For the last three years, I’ve been fascinated by the communications potential of blockchain technology. What started as the basis for Bitcoin’s distributed ledger has captured the imagination of multiple industries who see value in a shared, tamper-resistant record-keeping mechanism. Personally, I’ve been passionate about exploring the potential this financial technology as a narrative one — secure storytelling.
One of the most interesting applications for blockchain technology is in securing supply chains — the story of a product’s journey over time. A number of companies have been exploring this application and many pilot projects are in the field now.
Fortunately, BTC Media has recognized this as an area of interest and continues to produce an excellent series of conferences under the Distributed brand. I attended the Distributed: Trade conference this week. Here are some thoughts.
1. Trust in Blockchain is Centered in Manufacturing
I presided over a morning panel about the intersection of blockchain technology, supply chains, and trust. Of particular interest: countries whose trust in blockchain companies approximates or even exceeds their trust of technology overall according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer. Perhaps not coincidentally, they include three of Deloitte’s MITI-V (“Mighty Five”) countries — India, Indonesia, and Malaysia—that stand to benefit when China moves toward higher-value manufacturing categories. (We currently don’t poll the remaining two, Thailand and Vietnam.)
These countries are essentially saying “Trust us, because we put our trust in companies who make a technology that means you don’t have to trust me to do business with me.”
This graph shows the informed public’s trust in technology companies and, within that, blockchain companies. The countries that trust blockchain companies the most tend to 1) trust it as much as or more than the broader technology category, and 2) are major Asia-Pacific manufacturing centers.
2. Repeat: Asia Is A Big Deal
Bloq co-founder and entrepreneur Matthew Roszak said that, were he to grade major regions in terms of cryptocurrency adoption, he’d give the U.S. “1,” Europe a “1/2” and Asia Pacific a “5x U.S.” Sure, a vast amount of bitcoin’s mining capacity is centered in Asia, particularly China, but he finds that the overall enthusiasm for the technology in that region is far more pervasive. (And, in terms of general fintech trends in China, see what our Global Practice Chair Deidre Campbell reported from CB Insights’ Future of Fintech conference.)
3. Refreshing Rush to Temper Enthusiasm with Realism
Panelists were generally very careful to temper the enthusiasm for blockchain technology with an honest appraisal of what it can and cannot do. Just like social media pundits tried to sell “blogs” as a de facto form of “transparency” more than a decade ago, participants were wary of pundits who try to sell “blockchain” as “truth.” That said, most agreed with the notion that operating from a shared version of digital truth is already very transformative.
For instance, extra care must be exercised in the areas where the blockchain ledger intersects with the so-called “real world.” It’s akin to the “garbage-in, garbage out” maxim that your high school computer science teacher often repeated — improperly handled, your blockchain might give you a permanent, immutable record of total nonsense. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this, such as requiring multiple signatures attesting to the qualities of a product (e.g., “we independent parties certify that this product is organic”) and other methods.
4. Blockchain Supply Chain Priorities Start with What We Put In Our Bodies
Food and pharmaceuticals held particular interest throughout the day. IBM’s Brigid McDermott told us that far more products are sold as “organic” than are actually grown. (In Russia, professors want to use blockchain technology to address the problem that 40 percent more domestic products are sold as “dairy” than can be accounted for by its milk production.) Startup Qad.re (pronounced like “cadre”) delivered a compelling on-stage demonstration of how blockchain technology and near-field communication (NFC) can help solve the problem of counterfeit medicine.
5. A Significant Communications Problem Remains
I have always believed that the question “But what does it mean for the consumer?!” is not the best — or even a particularly thoughtful — way to evaluate a new technology. Nevertheless, while much of the blockchain discussion is enterprise- and B2B-focused, many envision a world where someone scans a consumer packaged good at retail and its blockchain-recorded provenance is immediately available. While many technologists and business leaders understand how data recorded in such a way is inherently better, focused marketing efforts will be required for the consumer to value blockchain-backed data more than conventional experience. Impossible? Well, not that long ago, we didn’t expect consumers to know or care about cloud computing. It’s a future that communicators should prepare for and be ready to help companies do the same.
Phil Gomes is a senior vice president of B2B Digital for Edelman.