The next wave of the digital economy is just over the horizon, and it could be built on the blockchain.
Blockchain technology has been rapidly growing in influence since 2015, when it became apparent that the technology underlying the relatively arcane concept of cryptocurrency could transform the financial system. By the end of 2016, major players like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs were laying claim to promising blockchain technologies, filing patents at roughly twice the pace they had at the start of the year.
Enthusiasm for blockchain is not just accelerating, but spreading beyond financial services as SAP and other global organizations consider all the ways it could remove friction and risk in business transactions. From traditional vendors like IBM and Microsoft to leading consultancies including Accenture and Deloitte, some of the world’s biggest companies are acknowledging the many possibilities inherent in the ability to maintain distributed, tamper-proof ledgers that permanently and transparently record transactions. Yet as promising as blockchain already is, the business world may still be underestimating how profoundly it could change transactions, organizations, and industries. It could ultimately change the entire economy.
Trustworthy data and interactions are the cornerstone of the digital economy. As the physical world becomes ever more quantified, being able to guarantee the integrity and provenance of digital and physical assets and the transactions in which they’re involved will become a core competitive advantage — and blockchain is deliberately designed to embed that guarantee in every transaction. Distributed ledgers, smart contracts, and other blockchain technologies could form the foundation on which other exponential technologies combine and scale.
The basic idea is simple: Internet of Things (IoT) sensors in drones, autonomous vehicles, 3D printers, and augmented/virtual reality gear would collect and record data in blockchain-based decentralized ledgers. This data would be immediately verified and could be made instantly available for use by any application. Smart contracts programmed into the blockchain would then execute business processes by drawing on these vast repositories of live data. Everything could be further automated by adding artificial intelligence into blockchain smart contracts to make decisions without human involvement.
Here are just a few of the possibilities that could be someday realized on a blockchain framework:
- Democratized design and manufacture: A blockchain-enabled design and manufacturing platform would allow individuals and small businesses to play a larger role in the digital economy. Products designed from scratch in virtual reality, as well as copies of existing objects scanned with machine vision, could be easily bought, sold, shared, or even digitally remixed, at an affordable cost while protecting intellectual property rights. This would be true whether the work was complex multi-material physical products made with distributed 3D printers — or text, music, and images.
- Autonomous logistics: Intelligent, self-driving delivery vehicles could shuttle products and materials to their destinations, or even use onboard 3D printers to create them in the location where they’re needed, while using blockchain technology to execute and verify every transaction. Machine learning apps programmed into smart contracts, which are also embedded in the blockchain, could optimize routing. This could make the current centralized model of warehousing and logistics obsolete.
- Distributed commerce: Combining blockchain with virtual reality, 3D scanning and printing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles could create immersive, personalized shopping experiences anywhere consumers want to have them. Shoppers could grant permission for vendors to access their purchase history, preferences, and other data stored on a blockchain ledger. Vendor AIs could then generate more accurate recommendations and interact with ecommerce bots that complete purchases automatically. Customers would receive promotions for new styles, medication refills, or replacement parts without even having to think about it. Critically, blockchain would allow buyers to limit access to their personal or proprietary data to specific organizations over a defined period of time, for example, until the end of their shopping experience or the close of their fiscal year.
This may seem like far-future speculation, but a provocative white paper from consulting firm Outlier Ventures Research claims this shift is both inevitable and already underway.
Envisioning the Future City
The more technologies we connect using the blockchain as a framework, the more value we can derive. Imagine that a city has a digital ledger in which every house or apartment has a presence containing all relevant information about the home, from property ownership and mortgage balance to transactional data like utility use, property tax assessment, and past and current contractor relationships. The city could access this “digital twin” to coordinate services and perform administrative tasks related to the property more efficiently and with greater accuracy. The property owner would have a verified, trustworthy way to perform transactions like renting a room, hiring contractors to do lawn work, or selling power generated by solar panels back to the grid. The city utility company could feed power consumption data into an AI to generate energy-saving recommendations, and leverage smart contracts that automatically manage power consumption between smart appliances and the grid to lower costs and improve energy efficiency.
By linking together multiple technologies, this “smart city” could then begin to automate basic city services. For example, IoT sensors could instantly sense a problem (say, a downed electrical cable) and alert the appropriate city agency’s AI to dispatch a technician. The AI might help the technician assess the necessary repair through AR glasses, send templates for parts to the 3D printer in the technician’s truck, reimburse the parts designer through a smart contract, and guide the repair via the AR glasses before finally informing the city agency and property owner when the repair is complete.
Now imagine extending that to the city’s broader infrastructure. A business traveler hops into an autonomous electric taxi at the airport and tells it to take her to a meeting in the city center. Knowing from traffic sensor data that there’s been an accident on the highway, the car automatically chooses an alternate route that ends at the parking lot nearest its destination with an available outlet for charging. As the car parks itself, it connects to an outlet that bills the taxi company in real time for the amount of electricity needed to top up the car battery. As the traveler leaves the parking lot and connects to the city’s public wifi via a social media account, she immediately receives a push notification with a discount at the nearby coffee shop. She stops for coffee and heads for her destination, where the elevator recognizes her phone and automatically takes her to the correct floor for her meeting, right on time.
Meanwhile, city staff can monitor the taxi’s safe operation and ensure the taxi company bills accurately for the ride, check traffic status and push out notifications to all affected drivers, make sure parking is available, confirm the traveler’s opt-in agreement for city wifi, provide the coffee shop’s owner with information on the effectiveness of the day’s coupon, and confirm that the building’s elevators are functioning according to the latest safety codes. Every interaction is transparent, verifiable, and nearly impossible to fake or alter — and just as importantly, it adds to a vast store of data the city can then use machine learning to analyze for future improvements and efficiencies.
A Multitude of Possibilities
The disruptive potential of already exponential technologies multiplies by orders of magnitude when they can intersect and combine. With blockchain creating the framework for that to happen, it’s not entirely hyperbole to put the potential economic transformation on par with the Industrial Revolution. But companies can’t simply wait until digital transformation is upon us. Organizations need to start right now to think through the likely impacts in a disciplined and proactive way. Developing scenarios for the multitude of possibilities prepares us to maximize positive outcomes.
Learn how to bring new technologies and services together to power digital transformation by downloading “The IoT Imperative in Public Services: Government and Healthcare.”
Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and senior analyst at SAP Insights. Raimund Gross is a solution architect and futurist at SAP Innovation Center Network. Ulrich Scholl is vice president of Industry Cloud and Custom Development at SAP.