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Blockchain: Decentralized fairyland or pragmatic enterprise tech?

Will Blockchain burst into leaf and provide CIOs with a credible enterprise solution? Some early adopters believe the answer is an emphatic yes. Picture by Icon Business Media

Blockchain is often portrayed as the Wild West of digital, with criminal gangs grabbing negative headlines with their exploitation of bitcoin, the most popular application to date of the distributed ledger. Blockchain Week, a conference hosted in London in January, did its bit to rebut this stereotype: alongside the expected front runners and entrepreneurs were a handful of NGOs and ethical businesses while a keynote panel was convened to discuss its potential in the enterprise.

The panel, comprising users from financial services, debated the relevance of blockchain for the enterprise and concluded that in time, the distributed ledger will provide a solution for authenticating and sharing data between islands of automation. As a means of creating value by joining up disparate industries, blockchain is as inevitable as the rise of internet, and a far cry from its popular misconception of “a decentralized fairyland”, said Richard Crook, head of emerging technologies, Royal Bank of Scotland.

In enterprise land meanwhile, blockchain is in its infancy although big names including the Royal Dutch Shell and the RBS Bank have nailed their colours to the distributed ledger mast. A consortium including energy companies BP and Royal Dutch Shell are working together to develop a blockchain-based digital platform for energy commodities with trading expected to start by end-2018, the group reported at the end of last year.

Crook at RBS, confirmed that the group has participated in the technology challenge of building a finance-grade public ledger pilot – and, after some teething problems, it is close to production. The biggest challenge revealed by the pilot was not technical, but rather about politics and people. “How to decentralize business models is the challenge for 2018.” The danger of replacing one centralised system with another, was very real, said Crook.

Ajhit Tripathi, partner with Consensys Enterprise, a blockchain systems integrator, echoed this sentiment and the scale of the challenge if the potential of the technology is to be realised. “There’s a far-out vision of decentralisation, but we have to do a reality check with the command and control systems – and mind set – present in most enterprises today”, he pointed out.

The consensus among panellists was that Blockchain needs to offer a pragmatic way forward for enterprises, rather than advocating a lofty ideal. This solution would present itself as a means to link islands of value using blockchain methods: that is in a secure, transparent and immutable way.

While enterprise delegates sat on stage and discussed a future role of blockchain, startups EHab and Live Tree were respectively demonstrating how their blockchain-based businesses are solving the UK housing crisis and transforming the future of entertainment. LiveTree aims to disrupt the stranglehold that Hollywood and major distribution channels exert by offering a films and TV rights distribution platform.

“Hollywood is marketing driven and a lot of the really creative stuff stays on a hard drive, gathering dust”, said one staffer. The platform is end-to-end from talent finding, casting, funding and distribution. Funding for indie projects is raised by the ability to offer and securely transact micro shares in the final film, otherwise too contractually complex and unwieldy in spreadsheet and email world.

Will Blockchain happen in the enterprise? Before the ubiquity of Facebook and social media platforms, companies wished to own their own email systems, reminds RBS’s Crook.  Tripathi invoked the sea change that occurred with the internet: “Irrespective of the short term problems of regulatory challenge, the enterprise’ remit is to serve the customer”.  For that reason alone, blockchain will prevail.

About the author:

Helen Beckett is a journalist who can get to the nub of the matter quickly and present topics across a variety of media in ways that provoke debate and engage people. The digital economy and its impacts are Beckett’s focus, and she works across a number of converging domains, including IT, the workplace and education.

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