What are we going to do with our problem child, Blockchain?

[This debate articulated here was originally presented by webinar at The North American Bitcoin Conference by Professor Olinga Taeed on 29 January 2021. It was later published by invitation as a guest editorial on 24 March 2021 by Team Blockchain in their weekly newsletter Digital Bytes]

Unlike other 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) Technologies such as AI, IoT, 5G – after 12 years DLT has not yet mainstreamed despite 850% crypto market value growth over the last year to more than US$ 1.5 trillion. Amazon Alexa, Google and Apple Siri AI control our homes – music, heating, doors, etc. At my disabled daughter’s home IoT driven robots deliver her shopping and her IoT door lets them keeping her safe and healthy during the Covid19 pandemic. My 5G phone simultaneously streams 11 live HD video CCTV feeds from my properties keeping my assets secure. Our lives are now increasingly dependent on 4IR but what if blockchain disappears tomorrow? Nothing, absolutely nothing. The world would not notice and there is no user dependency – it has failed to gain traction in our lives. Only drug and sex traffickers, ransomware merchants, and those avoiding public scrutiny from governments (tax and capital flight) would mourne its death. Blockchain has yet to bear any fruit and have impact on our daily lives. I hear you say “bitcoin” but even a decade ago before joining our Centre for Citizenship, Enterprise and Governance as CEO, she was Director of Payments Integrity and Security for Bank of England’s Payment Council and responsible for UK£ 385 billion of daily transactions, so BTC is just a rounding error in the global financial world. So why put up with the 95% crypto scam markets, 20% of funds hacked, when the old enterprise legacy systems adequately service us with inherent rigour and stability. Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

But like any loving parent, and as the world’s first blockchain professor, I am frustrated at the growth of our blockchain child and we have been examining the barriers to traction and maturation that hampers us and the actions we need to alter the current trajectory. Here is our top 7 for your consideration – let us know if you don’t agree!

  1. Trade Body

Decentralized by nature and herein lies a problem to organise ourselves. There are over 1000 exchanges currently with unregulated Binance typically trading nearly US$ 30 billion alone … and yet, we don’t even have a trade body that represents the industry. No one to advocate, no one to respond to government and regulators, or journalists. There is no self-regulation so this exposes us to external over-regulation. Other, much smaller industries, have a trade association why not us? Giants like Chandler Guo and Eric Gu sit on our Advisory Board and it is to these whales we look to bring the crypto industry together to enhance credibility.

2. Social Relevancy

At the start there was a great deal of promise. Industry giants like Don Tapscott, Chris Larsen, and others talked about the technology changing the fabric of society but so far the only winners of the 4 kinds of blockchain enthusiasts have been the speculators, the other 3 (blockchain the religion, the 4IR futurists and the ‘quicker, cheaper, more efficient’ brigade) resigned to just hoping. Blockchain is the movement of a digital asset from A to B, but hard tangible financial assets like money, gold, land and diamonds are not the only kind of assets – post pandemic has confirmed for many of us that soft intangible non-financial assets such as  love, happiness, hope and kindness, indeed our health, have greater value. The things that effect us right now, Climate Change, Black Lives Matter, Politics affecting our Cross-Border Trade, LGBTQ+, Health – we have nothing to say. To focus on this, we have recently recruited 25 university interns to our new ‘Institute of Ideology in Code: Home of Total Value’ to be established in London, Dubai, Singapore. We believe blockchain, with its ability to arbitrate between financial and non-financial value(s) is a key us achieving the UN SDG 2030 agenda which represents 17 ideologies which we can codify and transact through DLT. Even more germane, we are focusing on using DLT to enable the 2021 Dasgupta Review for World Economic Forum, former 2020 Bank of England’s Governor Mark Carney’s view on human values versus financial values, and Pope Francis’s 2019 Economy of Francesco – all 3 believe GDP is no longer the way we should measure wealth and transact it.

3. Standards for Interoperability

There is no TCP/IP for blockchain, again due to decentralization of blockchain there is no common standards and interoperability between blockchains. There has been some noble attempts at this with Hyperledger, our 14 open source whitepapers, etc but at present we are looking at divergence and not convergence. The landscape has become more complex and less coherent with increasing varieties of existing blockchains including fractious forks and splits and bewildering new instruments like ICO, IEO, STO, DeFi, NFT, etc which have meteoric rise and falls as the industry continuously searches for something that sticks. The fact is that we have no Google, Facebook, Amazon of blockchain – we have no raison d’etre for the technology, no Damascus experience that irrefutably demonstrate to the (wo)man in the street why we need it just as did the internet. TCP/IP was invented by my friend Vint Cerf mid 1970’s and Google was created some 15 years later in 1998. We think only time is needed here and that by 2030 we will get there if not sooner although given Satoshi Nakatomo’s 2008 paper we are scheduled to get there mid 2020’s.

4. Scaled Applications

We need to be able to point to a scaled mainstream sector application, not only to showcase to the world what we can do, but also to act as a very large high profile sandpit to pilot our blockchain ecosystems not just individual product solutions. In striving towards this we are busy creating a UK£ 210 million DLT Bank announced in December 2020 in Dubai, a 2700 consortium in supply chains and procurement organisation in Nairobi, a 5G Electric Vehicle community charging solution, and recently announced our engagement in the petroleum oil and gas industry with potentially a blockchain platform build for a company fully listed on the London Stock Market company. Please, no more small stuff, it’s not getting us anywhere but of course even these projects hardly indent their sectors in terms of commercial significance but illustrate the capability of blockchain.

5. Academic Research

Of course academics, like myself, are pedestrian in our approach, and hard to keep up with the burgeoning world of blockchain. Nevertheless, all serious sectors borrow rigour from intense academic research which are non-partisan, no agenda, and neutral with output through peer reviewed journals such as our JV Frontiers in Blockchain with 490 editors. For retail readership we will be relaunching Social Values & Intangibles Review this year which sets out to explain in simple language the benefits of blockchain in non-trivial situations. If it wasn’t for academic research the world would not be able to have responded to Covid19.

6. Institutional Partnership

Governments and major corporates are not, as often perceived, the enemies of blockchain and indeed they will be the main agent for adoption. Facebook Libra was not just a sad failure for the high profile consortium, but a failure for the industry that we did not support the first major corporate to promote the technology; it is not perfect but we all lost in that one. Not disheartened, we applaud the Chinese government digital Yuan CBDC project piloted in 2020-21 and indeed we advise the Chinese Ministry of Commerce through the ‘China E-Commerce Blockchain Committee’. As a sector we must embrace such projects if we are to drive adoption. There is a dearth of consultancies that can operate at the institutional level, our Rothbadi based in Zurich and Team Blockchain in London are rare examples but we need more serious players in the industry.

7. Global Voice

The high intensity of media attention has highlighted the absence of a single point of contact to represent a confusing technology. Does the industry needs a voice of the ‘great and the good’ to respond to criticism, regulators, enquiries, etc? We have put together a new and as yet unlaunched journal for the industry, by the industry, called The Token: Cryptocurrency, Value and Values to represent us as a whole and not a particular sector. Since 2018 we have developed a blockchain vision (in English, in Chinese) for the world which embraces all sectors – public, private, civil society and community and thus hope one day DLT will be a central driver to improve the world we live in. 

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