On 23 and 24th January 2017 the EU Policy Lab attended the 4th Annual Blockchain London Conference & Expo as part of the London Blockchain Week. The 2-day conference gathered more than 200 experts, developers, business representatives and public administrations working on Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) in financial and non-financial sectors. The conference’s aim was to assess present and emerging applications of Blockchain technology, moving from pilots and proof-of-concepts in Bitcoin and other virtual currencies to other explorations in sectors including public services, logistics, arts, media, telecommunications, aid agencies, charities and so on.
Current status and barriers
The predominant view was that Blockchain could become a foundational technology, that is, a basic infrastructure for new economic and social systems in the similar sense as the Internet, as argued in a recent article in Harvard Business Review. Still, participants acknowledged it is a niche technology mostly based in communities of developers and coders, with many technical and practical barriers to be worked out before mainstream deployment, such as:
- absence of standards and formats for widespread adoption and network effects;
- costs of developing highly automated systems and maintaining data storage;
- potential conflict between distributed records and privacy of transactions;
- uncertainty over the need to adapt existing regulatory frameworks or create new ones;
- paradox between inherent decentralisation features of Blockchain and current big consortia developing their own private Blockchains;
- and wider consequences and impacts of disintermediation, especially with smart contracts.
In a prospective outlook on which sectors would Blockchain be first implemented, a few possibilities came up, ranging from businesses focused on checking claims where establishing “truth” and transparency is key, or industries not so heavily regulated or where regulators are willing to work with developers and companies, to easy-to-use services for consumers (such as renting platforms) to lower the barrier of entry, or in developing countries with fewer existing middlemen.
Use cases and pilots
The event offered the opportunity to get acquainted with existing use cases and pilots by European businesses and start-ups. Companies and/or consortia included for instance Tallysticks (invoicing settlement), Cashaa (remittance system), Pledge Music (music), Tagsmart (art works), Factom (document management and smart contracts), Cygnetise (digital signatures), or Epiphyte (cross border transaction settlement). Many cases were focused on development and implementation of smart contracts in companies and governments, covering information management (from raw data to valuable info), permission and compliance procedures, general workflow between different parties, token transfer, or automated processes and machines in IoT.
The conference and expo allowed for a better understanding of existing and promising applications of Blockchain and DLTs through direct interactions with companies, developers and public administrations currently engaged in use cases or pilots. Such an overview will feed into the current exploratory phase of our “Blockchain4EU: Blockchain for Industrial Transformations” project in collaboration with the European Commission Directorate General for Growth.