.g. carbon sequestration or biodiversity levels.
You published many articles over the last years, all of them about innovation and most recently on blockchain and ensuring quality in agriculture as well as blockchain in the public sector. How did you get into the research topic of blockchain?
I became interested in the ideas of digital technologies, which could help build trust in facts and science. This started back in 2014/2015, and the technologies that were best then were things like deep mobile context technologies (mobile phones’ sensors began to accurately tell where I am and when). The idea of being able to triangulate more things because of there being more sensors in the digital devices we were carrying was of interest to me. Then distributed ledger technology (DLT) and blockchain networks began to emerge and of course, they have a different kind of meta data structure and data governance structure. Similarly to the older technological approaches, they can prove that things have actually happened, been done factually and validated. DLT is definitely one technology that can provide extra trust through immutable validation and evidence verification. Then, ongoing DLT provides governance of that data journey having happened, and that definitely has benefitted food supply chains. This can especially be seen in context of providing assurance that there are no contaminants in a product because you might have an allergy and you could potentially die, if you had a food that had a contaminant in it. The one that we are seeing more frequently is consumers being prepared to pay a higher price for a product because it can prove local provenance or it can prove a certain set of qualities – such as non allergenic - through that supply chain.
How does your current work relate to BLING?
I am currently a technical expert on the Digital Identity Scotland programme, and obviously, we keep up to date with all of the EU policy and developments, as well as all that is going on in the US around public sector digital identity. I am also on the advisory committee for a big UK research project called the “Centre for the decentralized digital economy”, and I am also an expert evaluator in the European Innovation Council, and have specialized in advising on digital and data innovations like DLT across sectors that are innovating with businesses bringing those proposals for support from EU. I also moderated the BLING mid-term conference in March 2021 and had an interesting exchange with many blockchain and DLT enthusiasts during that time.
In your opinion, what are the main drivers in adopting and accepting blockchain in the society and especially in public sector?
I think that the benefits of DLT are in increases in speed and cost efficiency, especially when transactions are happening between organizations that do not trust each other and cannot trust each other. By utilizing DLT, one can make transactions and because the technology governs it. It is that sort of idea that drives adoption, streamlining multi-party operations in a trustable way or increasing efficiency in private sector supply chains. Public sector bodies have proof that those chains of custody have been operated and governed effectively.
What are the big challenges facing blockchain in society?
The issue here is that blockchain projects tend to use the networks that power cryptocurrencies and at the moment those lack standards and governance. They are anonymous, enormous networks, they have bad actors (hackers, fraudsters, speculators) and they are public and permissionless. However, the same kind technology can come in a different flavor. DLT can be set-up as private and permissioned networks. These have the attributes that really bring different technological benefits. They bring trust and transparency, they can prove immutability without the reputational and technological risks of cryptocurrency networks. I mean this is where it is still all undergoing development, we have not really researched these networks in terms of security extensively, yet. The system architectures of cryptocurrency networks are complex, the technologies that underlies smart contracts and zero-knowledge proofs is quite untested in terms of security testing and of course some of the blockchain networks actually require financial incentives to maintain the integrity of the ledger. That makes security, fairness and transparency more complex to assess.
I think there are also technical challenges to overcome. The networks are still slow, they are still quite cumbersome, they lack scalability, they lack interoperability between each other, there is limited flexibility when it comes to design changes with the blockchain networks. However, DLT’s private and permissioned networks can make different choices about their data structure, use different mechanisms to keep copies of the ledger synchronized. I guess the Bitcoin blockchain network has very little in common with the type of DLT networks that I think the public sector will use, and we should probably begin to differentiate what we are or what we are not talking about in terms of the technical networks we are using.
How, in your opinion, could international cooperation’s and projects help to increase the usage and acceptance of blockchain?
I think we need to tell a more nuanced story from the public sector. We do not particularly want the international public sector uptake driver of blockchain to be cryptocurrency. A better aim for the public sector is to showcase and aim is to create projects that have less friction, that make it easier to do good public things, to enable democracy to work better, to give us more trust in voting, to give us more trustable, easily accessible public services. So yes, I think it is becoming a more nuanced picture and our international coordination projects should begin to more explicitly talk about those differences in aims of what we are trying to do, and about which distributed ledger technology networks we’re using and why. Therefore, the BLING project provides important research and insights into the topic of making blockchain more widely used and increased in acceptance.
Do you have any additional thoughts you would like to add?
The environmental cost of the energy consumption of some of the blockchain networks’ methods of consensus must be considered by the public sector. The choice about which network we are building our blockchain and DLT projects on is really important.. In public sector projects, we should be looking private and permissioned DLT networks, that use different lower energy mechanisms of consensus. It is ethically complex and there are still a lot of technical and moral issues to weigh, to solve this problem. This is where the BLING partners, from different countries but also different economic stakeholders have such an important role. Their cooperation and research aims to decrease the complexity and work on solving those problems.