This post is part of CoinDesk's 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Marie Wieck is general manager at IBM Blockchain, where she focuses on driving ecosystem growth around the Hyperledger Project and delivering enterprise blockchain solutions.
In 2019, blockchain’s initial hype has evolved into enterprise platforms driving real digital transformation. Today, real-world use cases for permissioned networks, administered by trusted parties, are yielding benefits in industries including finance, food, global trade and healthcare.
While entrepreneurs and businesses continue to propose novel blockchain concepts worth pursuing, blockchain is now ten years old, surely long enough to identify clear patterns about where it drives the most tangible business benefits. Indeed, we might even say that 2019 marked the end of blockchain tourism, a period when for many, blockchain pilots were less about critically examining and applying a new technology than they were about simply saying you had made the trip. We saw a shift from dabbling in blockchain for the sake of learning more about the technology for technology’s sake, to applying it to solve long-standing problems.
So far, IBM has helped clients launch more than 100 networks that are now in production. The best use cases, in our view, take advantage of the technology’s novel properties, including the ability to track provenance, an increasingly important issue to consumers. 75 percent of consumers said they would consider changing to a brand that offered more product information in 2018, according to a Food Marketing Institute survey, up from just 39 percent in 2016. After making provenance information available in store using IBM Food Trust, the French retailer Carrefour found that customers spent as long as 90 seconds reading it.
While hype surrounding crypto certainly helped drive consumer interest, funding, and innovation in the past, it has also perhaps overshadowed some of the hard business uses to which blockchain is uniquely suited. These advantages include immutability. Blockchain can readily digitize the paper processes once relied upon to share information up and down supply chains. In the longer term, the technology can even make it possible to exchange value between participants where an efficient market maker does not yet exist, for example with carbon credits or cross-border remittances, areas of commerce that have been devoid of clear rules and level playing fields for participants. In short, blockchain is best at tackling problems where there is a lack of traceability or a lack of digital economy.
When these advantages have been exploited, blockchain-based businesses are already beginning to drive sales. Carrefour says it blockchain tracing system, which is accessible via consumer-facing QR codes, has boosted sales of some products. Through shared data, companies like Carrefour can engender greater trust and collaboration between customers, employees and partners.
Distributed ledgers present a dual challenge for companies, one that is arguably 20 percent technological and 80 percent governance. We have seen many successful blockchain pilots, but unless network participants feel comfortable using it to collaborate and share data at scale, the advantages of distributed ledgers won’t materialize.
2019 also offered a clear roadmap for how these governance models should be structured to ensure adoption and growth. These principles must allow for global identity standards that aren’t limited to a single network or country. They must require permissioned, trusted access in a way that centers privacy. There should also be blockchain registries like Hacera Unbounded – almost like network 'Yellow Pages’ – to identify the public entry points to enterprise networks, and participants must ensure open access to key data platforms via API.
When applied, these principles have made it possible to scale blockchain networks rapidly. TradeLens, a solution co-developed by IBM and Maersk to digitize the global shipping industry, became commercially available only in December 2018. But thanks to its open standards and governance structure, the platform has rapidly recruited dozens of ports, freight forwarders, customs offices and more. By July 2020 commitments from key global container operators will cover more than half of world’s container cargo.
While the age of blockchain tourism may be mercifully over, the digital transformation it enables is still only just getting underway. Now that we have a base of successful implementations, we can begin to shift our focus to standards surrounding integration and interoperability.
As we look ahead to 2020, key community efforts will help expand the business impact of blockchain. These include establishing trusted identity standards that apply across networks (and will also speed on-boarding and adoption, like those established by the Decentralized Identity Foundation and World Wide Web Consortium. Meanwhile, efforts like the Token Taxonomy Initiative are creating technical standards for the digitization of assets on blockchain data platforms. These complement the public and regulatory interest in new digital business models around asset-backed stablecoins and digital fiat currencies.
Once we have a shared version of the truth based on shared data and common standards, entirely new business models become possible for companies and individuals. And while this vision may take much longer to come to pass than one supply chain or finance platform, its end goal -- a truly circular, frictionless economy – will be greater than the sum of its parts.