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The blockchain game-changer

Apr 27 2018

BoardRoomYou may not fully understand what blockchain is yet but within the next few years it could underpin the way you do business.

Although blockchain is still in the early stages of its development, it has implications for almost every sector of society, says Dr Tomicah Tillemann, a director at New America’s Bretton Woods II programme and a keynote speaker at the IoD’s recent Leading Edge conference in Auckland.

Tillemann, who co-founded the BlockChain Trust Accelerator, and chairs the Global Blockchain Business Council, likens the technology to the internet in terms of its potential to be world-changing. “If you compare the pace of blockchain adoption to the process of internet adoption, realistically we are in 1994. However, it’s moving far more quickly than the adoption of the internet did. This is a train that I think has picked up far more speed earlier on than the internet did, in part because people already understand the importance
of global networks.”

“My assumption is that within the next few years, this is going to be technology that we won’t even think about that much because it’s going to be in the background of many of the tasks that we participate in every day,” he says.

What is blockchain?
At its core, blockchain is a record keeping system. It’s like a decentralised database, or ledger, that is shared and maintained on multiple computers. When a user makes a change, all copies of the database are updated and reconciled almost simultaneously. No one can change the data in a blockchain without other people seeing, which Tillemann says makes it much harder to tamper with than traditional record-keeping methods. “If you think about the way we historically store information, we take all of our data and we put it inside a single house. We lock the door and hope no one can pick the lock, but if someone is able to pick the lock they get access to everything,” he says. “In the case of blockchain, you would have to simultaneously pick thousands of locks on thousands of doors all over the world. This means it is very, very difficult to hack.”

The other critical feature of blockchain is that the data is permanent. Once you put information into a blockchain you can update it, but you can never erase it. “What that means is that they are far more resilient against corruption, against the type of tampering and malfeasance that has sometimes caused problems in the past,” says Tillemann.

What are the potential business benefits?
In the blockchain world, payments, contracts, agreements and transactions can be stored, verified and accessed by all parties involved in a deal. As well as providing a secure record of transactions, blockchain can also make doing business much more efficient and streamlined. By storing all the records and information about a project in one place, everyone involved can easily stay across what is happening. “The ability to strip out a lot of the paperwork and uncertainty that currently characterises business operations and replace that with very streamlined, lightweight, efficient structures is going to be very important for a wide range of industries,” Tillemann says.

Even something like building a house can be simplified by the use of blockchain. “Say you hired a contractor to build that house, and also a number of subcontractors to assist in the process, if all of us agree at the outset that we are going to use the same set of books to keep track of all of the expenses and materials and everything else that goes into that project, it’s going to be much easier to get things done. We’re going to have a faster, more efficient process. What we’re seeing in early-use-cases for blockchain is that processes that previously took days or weeks are distilled down to a couple of minutes in many instances.”

What should you be doing?
As a director, Tillemann says you can do one of two things – embrace the new technology and use it as an opportunity to develop new models for how your business can operate, or, wait until your competitors make the first move, and then be in a position of responding to those changes.

“You need to figure out what kind of company you are, how you make your money and, to the extent possible, rethink your business model to make sure you are maximising efficiency and transparency, maximising accountability and creating a very compelling value proposition for your customers, rather than simply profiting off the friction that characterises so many of the business activities that we engage in every day.”

There are ways businesses can dip their toes into the blockchain world. “We are seeing a number of companies take steps into the supply chain space, and there’s a lot of activity around the use of blockchain in sustainable supply chains, which we see as a big opportunity. There’s a lot of activity around the use of blockchain for money transfers, or the transfer of assets, and there’s increasingly a lot of activity around the use of blockchain to facilitate better interactions between citizens and the state, citizens and government.”

Some of New Zealand’s biggest companies are already exploring ways they can use blockchain-based systems in their businesses. Last year, Air New Zealand announced a partnership with Swiss travel platform Winding Tree, which is developing a travel marketplace through blockchain. At the time, Air New Zealand’s Chief Digital Officer, Avi Golan, said the airline was still exploring blockchain’s benefits, but believed it could offer
a streamlined way to retail airfare and ancillary products alongside its current channels. “In removing complexity from the sales chain, customers benefit from reduced transactional costs, and airlines benefit from swift and secure sharing of information,” Mr Golan said.

Dairy co-operative Fonterra has also recognised blockchain’s huge potential for both improving efficiency and helping to prove the provenance of products. In 2017, Fonterra signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese online retailer Alibaba, aimed at developing a blockchain platform to strengthen their supply chain and to reassure consumers they are getting what they pay for. Maggie Zhou, managing director of Alibaba Group Australia and New Zealand said the project would “enhance traceability models and introduce new technologies to stop the production of counterfeit and fraudulent food products”.

The potential food safety benefits of blockchain have already been harnessed by retail giant Walmart. The company turned to the technology when concerns were raised around the supply chain for pork products being carried by its stores in Asia. Documenting and tracking the process on blockchain meant the company could trace each piece of meat back to a specific section of the farm from which it originated, and then through each stage along the supply chain. Tillemann says blockchain provided a much more cost-effective way for Walmart to ensure food safety than traditional supply chain methods did. “It created a much more secure, far more efficient system, for not only understanding the various inputs in their system, but also guaranteeing if anything ever went wrong they could get the products out of the supply chain without having to pull millions and millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise the way they would have had to have done previously.”

Trade benefits
Tillemann says that trade-based enterprises or companies that are involved in import or export are some
of the biggest potential beneficiaries of blockchain technology, because it has the potential to make the movement of goods, services and assets much less expensive. “For a country like New Zealand, where a substantial portion of the economy is focused around exports and engagement with other jurisdictions, this could be a big boost, if it’s harnessed correctly.”

Barriers to blockchain
The biggest barrier to the widespread adoption of blockchain technology is getting people to comprehend its potential. People have to understand it before they can work out how to use it. “This is a complicated technology and while it’s possible to distil it down, and we try our best to do so and to make it accessible for our audience, ultimately people do have to spend a little bit of time if they want to understand it to a point where they can put it to work in their organisation.”

Once a baseline understanding has been achieved, the next potential blockage will be finding experts to implement blockchain in a business setting. “Because the technology is very much in demand amongst those who have come to an understanding of its potential, there is a limited supply of developers and a limited supply of technical talent available to build blockchain solutions. Those that can build blockchain solutions are for the most part, very hard at work already on deploying new pilot projects.”

If you are worried that you don’t understand the technology or have been too slow on the uptake, don’t despair; even some of the best and brightest of the technology world have been slow to embrace blockchain’s possibilities. Tillemann was recently speaking to the staff of what he describes as one of the largest tech firms in the world, and realised that even some of the best computer scientists in the world hadn’t given much thought to blockchain’s potential and capabilities. “Over the course of our conversation you could see the lights going on in their eyes as they recognised that this was a bit of a game changer.”

What are the components of a block?

1. The Data
This could be any type of information, from records to transactions.

2. The hash number
This is a unique identifier for each block, each time information is changed within the block, a new hash is generated.

3. Hash number of the previous block
This is the hash of the block that came before in the blockchain, this safeguards against tampering with different blocks in the chain. 

Snapshot of blockchain projects underway in New Zealand

October 2016
Auckland-based power company Vector trialled a trading platform with Australian blockchain energy company Power Ledger that allowed consumers to trade surplus energy from solar panels and batteries directly with each other.

March 2017
Fonterra signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese online retailer Alibaba, aimed at developing a blockchain platform to strengthen their supply chain.

October 2017
KlickEx group, a New Zealand company that provides web-based money transfer services, teamed up with IBM and the US-based blockchain network Stellar, to provide a cross-border blockchain-based payments service that reduces the time it takes for a payment to clear
to seconds instead of days.

November 2017
Air New Zealand announced a partnership with Winding Tree, a Swiss-based start-up that uses blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies to eliminate intermediaries in air travel and hotel bookings. The airline said it was looking at a number of potential use cases for blockchain technology, including cargo and baggage tracking, retail, distribution and loyalty programme opportunities.

January 2018
Auckland blockchain company Centrality raised US$80 million (NZ$110 million) in cryptocurrency that can be used in an online marketplace.

March 2018
New Zealand financial technology advisory services provider Capital Trust Group announced it will act as the blockchain exchange advisor to lead two asset-backed token projects and a separate Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) global fighters token project.

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