In a recent long-distance flight from Africa, I was casually flicking through the movie directory, looking for one (or three) which would get me through the gruelling 9 hour journey. My first pick – and by far the best – was The Big Short. An absolutely brilliant, hilarious and very explicit film retracing the 2008 Credit-Crunch, from the first building up events to the collapse of the entire financial system.
fig 1 – Lies and crunches
Thinking about how and what I was going to choose as a topic for this blog, The Big Short immediately came to mind (no idea why), and I was suddenly focused on issues with transparency, fraud and finance. So…can you guess which technology you guys will be reading about? Spoiler: this piece of tech will be to the world what the distributed computer was to Internet.
And the answer is.... BLOCKCHAIN!
Below, you will find a detailed description and explanation of what exactly blockchain technology is. More importantly, we will also be looking at how it can (and will!) change the world, equally considering the barriers to its adoption. Finally, the last part will be focused on companies: who will develop it, required competences, potential competition and what it can disrupt.
What is blockchain? a “for dummies” version
It’s a public, or open ledger which records and confirms transactions anonymously and efficiently (TechTarget defines a ledger as a “chronological accounting record used by various businesses to record financial transactions” which are then categorised into ledger accounts. “These are unique records for every asset, liability equity, revenue and expense” transacted). The impressive aspect about blockchain is, once information is entered into the system, it’s near-impossible to alter it. The notion of cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin) is inherently tied to that of the blockchain : these currencies are purely digital. In other words, you don’t carry it physically, but you can transfer ownership to someone else – the content being pure data. This then creates a record in the blockchain.
Miners – like real life ones – look via algorithms and calculations for issues to solve and correct. They verify the legitimacy of transactions poster by others, collecting them and entering them in a block n, which contains the reference to n-1 block, the summary of the transaction, the time stamp and the Proof of Work which secured the block n. Said blocks are then strung into a chain, where these is no room for inconsistencies or failed edits.
fig 2- representating the blockchain
A very crucial dimension of the blockchain is its public nature. Anyone can access the blocks, and all parties each have a copy of the entire chain. As they transact and interact, all copies are updated following a new iteration in one of them. In other words, this is a decentralised system, self-regulated and anonymous.
According to the Harvard Business Review, blockchain is considered to be a foundational technology, as opposed to simply disruptive. This means that it isn’t actually perceived as a truly disruptive innovation forcing the businesses into adopting lower-cost models to overtake incumbent companies quickly. However, I believe it will force companies to learn new competences in regards to blockchain evolution. From simple use, to localised, substitutional or transformative applications, businesses will have room to explore different ways of managing and integrating blockchain technology.
How will this tech change the world?
A brilliantly exciting question. I must say I’m a big fan of what blockchain promises to bring. I traced back my inspiration for this topic to a flight from Africa. This is because I am absolutely in love with this very promising continent. Development is intrinsically tied to Africa, and blockchain could liberate a massive potential in regards to current issues such as remittance transfer, corruption or terrorism. The biggest potential I see is that it is a means to secure poverty alleviation. The current international system is profoundly market based, and excludes people of all kind who don’t have access to bank accounts for example, because they aren’t necessarily capable to prove their solvability, or even their identity. Blockchain technology would, by getting rid of the middle man, enable their transactions to be quick, risk free (as well as just free) and traceable. Current issues with Barclays and their intention to shut down their banking operations in Somalia (with partners such as Dahabshiil, transiting in Dubai) because of obscure areas, money laundering and potential terrorism funding. From a developmental point of view, I honestly think blockchain is a technology which will bring democratisation and equality of chances to individuals who are unable to enter the formal economic system. It is estimated that 80% of the Global South’s labour force is currently working “off the radar”. Blockchain can help bring 2 billion people out of poverty, and give them a chance to fend for themselves in dignity. Figure from Accenture show that giving access to the developing world’s unbanked individuals, and raising their spending levels to those of higher income countries could generate over $100 billion dollars worldwide.
fig 3- Poverty and Development
But it doesn’t stop there. Data has been our modern economy’s most important asset over the last 25 years. Although we all create it, we – as individual citizens- don’t necessarily get to participate in the value coming out of it. These services can be built onto a blockchain, which means that we would be owning the data in our own personal avatar. It would be up to us to decide when to release it, and when. In other words, when we wish to make a purchase, all the parties at the receiving end of the transaction cares about, is that the person paying has sufficient money to complete it. Blockchain therefore puts the power in the user’s hands, rather than in his or her’s identity (which is what actually dominates the financial system).
Regarding information and clarity, the system would enable parties involved in a transaction to observe in real-time how money moves travels through the system. In the case of deciding on a monetary policy for example, this would enable rapid traceability of the effects of cutting interest rates in real time rather than based on samples from retailers or imprecise indicators.
Because everything would have a digital record, the ledgers are public, data is transparent: it secures accurate reference data provided by each party. It could be used to solve intellectual property issues in the digital age, or simply put a stop to frauds.
Following IBM’s view on the transformative application of blockchains – which they consider “smart contracts” to be the most transformative – I believe this theory to be quite exciting, even if it won’t happen just yet. It suggests the tech will provide the “value fuel” for the Internet of Things. We’re talking here about automate payments, where devices could for example automatically pay for energy, or where payments would only be sent to suppliers once the shipment is delivered. This would be enacted via a signal in the blockchain, triggering the transaction.
So blockchain has an immense potential, ranging from identity management, to international contracts, bank transitions…Things will become cheaper as existing obstacles in current intermediary, expensive processes are removed via this incredible technology, but also more equitable. We’re heading towards a connected, automated and see-through clear future (I hope).
But, there are ‘buts’
fig 4- The Gartner Hype cycle
The future looks bright and promising, no? Of course, now that Blockchain is on the brink of entering the more “mainstream” part of the Gartner curve, there are a few observations we must make to understand what it would mean in terms of changing current practices. Big companies aren’t necessarily very pro-research either, considering the foundational implications blockchain has. Essentially, I believe that like all change, the mental barrier is usually the hardest to pass.
- Instability of the value of digital currencies and the current level of technology
- Cultural adoption – In essence, blockchain means redefining bureaucracy. That, and getting consumers to trust a new system which will know everything about them. This also touches upon managing digital and real world identities: anonymity is required in capital markets, and cryptography provide tools to protect the parties’ information. But how will these digital identities be linked to real ones?
- Uncertain regulatory status – who will regulate cryptocurrencies ? How ? Businesses and financial institutions need precise data related to blockchain regulation, which sharply reduces risk.
- Risks involved with operating a blockchain for a business. The integration concerns linked to applying blockchain technology in companies means strategising and understanding the transitional process. This is also tied to getting everyone on the same page. The risks impacted in “going all” blockchain are huge, especially since the future of many potential employees, such as lawyers, bankers, compliance, back office, middle office…what is to become of these people? It means restructuring the foundations of education, training, ensuring they provide sufficient skills to engage with blockchains, in their everyday lives and in corporations.
- Control, security and privacy – cybersecurity remains one of the largest concerns to be addressed before a total generalisation of blockchain technology. People will be entering their personal information in blocks, creating their own personal avatar. Although the system is highly encrypted
- Huge energy consumption and current capital costs – Although blockchain has a massive savings potential, both in time and money, the initial transition still is a high barrier in regards to companies adopting it, at any degree.
- Companies and blockchain
Who will develop this technology?
I believe the blockchain future to be near, although in regards to what must be done to ensure a general application, there are still many obstacles, which may take time to be overcome. However, blockchain isn’t only going to have an impact on business currently using and accepting bitcoins, but is also vital for emerging businesses or revolutionary existing ones. Some are already using blockchain to track items in complex supply chains. Because it promises to be a tool for efficiency, nine major banks today have already signed partnerships to develop the technology, such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Credit Suisse. In the financial sector, blockchains, as digitised and secure ledgers, can efficiently fulfil the same actions a bank does, minus the middle-man costs.
The ways in which blockchain technology will be integrated also has an impact on which firms will use it:
- single use – These applications are the easiest, as they don’t require as much coordination with third parties. It would comprise, for example, in learning and using Bitcoin as a payment mechanism (which already has a solid market and infrastructure). If we compare Bitcoin to the first emails, which were less costly to use than phone calls, then Bitcoin could be seen as the equivalent of a complex email. Their value end of 2016 amounted to $411 trillions. Learning to use cryptocurrencies will then provide a base for testing more advanced applications of blockchain. Amazon (AWS) for example, has started to try this for delivering cloud based blockchain services.
- localisation – to actually create immediate value, only a number of users are required. This means that if blockchain technology evolves the way network technology did in business, we can expect blockchain-built single use applications to create local private networks. A distributed ledger would hereby connect various organisations, meaning that at this stage, little coordination efforts would be required.There would be a proliferation of private blockchains, serving specific purposes in different industries, providing technology for processing financial transactions in the financial sector for example. The short-term impact for benefitting and working with local applications is obviously a sharp reduction in transaction costs
- substitution – This form of application is high in coordination needs, which businesses will need to adapt to. It replaces the traditional ways of doing business, because deeply rooted processes must be replaced. To function correctly however, every party needs to be able to adopt it.
- transformation – entirely novel applications which would redefine all spheres and branches of society.
This essentially means companies, for the time being, have a choice regarding the level of change they are willing to integrate in their business model, ranging from relatively light – like simply investing in a form of blockchain technology, like cryptocurrencies for example – to deep. Because blockchain is considered to be a foundational piece of technology, it should, in fine redefine business models and structures.
Currently, it appears that the majority of businesses which are based on blockchain technology, or are integrating it in their models, are start-ups. They cut across all sectors, from energy management with Transactive Grid (customers transact in decentralised energy generation schemes), gun tracking with Blocksafe, academia with the Holberton School (authenticating certificates). It seems logical though, as they benefit from the newest information, and flexibility to build upon new tech which may take other companies longer to entirely rethink their approach vis-à-vis the rapidity at which business and individual behaviour is to change. More generally, if firms are built on contracts, then these can be digitalised and relatively simply assimilated in a blockchain. However, they are also built on relationships, which does make question the evolution of traditional companies.
There are numerous sectors other than the financial sector where blockchain technology is currently being applied. For example, in health care. Today, there seems to be an inability to share data across platforms in a very secure way. Better data collection and collaboration would imply a higher probability of correct diagnoses. A start-up named Gem (in collaboration with Phillips Healthcare) has just launched the Gem Health Network. An Ethereal blockchain-enabled platform they developed with multi signature and multi factor authentication tech has permitted to build a secure universal data infrastructure. In charity, the Bitgive Foundation uses the blockchains transparent and secure distributed ledger to enable donors and contributors to track their money, and see what it’s used for.
Companies focused on aiding the transitional process will emerge, or existing ones which will add it to their services . For example, “IBM combines industry, process and transaction expertise with [their] cloud-based tools and secure blockchain services to establish trusted blockchain networks and solutions”. Businesses which want to test blockchain without opting for a risky transitional approach can either develop partnerships such as Phillips Healthcare and Gem.
fig 5 – IBM Blockchain
This is a tricky point. Essentially because failing to adopt blockchain for an existing company would mean falling behind. The competition to blockchain innovators therefore, would, I believe come from each other. Who adopts it better? Who adopts it faster? Which transition is smoother? The purpose of the blockchain is globally to enable companies to be more efficient, and cut down costs on intermediary expenses for example.
Companies will have to adapt at an even faster and more efficient pace to be able to stay alive. This means reviewing their business models to the core to be able to integrate a whole new dimension and approach to business as the world speeds up: there will be competition from new entrants, consumers, other industries, which means accelerating or failing.
They must also learn a new model of ecosystem processes, however, as mentioned in the “buts” section, it will take time to identify the right relationships. Businesses must be able to act strategically according to this new ecosystem. Law firms for example, must change to make the smart contracts viable for them; they could rethink their ‘payment by the hour’ model. This also implies developing new skills and expertise in software and blockchain coding.
Everything will be faster and digitalised, and based on teamwork. Companies and parties in general must therefore by able to work together to ensure the chain grows, which adds value and efficiency to it. I believe businesses must not hesitate to refer to services provide by companies such as IBM to aid them in their transitional process.
I had the pleasure to interview RiverRock European Capital Partners CEO Michel Péretié on that matter, to understand its financial implications. For him, this is more than a technology, it could almost be seen as a method, a technique, to enable the implementation of new tools, new systems, new relationships. In other words, innovators will generate new competitors, new foundational ways of practicing business.
The transformational process appears to be typical of other foundational technologies. Indeed, we should expect to see new waves of companies creating transformative applications changing the ways businesses create and capture value.
Middlemen, beware! The trend today is that of rapid information and sharing – we even refer to the term “the sharing economy”, with companies like Uber or Airbnb at the heart of it. And yet…if we think about it critically, they don’t really have much to do with sharing.
In fact, according to Alex Tapscott, founder and CEO of Northwest Passage Venture, a blockchain advisory firm, they’re “service aggregators”, generating billions of dollars by putting together excess capacity.
With a blockchain, the party giving the service already has access to the consumer’s preferences, automatically matching customer expectation to service delivery, according to the criteria. A company using this could have its own payment system built into it such as Ethereum and Ether, meaning there is no need for centralised payment intermediaries. The same goes for organising operations – the distributed application does this on its own.
In other words, we would be paying solely for the service, and the transaction would exclude (and well, render obsolete) a third-party coordinating said service or making sure the payment occurs.
Another large sector to be disrupted by blockchain is….finance. Curiously enough, that is also where most of the excitement and hype regarding this tech is coming from. They are legitimately excited about something which implies destroying it. Indeed, if we don’t financial intermediaries anymore, then why would we pay them?
And yet, disrupting the financial sector also has major implications, which I think are necessary to voice. They are starting to become relatively old systems (around 20 years old) relative that of the modern economy, and also happen to be seriously in debt. Which also brings us back to why they’re in debt and why it may be time for transparency to happen.
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