November 16, 2017
I have advised hundreds of the world’s largest corporations on digital trends, and one of the biggest that CEOs and boards are now talking about is Blockchain. What is Blockchain and what does it mean for us? Could Blockchain wipe out our business, or will Blockchain help us grow?
Here is a comment after my recent keynote for the global team of Generali Insurance, on Blockchain.
Blockchain is a very clever method for making permanent global records, with copies held in many different places, totally safe from corruption, deletion, alteration or cyberattack.
Blockchain uses the same technology as BitCoin and other so-called cyptocurrencies.
BitCoin technology was developed to allow a new “virtual” currency to be created, coin by coin, in a way that is permanent, protected, cannot be duplicated or destroyed. It costs a lot of money, mainly electric power to run computers, to create each BitCoin, so they are rare and have real value. BitCoins are traded against many other currencies.
BitCoins are also completely anonymous, and impossible to track when used for online payments, as well as completely secure.
BitCoins are controversial because the system is so strong, that they are now the payment of choice used by many criminal gangs, for drugs, ransom payments, arms deals and so on.
The system works because each payment is registered in an ultra-secure database which cannot ever be altered. This means that each BitCoin can only be transferred once.
If you spend a BitCoin, you cannot spend your same BitCoin again. Once spent, it’s value is registered at the speed of light to another person permanently, using a system that we call BlockChain. Each “block” is an individual cluster of records, and each “Chain” is a time-stamped sequence of blocks.
But we can use the same registration system for another purpose: to register documents rather than ownership of BitCoins.
Blockchain means that anyone in the world with online access can prove a particular document exists, when it was sent, who it was sent to and so on. We can also prove that an event has taken place, in a way which is fully transparent to everyone who needs to know this around the world.
The implications of this are going to be huge. And it will be many years before we work it all out. We are at a similar stage with Blockchain that we were with the web in 1997.
A lot of excitement and speculation, and also a lot of uncertainty about how it will affect us all in practice.
There is no doubt that Blockchain has the power to completely transform every financial transaction or legal process, every trade agreement, every insurance claim and every supply chain ordering system.
That is why we are seeing huge investment in Blockchain innovation, inside large companies, and a huge number of new Blockchain startups, especially in FinTech.
Consider the complex processes to buy a house. Legal agreements are exchanged and signed. Deposits are made, and then final payments. After this, land ownership records are altered in government archives.
Each of these processes has to be checked and verified to prevent fraud and protect both buyer and seller. Each of these steps can be revolutionized using Blockchain.
And as that happens, we will find we have new ways to validate these steps – no longer the exclusive roles of banks and law firms.
A real estate agent could safely handle the whole thing, backed by Blockchain technology. Indeed, buyers and sellers could do far more themselves, cutting costs and speeding up transactions by many days or weeks.
Fraud is a major challenge in the insurance industry, and means that in many nations people are paying at least 5% more than they should be, just to pay for these losses.
Blockchain could change all that, as well as cut many other costs. Take the auto industry and car insurance. Imagine that every vehicle in the world has its own Blockchain record.
A global register of your car that contains date of sale, past and current owners, details of every repair, accident or insurance claim.
We could also create a global register of individuals and their current or past insurance policies, or a global register of all insured businesses and claims.
Blockchain could mean completely automated insurance: from payment to policy issuing, to triggering a claim, to payout, to confirmation of receipt of payment and closure of the case.
A traveller could take out insurance against flight cancellation. The flight record is made automatically, and shows that a cancellation did indeed happen.
Within seconds, a payment is triggered into the policy holder’s bank account, before the traveller is even aware that the insurance company has been notified.
Blockchain will protect international money transfers.
I spoke at a global payments conference recently and was shocked to discover how many global payments are still relying on last century tech for tracking – which is why cross-border payments are still so slow and so prone to errors.
Blockchain could revolutionise supply chains and manufacturing, allowing buyers and sellers to be 100% confident about receipt of legally binding orders and payments, issuing of shipping documents, registration for customs and excise, proof of payment of import taxes.
Legal processes depend fundamentally on proving that certain events have taken place, and in certifying the legal consequencies of those events.
Blockchain means that legal firms can prove that documents have been issued and in what form. Signed and dated documents can be authenticated in a global secure register.
How do you prove that your digital records are correct? That the date of an email authorizing action on a health and safety matter is the real date and has not been deliberately altered to avoid a prosecution?
Blockchain can be used to permanently authenticate the fact of every email sent and received.
Blockchain can be used to validate all investor information, reports, and other important information.
Expect to see a huge number of experiments with multiple failures along the way. As with all areas of FinTech, we will see common platforms and systems develop, for different industries, using common standards.
And there will be quite a fight amongst different companies to get scale and dominance of their own industry.
The most successful Blockchain companies will become the industrial or legal or financial “Google’s” of tomorrow, with immense influence and power, and systems which are used in many different parts of society.
The financial rewards will be spectacular for the largest winners in the new Blockchain economy. At the same time, we will see some spectacular failures and scandals.
Blockchain is highly complex, depends on sophisticated mathematics and is poorly understood by most small investors or non-technical board members of multinationals.
BlockChain and cyptocurrencies are both areas open to fraud, misrepresentation and deception on a gigantic scale, and expert advice is needed at every stage before engagement.