GDR SVP Global Innovation Alex Sbardella explores how the potential use cases for Blockchain are multiplying rapidly.
Last month I went to the IoT Tech Expo 2018 in London’s Olympia, which also incorporates the Blockchain Expo and AI Expo. It is now a huge show with 18 different conference tracks, 300 stands and nearly 300 speakers, which shows just how far these technologies have come in a relatively quick period of time. The overall impression I got was that Blockchain was by far the most represented in the stands – you can take almost anything, it seems, and say “+ blockchain” and you have a startup. This includes some things that wouldn’t immediately seem like an obvious fit.
Ultimately, it seems that almost anything involving a transaction, contract, or claim of quality, and therefore requires trust by one or both parties, can be blockchained. This may or may not also involve direct monetisation of content or goods, cutting out the current platforms and/or middlemen and their margins. This is already having some effect, as YouTube and Facebook are finding. Whether any of these ideas catch on for this particular sector is another matter; the challenge all of these businesses have is that Blockchain relies heavily on network effects, and so they have to get enough people on board at the start to make it attractive to new users (and to even keep the network functioning – Blockchain networks are usually decentralised, meaning the members of the network are also the servers).
One tool Blockchain companies have at their disposal to help build the networks they need, is that they can reward anyone who takes part in the chain with “coins” or “tokens”, which are effectively tiny shares of the company. Essentially users, shoppers, consumers and brands are (theoretically) incentivised to build the success of the network because they all become (very minor) investors. However, they have to reach a critical mass for that investment to be worth anything. This also means they are all at risk of established non-blockchain competitors, who already have a network, simply adding it to their product and using their existing userbase to crush them.
At The IoT Tech Expo there were four examples of innovation that really stood out for me – one based on the IoT, and the rest using Blockchain.
See.Sense is a smart bike light that contains an accelerometer and connects to the rider’s smartphone. For the rider, there are a few perks: lights automatically flashing brighter when they’re approaching roundabouts and junctions, an automatic text to a loved one if it detects an accident, or a theft alert on their phone if the bike is moved. But more interesting is the data that See.Sense are collecting, which they sell back to cities – the lights can detect poor road conditions (through vibration), traffic flows, accident hotspots, and they have a prototype with an air quality sensor. They also have a version that goes into city-wide cycle hire schemes, and that’s where I think it really takes off in terms of the amount of data collected. I really like the idea of utilising an army of people, who are riding around anyway, as a way of collecting data that can make cities smarter, and it’s neat that the user gets something back in return.
Arianee and Seal both seem to be spins on the same idea – they both use Blockchain to allow brands to digitally sign luxury goods so that consumers can easily verify authenticity. The obvious application for this is to stop counterfeiting and/or resale of stolen goods, but the more interesting part to me is the applications for the second hand market. Assuming platforms like eBay and/or regulators sign up to the idea (and the European luxury brands have been very successful at lobbying for anti-counterfeiting measures already in the EU), it enables the brands to be notified of the resale of the goods. This would allow them to maintain customer relationships even if the sale was second hand or grey market– or, less charitably, it allows them to force a cut of the resale cost lest they invalidate the certificate of authenticity.
Seal uses NFC chips and aims its marketing at protecting creators; Arianee uses existing serial numbers (a better solution in my mind) and is aimed at more traditional luxury. I can see this type of Blockchain use case becoming commonplace in future, either driven by startups like Arianee and Seal, or coming from leading fashion brands themselves in a coalition.
Shping is a Blockchain aimed at FMCG brands and consumers. Shoppers can use the Shping app to scan barcodes in the aisles and get information on a product’s benefits, ingredients, provenance etc. straight from the manufacturer, as well as user reviews, third party data and, for some products, authenticity. Shoppers earn “Shping coins” for doing things like uploading photos or reviewing products, which are also part of the chain, and technically, as I mentioned earlier, this makes them minor investors in the Shping network. Their goal is to use these tokens to incentivise both brands to market on the platform, and encourage shoppers to adopt certain behaviours.
Finally, Varanida is a democratic ad network based on blockchain that allows users to directly sell their “eyeballs” to advertisers or content publishers. The proposed system attempts to create a fair value exchange for every player, including users, advertisers and publishers. Content publishers get an easy way to create mini paywalls; advertiser get cheaper ads; and users can protect their privacy because every ad is an opt-in, which should also cut down on click fraud.
This makes a lot of sense to me, and is pretty timely in the wake of GDPR and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Again, the challenge they have is building a network that can compete with AdWords or Facebook (who just announced the creation of their own blockchain division), but as GDPR is going to heavily impact traditional ad networks, advertisers may be looking for alternative solutions, and this is a savvy one.