As the news stories around blockchain increase at a furious rate, it can be hard to separate the hype from the reality. This is especially true as the majority of the working use cases are still in finance and many of the other existing startups tend to be very specific and too early stage to report anything concrete.
So, with this in mind, we thought it might be interesting to talk to Reply, a multinational digital and IT consultancy, that has developed a number of new ways to utilise blockchain technology. These have covered the voting system, real estate and the ticketing industry. Matthew Ward, Manager at Sytel Reply [a business unit focused on an open and pioneering consultancy approach], answers a few lightly edited questions below.
What innovative use cases have you been developing for blockchain?
Reply has developed ten blockchain use-cases, or ‘Accelerators’, from a deep understanding of the technology together with our consulting and solutions experience across many industry sectors.
The key thing is to understand what blockchain offers, which is trust without having to rely on a third party or ‘middleman’. Allied to this however, is the need to apply the technology appropriately – using it where it gives you something which is not possible without it.
These ten Accelerators were developed with this in mind and are detailed below; with several more in development. As shown by the graphic, the accelerators cover a range of features, including Digital Notary, Programmable Money, and Smart Contracts.
How have your blockchain solutions mostly come about? (i.e., as direct solutions to problems or as a way to utilise blockchain technology.)
Initially, many of our solutions came about from a 2015 cross-Reply European hackathon, where each team set out to solve a real industry problem where blockchains might provide a new angle or ability. A number of these solutions were then formalised into ‘Accelerator’ status and have been offered, and taken, by our clients in their own industries.
Having demonstrable accelerators has really opened the conversation and since then, we have developed cutting-edge bespoke blockchain solutions for our clients, which directly address real business problems they challenge us to solve.
What challenges have you faced? (Have they tended to be more technical or associated with business processes.)
Challenges we have faced when dealing with such a new concept and technology include a mixture of technical aspects, which are reducing as the technology begins to mature over time, and also around introducing the technology to new audiences where educating and inspiring around the possibilities is important.
Where do you think the most common use cases for blockchain will be, outside of finance, in the future?
To pick a few use cases outside finance out of many; Network Security, IoT ecosystems, Supply Chain Management, B2B Insurance and Peer-to-peer energy exchange are all areas we expect to commonly use blockchain to achieve outcomes simply not possible at present.
What sort of timescale might we be looking at before this is more widely used?
Right now there are a large number of startups and established companies offering blockchain solutions, commercially. Reply tracks the use of blockchain solutions around the world in our Blockchain Observatory document [PDF] we provide to our clients. There are exciting areas of application which will require companies to come together to agree to use these new systems, meaning co-operation and investment will be important. And finally in some areas, for instance in finance and government applications, there may be regulatory issues to overcome.
Which companies do you think are doing interesting work in this area?
Too many to mention, but two blockchain-based implementations of interest are Chronicled, who work with Reebok in order to provide provenance and anti-counterfeiting for trainers; and TransactiveGrid, which enables peer-to-peer energy trading on a local micro energy grid in Brooklyn, NY.
What do you think the future will hold for the use of public and private blockchains?
Public and private blockchains will be commonplace and in many cases there will be bridges and side-chains techniques linking them to create hybrids. Arguably, the most successful public blockchains are Bitcoin and Ethereum, which are primarily for digital money and smart contracts; but as they’re public anyone can see what happens on them. In Bitcoin you can see the contents of any wallet. This transparency is not necessarily what is wanted in corporate and financial environments, and so private blockchains give you that privacy factor, at the expense of centralising the trust to the organisation who controls the blockchain. The key is any solution is engineered appropriately to the problem.
What areas are being overhyped and will blockchain never be useful for (perhaps despite endless proposals to the contrary)?
At Reply, we are very careful to state the reality of any technology and application areas, and blockchain is no exception. We recognise that any new technology follows a hype curve and we track each industry area against that curve. The key for successful adoption is that the blockchain is used as a tool or technique to address a real problem, and not to start out from trying to shoe-horn any technology into a particular solution.
Is there anything else you want to share on this subject?
One of the most interesting facets of blockchain is that machines can now participate in smart contracts and digital money, peer-to-peer, with other machines and people. As we move forward with IoT, wearables, and autonomous cars we can expect to see whole a new ecosystem of applications based on blockchain technology to provide the trust needed to make it all work.
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