The Age of Blockchain
The dream of a self-regulated, secure, decentralised network sparked as an idea in the 1980s, grew into a quest in the 90s, was finally realised in the late 2000s, and truly came into its own by 2016.
Bitcoin is no longer the only Blockchain platform with wide-scale adoption. A comprehensive Blockchain ecosystem has emerged astonishing momentum in the past five years. According to Blockchain specialist and venture capitalist Josh Nassbaum, “the speed of blockchain’s growth is the fastest that any area of technology has taken off”.
To illustrate the scale of Blockchain’s impact, Nassbaum has identified a Blockchain Project Ecosystem spanning eight major categories and 43 sub-categories that captures the depth and breadth of the blockchain ecosystem.
Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency to use the Blockchain. Since then, many more start-ups have entered this category to improve on the initial work of Bitcoin, or to create tailored products for specific use cases. Companies active in the Blockchain Currency category can be roughly segregated in to three sub-groups: base layer protocols, for projects such as Bitcoin that codify currency exchange protocols; payments, for projects like Ripple, a currency exchange and remittance network, that focus on the transfer of funds; and privacy, for projects that are providing anonymous, untraceable cryptocurrencies.
Blockchain was introduced on the back of Bitcoin, but since then, a diverse category of Developer Tools has emerged, populated by companies and consortiums who are building and refining the tools required to actually deliver game-changing Blockchain applications. As Nassbaum puts it, “In order for many of the Blockchain use cases we’ve been promised to come to fruition, such as fully decentralised autonomous organisations or a Facebook alternative where users have control of their own data, foundational, scalable infrastructure needs to grow and mature. Many of these projects aim at doing just that”.
Ethereum and Hyperledger lead the Smart Contract sub-group, yet are just the tip of the iceberg for a deep and entwined category, with each sub-group enhancing or supporting the other. Other Developer Tool sub-groups that Nassbaum identifies include: scaling, oracles, security, legal, interoperability, privacy, and DAGs (a variation on the technology that uses a ‘tangle’ or ‘block-braid’ rather than a Blockchain).
Fintech on Blockchain is the natural outgrowth of number systems, each with their own currencies, that are required to work together. The projects under this category serve to facilitate the exchange, lending and investment of different cryptocurrencies. Sub-groups under the Fintech category include: trading and decentralised exchange, insurance, lending, and funds or investment management.
The insurance and lending sub-groups are particularly interesting, as Nassbaum points out, for their scalability. Blockchain networks enable greater differentiation of individual risk potentials, leading to cost savings that should in theory pass on to customer. And since Blockchain ledgers are unalterable, users can be confident their individual histories haven’t been tampered with.
Projects in the Sovereignty category are turning to Blockchain to address privacy concerns for highly sensitive data on the cloud. Centralised servers that store user data are prime targets for hackers. Blockchain’s distributed database provides a more secure alternative for some data sets. The Blockchain is not mature enough to handle such projects at scale yet, but is very effective at securing data on a smaller scale. Sovereignty projects can be clustered into seven sub-groups, each addressing a specific data type: user-controlled, governance, VPN, communication, identity, security, and stablecoins.
While the Currency and Fintech categories profile Blockchain applications for currency exchanges, the technology is able to support wide range of transactions between people or parties, without the need for a relationship or trust between those parties. Blockchain facilitates the exchange of both fungible and non-fungible goods, and this category identifies projects in both spaces.
Blockchain is being deployed for the exchange of non-fungible value with projects in the content monetisation, data, marketplaces, and social sub-groups. Blockchain projects for the exchange of fungible goods can be classified under five sub-groups: file storage, computation, mesh networking, energy, and video.
In traditional shared data exchanges, the aggregator of the data is the one who benefits the most and rarely passes that value on to the individuals and companies who own the data. Shared data is also difficult to aggregate and verify between multiple parties, creating a significant barrier to entry where only the biggest players can capitalise on the benefits.
Blockchain lowers the barrier to entry by giving autonomy to data owners that allows them to ‘take their data with them,’ as they engage with other parties for whom their data may be useful. For example, a seller who has built up a reputation for quality over many years in a single market can open business in a new market and carry his reputation with him on an immutable Blockchain. Blockchain also allows for the democratisation of data-collection, enabling a wide network of participants to add, annotate, and build insights from data. Contributors whose data has proven the most useful can be incentivised through tokens, which increase in value as the organisation grows.
Projects currently underway to leverage Blockchain technology for shared data are divisible into five sub-groups: Internet of Things, supply chain and logistics, attribution, reputation, and content curation.
Blockchain’s verification protocol and indelible ledger are a cryptographic means of ensuring that a datum or product — like a movie ticket — is what it says it is and will remain that way for an infinitely long time. Products that are susceptible to fraud can benefit from the Blockchain to guarantee their integrity. Recent projects in the Authenticity category have focused on two sub-groups: data and ticketing.
From the speed with which the Blockchain ecosystem has grown and the scope that it already spans, it is clear that this is a technology that, in some form, will soon have a tangible impact on how we interact with and transact data on the internet.
The value exchange use cases alone are an invitation to imagine just what is possible when we view every transaction as an opportunity to introduce the Blockchain into our daily lives. Specific use cases from banks, governments, and cutting-edge start-ups show what changes are already taking shape.
Since Nasdaq OSX’s first overtures on Bitcoin’s Blockchain in 2015, dozens of financial institutions have begun experimenting with the emerging technology.
“66% of banks will have commercial-scale Blockchain operations by 2020.” — IBM
In 2016, IBM issued a report predicting that 15% of global banks would implement Blockchain by the end of the 2017, and that 66% of banks would have Blockchain operations in commercial production and at scale by 2020.
Bond Transactions (R3, 2016).
In September 2016, US-based fintech start-up R3 announced it had successfully completed a pilot for bond transactions on Blockchain. The platform deployed Smart Contracts to enable the trading, matching, and settlement of US Treasury bonds, as well as automated coupon payments and redemption.
The project utilised Intel’s Blockchain technology and was carried out in partnership with eight banks, including HSBC and State Street, with support from the US Treasury.
Utility Settlement Coin (UBS, 2017).
Led by UBS and supported by the UK-based Blockchain company Clearmatics, a growing network of European banks have teamed up to roll out a Utility Settlement Coin (USC), a type of cryptocoin that is convertible at parity with the currency denomination of any bank deposit. The system, which aims to be operational by 2018, would facilitate the near-instant digital exchange of fiat currencies, with the USC functioning as a digital equaliser. Spending a USC would be the same as spending the real currency it is paired with.
Cheque Chain (Emirates NBD, 2017).
Emirates National Bank of Dubai (Emirates NBD), a leading banking group in the Middle East, announced a unique Blockchain pilot in spring 2017. As a developing region, many of the bank’s customers still prefer to transact via cheque. Rather than enforce a new consumer behaviour, Emirates NBD is piloting an integration for Blockchain that allows customers to continue to write cheques, but enables the bank to instantly store the cheque data on the Blockchain as soon as the cheque is deposited. Once a digital copy of the cheque is made — usually after it is deposited into a cheque deposit machine (CDM) — the bank reads the details of the cheque and stores it on the ‘Cheque Chain’, creating an indelible record of the transaction.
The iconoclastic nature of Bitcoin drew start-ups in droves. Much of the infrastructure around Bitcoin today — including dedicated trading websites, international event organisations, and print publications, not to mention the volume programmers rolling our new applications — did not exist before 2013.
Between 2012 and 2013, venture funding of Bitcoin and Blockchain start-ups surged from USD 2.13 million to USD 95.05 million. Over the next two years, funding grew an eye-popping 726% — hitting USD 690.18 million by the end of 2016. Investment in the blockchain ecosystem nearly doubled again in 2016, reaching USD 1.1. billion by the end of that year.
As the technology matures, start-ups are tackling more than just financial applications, as Nassbaum’s Blockchain Ecosystem demonstrates. Shipping and logistics, art, and even HR are among the industries about to encounter Blockchain solutions.
Provenance (Shipping, Retail, Art).
One feature of Blockchain, its ability to maintain indelible records, has proven particularly useful to merchants concerned with validating the origin of the products they buy and sell. The fight against counterfeits consumes the entire value chain, from brands and buyers to port authorities and customs officials. Provenance, a start-up based in Southeast Asia, has built a Blockchain application to leverage the indelible ledger to validate product ‘proof of existence’, and track the history and origin of goods.
The start-up is a boon to luxury brands, who are turning to Provenance to help remove counterfeit goods from the market. Provenance is proving the applicability of Blockchain technology for wide-ranging, non-financial implementations.
Industry watchers are keen to see Provenance take on the art world as well, where advancements in technology have led to a surge of counterfeits, creating a pressing need to tell truth from fiction.
In the education space, degree and certification issuance and attestation is a surprisingly time consuming process requiring multi-step approvals and signatures. Smart Contracts on the Blockchain create an opportunity to automate the issuance of certificates and attest achievements in real-time through a distributed ledger.
Educhain, a Canadian start-up that recently won second place in the Dubai Blockchain Challenge, is providing a solution for educators, students, and governments to remove current roadblocks surrounding the issuance of certificates, including diplomas. By utilising the Blockchain, Educhain is improving student experiences while reliably verifying the authenticity of certificates for academic institutions and governments.
Colony (Organisation Management).
Perhaps the most profound applications of Blockchain, however, will come not from any one sector or industry, but from a radical disruption to the nature of work. To explore what work will look like when the potential of Blockchain is realised, concept artist Jack du Rose designed a thought experiment that utilises both Blockchain and artificial intelligence to manage a decentralised, autonomous organisation of real human beings.
The concept, called Colony, examines what happens when humans are removed from organisation management, and are instead allowed to focus purely on creative endeavors. By deploying AI to manage tasks and initiate Smart Contracts, Colony creates a space for people to come together to work and create — on time and on budget — without pesky humans messing up the process.
Colony is a perfect storm of emerging technology and a thought-provoking look at what Blockchain might accomplish for society when we realise the potential of the Internet of Transactions.
Government’s interest in Blockchain, which could be surprising given the technology’s anti-establishment origins, seems to fulfill a prediction by Brad Peterson, who led the Blockchain project at Nasdaq OSX. While developed markets with centuries of financial inertia may be slow to adopt the Blockchain, he said, countries in the developing world, unhindered by institutional legacies, could “jump straight to the Blockchain”.
By moving certain government functions to the Blockchain, where all transactions are publicly recorded and validated, governments have been able to weed out the corrosive influence of corruption and increase public trust. For large bureaucracies, Blockchain is also proving efficient at streamlining processes and removing the paperwork burden that frustrates citizens and drains government resources.
In March 2017, there were over 100 Blockchain pilots in progress, planned or announced by more than 30 government agencies on six continents.
From effectively zero in 2013 to over two dozen today, government agencies across the globe are actively pursuing Blockchain implementations to introduce greater security, efficiency, and speed into all manner of government transactions. According to a recent report from Deloitte, there are as many as 64 government Blockchain pilots in progress across the globe, and another 50 pilots announced and planned.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Blockchain has proven particularly attractive to younger countries without a backlog of bureaucratic precedents to overcome. No where else is this trend more apparent than in the United Arab Emirates, where the federal government and the local government of the Emirate of Dubai have embraced the technology wholeheartedly.
The Dubai Future Foundation, a government think-tank charged with imagining and creating the future of the city ten to 50 years ahead of schedule, was instrumental in the establishment of the Global Blockchain Council in early 2016. The Council is made up of heavy-hitters from the technology sector, banks, and major industry players from a wide swath of backgrounds, including Emirates Airlines and Nasdaq Dubai. It was established to facilitate the exchange of knowledge on Blockchain pilot trends and policy development, and serve as a catalyst to Blockchain development in the region.
Within nine months, Dubai announced its own Blockchain strategy, led by the Dubai Future Foundation and the Smart Dubai Office, with a vision to bring 100% of all applicable government transactions onto the Blockchain by 2020. Dubai is bullish on Blockchain. In the words of the Crown Prince of Dubai, “In 2020, the Dubai government will celebrate its last paper transaction”.
“In 2020, the Dubai government will celebrate its last paper transaction.” — His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai
According to some back-of-the-envelope calculations, Dubai stands to save up to USD 1.5 million every year by moving document processing to the Blockchain by 2020. That is the equivalent of delivering the cost of one Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building, located in downtown Dubai — in savings to the economy, year on year.
To transform its vision into reality, Dubai is pursuing Blockchain implementation across all sectors. The government operates three accelerator programmes — Dubai Future Accelerators, the Dubai Blockchain Challenge, and the Dubai Smart City Accelerator — that bring international start-ups to Dubai to test and run Blockchain pilots from and for the city.
As of March 2017, the United Arab Emirates had announced seven Blockchain projects, the most in the developing world.
By October 2017, one year after the launch of its strategy, Dubai showcased its first Blockchain pilot, an application to streamline land title transfers, at the annual GITEX exhibition. The system, developed in partnership with Smart Dubai, who is working with IBM and Consensys to implement their Blockchain projects, uses Blockchain to provide a secure database that records all real estate contracts, including lease registrations, and links these with the local utility authority, the telecommunications system, and various property-related bills. The platform, which is also linked to residents’ Emirates ID and residency visas, enables tenants to complete transactions electronically, and from anywhere in the world.
The benefits of Blockchain extend beyond countries with established technology infrastructure and a robust knowledge economy.
As much as 90% of agricultural lands in Ghana are undocumented and unregistered. The Land Commission of Ghana, which is responsible for regulating land ownership and titles, is widely viewed as ineffective. Land disputes are commonplace among all participants in Ghana’s real estate market, from mining operations and real estate developers to local subsistence farmers.
Bitland, a non-profit NGO headquartered in Ghana, has turned to Blockchain to build a trusted and indelible record of title statuses for unprotected land owners. Bitland is creating a redundant record of land ownership, providing citizens and farmers, as well as larger corporations, with a trusted certificate validating their possession should it be required in the event of a dispute.
Bitland is helping Ghana leap-frog decades of technology infrastructure development and entrenched bureaucratic processes to deliver value, security, and speed to its citizens with the Blockchain.
Inspired by the early success of the programme in Ghana, Bitland is now building its own cryptotoken wallet and Land Registry Blockchain to extend Blockchain technology at scale to all African nations.
Estonia made waves a few years ago by rolling out an e-Citizenship programme for all Estonian citizens — and anyone else in the world who was interested in joining the former Soviet-bloc country’s digital experiment. Estonia’s e-citizen IDs were secured with public key infrastructure, a system for double-blinding user identities that it is integral to the blockchain: Public key infrastructure enables anonymous participation in a network.
As Blockchain technology emerged, Estonia moved quickly to integrate its existing infrastructure with the Blockchain, becoming the first nation to implement Blockchain at a country level. Estonia designed the Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI) Blockchain to ensure the government’s critical networks, systems, and data are free of compromise while retaining 100% data privacy.
Estonia’s KSI Blockchain is now available in 180 countries.