The blockchain is a revolution that builds on another technical revolution so old that only the more experienced among us remember it: the invention of the database. First created at IBM in 1970, the importance of these relational databases to our everyday lives today cannot be overstated. Literally every aspect of our civilization is now dependent on this abstraction for storing and retrieving data. And now the blockchain is about to revolutionize databases, which will in turn revolutionize literally every aspect of our civilization.
IBM’s database model stood unchanged until about 10 years ago, when the blockchain came into this conservative space with a radical new proposition: What if your database worked like a network — a network that’s shared with everybody in the world, where anyone and anything can connect to it?
Blockchain experts call this “decentralization.” Decentralization offers the promise of nearly friction-free cooperation between members of complex networks that can add value to each other by enabling collaboration without central authorities and middle men.
Let’s start by examining the potential effects of this on an industry that touches all of our lives – banking. The banking industry is filled with shared resources. Consider ATM machines: each machine is owned by a single institution, but accepts cards from a huge network. This sharing requires a complicated management apparatus, mostly provided by VISA. That central entity owns the database and transaction processing layer, which makes everything else possible. If the process of using an ATM had been invented today, with the blockchain as a state-of-the-art database technology as an option, we would most likely not need an administrative entity like VISA to manage the process. Instead, the technology itself would do the heavy lifting of uniting the interests and business processes of the member banks. One can easily imagine a single global blockchain network for managing the interoperability of bank cards. Rather than creating hub-and-spoke methods for organizing our shared resources for mutual advantage, this new technology would provide solutions without any central oversight.
In a world without middle men, things get more efficient in unexpected ways. A 1% transaction fee may not seem like much, but down a 15-step supply chain, it adds up. These kinds of little frictions add just enough drag on the global economy that we’re forced to stick with short supply chains and deals done by the container load, because it’s simply too inefficient to have more links in the supply chain and to work with smaller transactions. The decentralization that blockchain provides would change that, which could have huge possible impacts for economies in the developing world. Any transformation which helps small businesses compete with giants will have major global effects.
Blockchains support the formation of more complex value networks than can otherwise be supported. Normally, transaction costs and other sources of friction associated with having more vendors keeps the number of partners in a value network small. But if locating and locking in partners becomes easier, more comprehensive value networks can become profitable, even for quite small transactions.
Consider the problem that small manufacturers have dealing with giants like Wal-Mart. To keep transaction costs and the costs of carrying each product line down, large companies generally only buy from companies that can service a substantial percentage of their customers. But if the cost of carrying a new product was tiny, a much larger number of small manufacturers might be included in the value network. Amazon carries this approach a long way, with enormous numbers of small vendors selling through the same platform, but the idea carried to its limit is eBay and Craigslist, which bring business right down to the individual level. While it’s hard to imagine a Wal-Mart with the diversity of products offered by Amazon or even eBay, that is the kind of future we are moving into.
As we outline in “The Internet of Agreements,” our paper for the World Government Summit in Dubai, “the incidental complexity involved in business operations could go down by a very large factor, into a domain where a much more complex, contingent and interwoven business environment will emerge. Such an environment might be as different from today’s business environment as container shipping is superior to packing boats by hand.” (Disclosure: I’m the founder of Hexayurt.Capital, a fund which invests in creating the Internet of Agreements.)
For example, imagine the overhead involved in renting temporary furnishings for a house. Right now, this is not a very common practice (particularly for short stays) because of the overhead involved — insurance of each rented item, dozens of vendors, coordination costs getting everything in and out and so on. But if those transactions came down in cost by 90%, it is easy to imagine sites like AirBnB starting to offer custom furniture options in the spaces people are renting. Add robot delivery trucks to that future, and even short stay homes might have custom furnishing options. Making the kind of logistical complexity that is common to (say) theatre productions or aircraft maintenance accessible for smaller events like weddings is just one area where falling transaction costs open up new kinds of business as complex value networks integrate to offer services that simple value networks cannot.
We’re going to see the potential for a trajectory of radical change in all industries. As a society, we’re experiencing a time of unprecedented technological change. It can feel like an insurmountable challenge for leaders to stay on course in such rapidly changing tides. And yet, with each passing generation, we are acquiring more skill and expertise in navigating a high rate of change, and it is to that expertise that we must now look as the blockchain space unfolds, blossoms, and changes our world.