ETHICAL INNOVATION: PROVENANCE’S CHAIN OF COMMAND

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Skipjack tuna at Ambon Market in Indonesia

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Provenance pilot interface scanning a smart label on a tuna packet; tuna at Ambon Market

At the heart of London’s burgeoning tech sector, Jessi Baker is using Bitcoin technology to help us all make better and more ethical decisions
You don’t need to be a CIA agent pulling strings in the ‘deep state’ to understand that although information is certainly powerful in the age of technology, concealing it from others can harbor an even greater advantage. That’s before even considering the huge impact of misinformation and ‘fake news’. If there’s one thing our collective patience won’t tolerate for long, it’s being kept in the dark or, worse still, lied to. It’s why we’re quick to make up stories to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. We like linear tales of cause and effect to help us make sense of the world we live in. In that sense, Jessi Baker, the softly spoken 32-year-old founder of tech social enterprise Provenance, is a new and refreshing kind of storyteller for the information age, revealing narratives that help us make better decisions about how we interact with the world.

Ask Baker what she does for a living and you may not get a straight answer. That’s not because she deals in obfuscation—far from it, for Provenance’s raison d’être is creating supply-chain transparency. Baker is something of a polymath. She has been described as a designer and technologist who creates user-centered experiences, but that doesn’t even begin to describe her diverse journey that led to the founding of Provenance.

“As an undergraduate at Cambridge I studied supply chains and how things are made,” says Baker. “I worked in that sector for a while before moving out to Los Angeles to work for American Apparel, which, at the time, was cutting-edge because its manufacturing was very vertically integrated.”

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Provenance founder Jessi Baker

Deciding that she wanted a change, Baker returned to academia, electing to study Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art. “That’s when I started to really get into digital design—coding and building products with the Internet,” she says. “That’s kind of where I really started to look at transparency and the notion of where our products come from.”

Post-RCA, Baker worked as a creative technologist within the advertising industry, teaming up with international brands such as Louis Vuitton and adidas on digital campaigns and marketing. It was during this time that Bitcoin, the infamous cryptocurrency founded by the equally mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, first announced itself as a blip on her radar.

 

Baker’s vision is a step change in how companies communicate their products, bridging the gap between the maker and the shopper. For many ethical brands, Provenance seems like a wonderful opportunity to provide data-backed stories that we can believe in.

 

“Friends of mine were buying some of it, really as a funny novelty thing and not really thinking that it would be the next stage of the internet, which, if I’m honest, I believe it will be. I was immediately fascinated by its potential, so I quit the ad world and started a PhD in computer science at UCL [University College London]. I was sponsored by Intel and was looking at new ways to make supply chains more transparent using tech.”

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At the very root of Bitcoin is something called the blockchain, a type of secure, time-stamped database (literally a chain of information blocks) first conceptualized in 2008. The blockchain’s purpose in the volatile cryptocurrency is to act as a public ledger for all transactions, but Baker recognized its utility to track and validate any asset or piece of information. Although Bitcoin gets a bad rap for being the go-to funding option for the ‘dark web’, the blockchain itself is an excellent structure for proving data that is impossible to tamper with. As such, it can afford companies and customers completely transparent and trustworthy information about any product’s life cycle, whether that be car parts, architectural supplies, handbags or fish.

“One of our biggest challenges was just trying to describe the blockchain to people. Lots of people find it difficult to get their head around it or trust it, which is partly due to the fact that it is relatively invisible. Blockchains bring a new layer to the Internet and as soon as people start to understand what it means for digital and the Internet in general, there’s this penny-drop moment when they realize that this could change everything.”

So how did an interest in Bitcoin sow the seed for a social enterprise like Provenance? “I realized the concept during my time working for large brands. It was kind of ridiculous that here was this huge smokescreen called advertising that was put up in front of the reality of what some of these businesses are, and that didn’t sit well with me.”

In the retail industry today, the provenance of goods has never been more important to consumers tuned into sustainability and quality. For example, it’s not enough that we find a delectable piece of salmon on our dinner plates—we want to know whether it was rod- or line-caught, wild or farmed, the exact location of the catch, how long it has been in transit and whose hands it has passed through on the way to the table.

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“We’re not trying to score or rate products, we’re just trying to give people more accurate information so that they can make better choices,” says Baker. “We’ve really seen the need for that in the food and drink industry first and foremost. This is where you can find huge compromise on morals and the health of customers, so it’s an area that we felt the paper trail wasn’t robust enough for how important the industry is. I can’t think of anything more important than getting our food system back in shape. The businesses we work with tend to have a more sustainable approach that they want to tell their customers about. At Provenance, we can help reinforce and prove their claims because, at the moment, lots of companies are abusing their claims on packaging. Very often, they simply aren’t what they say they are.”

One industry that seems tailor-made for Baker’s vision of the future is luxury, a sector underpinned by assertions of quality. “For me, the very definition of luxury is to be able to buy something whereby you know every exact intricate detail that has gone into making that, whether that be a bottle of wine or a shoe. And yet, it doesn’t feel at the moment that there’s a notion of that. It’s created in this sort of fantasy world where all you see is the end product and some marketing claims, but I think the reality of a luxury product’s journey to market can be much more indulgent and exciting for people.”

 

‘The ultimate goal of Provenance is that, one day, it will be impossible to buy a product that compromises your health or morals. It will be a passport to products that we can all trust’

 

Baker’s vision is a step change in how companies communicate their products, bridging the gap between the maker and the shopper. For many ethical brands, Provenance seems a wonderful opportunity to provide data-backed stories that we can believe in. For the not-so-ethical brands, it’s a wake-up call. If their competitors start opening up their supply chains to scrutiny, then why aren’t they?

“The ultimate goal of Provenance is that, one day, it will be impossible to buy a product that compromises your health or morals. It will be a passport to products that we can all trust.”

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