Blockchain-for-Land: What We Are Getting Wrong and How to Fix It

Tim Robustelli is a Program Associate with the Future of Property Rights Program at New America, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cointelegraph.com.

The flurry of activity related to blockchain-for-land over the past few years is impressive, with a number of firms working with land registries worldwide.

Yet, skepticism is growing around the technology’s potential for land administration due to the fitful growth of various pilots.

Some projects, notably those in Georgia and Dubai, do continue to grow. But other blockchain-for-land efforts — such as those in Vermont, Brazil and Ukraine — have succumbed to “pilot-itis.” These projects worked on a small scale, and were even replicated, but haven’t been able to reach larger populations.

There are a few noticeable trends behind why some projects scaled and others didn’t. Pilots that struggled to expand ignored influential stakeholders in the early stages. Or, projects tried to address problems for which blockchain was an ill-suited solution. There were frequently unrealistic expectations concerning outcomes, partially due to a lack of blockchain education. Projects are too often undertaken by governments enthusiastic about the technology, but fuzzy on how it works and what it can deliver. Sometimes, a project was implemented under the wrong bureaucratic or legal conditions.

A land registry should first think more critically about its capabilities, needs and ecosystem before implementing a blockchain-based solution. A set of recommendations to assist land officials during their exploration and implementation of blockchain is below:

Get tech experts and land experts in the same room

Blockchain is a database technology at its most basic, while land administration is a public issue with wide-ranging political, social and economic impacts. So, the stakeholders in the room need to understand both technology and land. Those are usually two different sets of people.

A blockchain-for-land project should engage with political, technical and socioeconomic stakeholders from the very beginning. For example, senior land officials can provide long-term strategic vision, and also possess the experience to spot unintended consequences and risks related to blockchain. IT professionals understand technological nuances and can better evaluate blockchain as a back-end technology. Finally, outreach to the broader real estate community can help to promote blockchain as a tool to improve business operations.

Identify the problem and determine whether blockchain can actually solve that problem

Stakeholders must work together to answer the following question: What is limiting the everyday functionality of the land registry?

There are many possible responses, ranging from undocumented land rights to record manipulation, poor service delivery and sloppy paper-based storage. But blockchain can’t solve every problem, and identifying the specific issue to be solved will help determine whether blockchain is an appropriate answer.

Blockchain will not address problems related to inaccurate, outdated or nonexistent records. Nor is the technology particularly helpful in cases in which records aren’t digitized. It can’t rewrite land laws or improve the institutional capacity of a registry, ei