When in the wild, how does blockchain thrive?
By Kenneth Bok
The long-term utility of any technology is often measured by its essentiality, determined by the extent to which its use becomes second nature. In other words: the more invisible, the better. Take the Internet, for example; the ability to complete an online purchase, access a wealth of information, or stream a film are all activities we now take for granted.
As the very infrastructure that now underpins modern commerce, finance, social relationships, and communication, the Internet’s essentiality cannot be overstated. But when was the last time you thought about it? For those in the blockchain space, this seamlessness is our ultimate goal. With more traditional enterprises experimenting with the tech and governments working to enact supportive legislation, a paradigm shift is underway.
Much like the Internet, blockchain is an infrastructure, rather than a tangible product. Its presence is not meant to be felt or seen. Blockchain is there, behind-the-scenes, set to impact processes from how food is tracked to the way we vote in elections. Today, the question surrounding blockchain should no longer be a matter of How does blockchain work? but How can blockchain work for us?
In code we trust
Despite its intangibility, blockchain does have applications that are more apparent than others. When taking its traits of transparency, traceability, and immutability into consideration, it’s evident that the technology is best-suited to copyright or industries such as luxury goods, where establishing a given item’s provenance is essential to its value.
The inability to manipulate data once recorded on a blockchain has also been a boon for copyright innovation, especially in the music industry, where a transparent, unalterable ledger can prove if a consumer has the rights to a piece of music. This is an avenue that streaming giants, such as Spotify, have begun to explore to solve their issues with music attribution.
Similarly, many higher education institutions have looked to implement blockchain-based digital diplomas to avoid issues of tampering or the loss of a physical certificate to the benefit of both students and prospective employers alike. In Singapore, OpenCerts introduced blockchain-based, tamper-resistant education certificates in an initiative established between SkillsFuture Singapore, Government Technology Agency, the Ministry of Education, and Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
When it comes to high-value assets–such as wine, diamonds, artwork, or luxury leather goods–blockchain is also being used by companies to preserve their brand prestige and product quality. DeBeers, the world’s largest diamond producer by the value of its gems, worked with five diamond manufacturers to develop Tracr, its in-house supply chain blockchain platform. It allows users to be assured of the authenticity of their diamonds by tracing the gem’s journey from mine to cutter, polisher to jeweler. Tracr will also ensure that all diamonds are of ethical origins.
Mastering the middlemen
Digital transformation has often plugged the promise of greater operational efficiencies through automation. Blockchain, with the help of smart contracts, is taking it a step further. In industries that have supply chain systems spanning beyond borders and across multiple suppliers, producers, and merchants, blockchain can help to provide a transparent ledger, where the parties can view all transactions and activities.
With the ability to encode specific parameters and conditions, smart contracts can carry out business agreements while simultaneously verifying that the conditions have been met. Smart contracts can be implemented at every level of the supply chain to execute traceable service payments or shipment authorizations. This system reduces the need for arduous and often paper-based administrative tasks, and independently audits for document submissions or transaction records.
The Chinese outpost of the American retail behemoth Walmart has developed a blockchain-based supply chain tracking platform to address local issues with food safety (Coindesk). It allows consumers to precisely identify the source of their food–from farm to grocery store–while farmers and suppliers benefit from a far more streamlined and secure supply chain.
In the insurance industry, blockchain has the potential to drive the creation of new systems, security protocols, and business models that provide tailored services at competitive prices. Smart contracts allow for a more autonomous underwriting process while enabling the automated issuance of new insurance plans, verification, and claim settlements. They can also reduce fraud, human error, and make room for products like microinsurance, which is often too costly to offer under the traditional model when accounting for labor overheads.
Playing the game
Like all technologies, blockchain will soon need to confront the realities of mass-adoption. The staggering number of use cases across a myriad of sectors already proves its real-world utility. With the global blockchain market projected to exceed US$2.3 billion by 2023, the willingness to explore its potential is apparent (Research and Markets).
This is not to say that problems don’t exist. Firstly, scalability is a challenge for today’s blockchains, as slow network speeds can’t compete with those offered by legacy players such as Visa. Indeed, the company’s ability to carry out 20,000 transactions per second far supersedes Ethereum’s 15 transactions per second. Many projects are striving to address this issue, implementing mechanisms for greater transaction throughput.
All technological innovations are characterized by infrastructural change as much as a shift in mindset. The ongoing ideological chasm between pioneering projects and legacy organizations impacts the pace of adoption, as we grapple with the opportunities and risks of decentralization and transparency that it offers.
Though early blockchain adopters struggled to bring their pilot projects to scale, the technology has matured alongside our understanding of its commercial value. No longer on the fringes of the tech industry or academia, blockchain has found its way into enterprise efforts and regulatory discussions, but it still has a long way to go.
Blockchain has been in the real world. You just never needed to see it.
About the Author
Kenneth Bok is the Head of Growth and Strategy at Zilliqa. With over a decade of cross-disciplinary experience in the fields of entrepreneurship, finance, and deep technology, Kenneth is responsible for driving the enterprise adoption of Zilliqa’s blockchain platform. He has also been a seed and angel investor. Kenneth obtained his Masters of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College London along with a Master of Arts in Philosophy and Religion at the California Institute of Integral Studies.