CONSTRUCT: BlockChain State of the Nation

Photo by Christopher Allen.

Wallet.Services recently attended the first CONSTRUCT event with a select group of BlockChain innovators. We were pleased to be the only Scottish invite to this exclusive 2 day developer and architect conference in San Francisco CA.

BlockChain beyond the hype

Focus was on the technology and TEDx arm-waving BlockChain "hypesters" weren't invited.

Attendees spanned the key global BlockChain consortia and initiatives, innovative start-up enterprises (like us) and a selection of the most BlockChain-engaged big enterprises. 

It was a constructive event which supported global cross-fertilisation of ideas, moved thinking forward, helped identify real-world use cases & shared experiences. Wallet.Services were able to establish new partnerships and connections we'll need to scale globally.

CONSTRUCT 2017 felt like a significant moment in tech history - with significant decisions being discussed and decided, a bit like the mid-1990s evolution of cryptographic securing of the web - and indeed grey bearded luminaries like Chris Allen (father of SSL) were present and fully participating.

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Straight from the horses mouth

The truly skilled and participating global BlockChain community is small (estimates vary at up to around 8000 not counting those hacking around with Solidity and Ethereum) - so the 300 attendees really represented an up to the minute cross-section of views and plans from all corners of the BlockChain innovation universe.

This industry is in its early stages and like any startup keenly focusing on customer and market-fit, Wallet.Services have to follow changes week by week. Many are too busy coding and working on platform and use cases to communicate beyond Slack Groups and Reddit. So CONSTRUCT was a unique opportunity to hear the plans of the big BlockChain tribes of Ethereum, Hyperledger, BitCoin, and big Financial Services. We swapped views with attendees from Japan, Australasia, Europe, and all the corners of North America.

It was also a magnet for BlockChain startups - and so a good opportunity for Wallet.Services and contemporaries to see where they were placed in the "co-operatition" spectrum.

Top 5 takeaways

Wallet.Services learned a lot, and came back to Scotland feeling that our approach to cross-BlockChain cross-Industry BlockChain developer productivity had been validated. We will be back to CONSENSUS in NY in May 2017 to launch our BlockChain platform API, better informed and prepared.

We'll be sharing our learnings at the Scottish BlockChain meetup and here below in summary:

INTEROPERABILITY is the next big challenge

Public CryptoCurrency, BlockChain projects such as BitCoin and Ethereum have impressively cohesive core teams with detailed plans to build features and address real (and perceived?) shortcomings. Overall consensus is that the future will proliferate public and private BlockChains of many different purposes - so the biggest talking points are about Interoperability.

2018 will be the year of "enterprise" BlockChain in Production

In private, permissioned or "enterprise" BlockChains, many early stage, particularly NA based, BlockChain companies are well-funded, have convincing websites and whitepapers, but some did not yet have the demos and code to back up their claims. So far most real-world permissioned BlockChain work has been in the "prototype" space (like Wallet.Services SICCAR). The Hyperledger guys asserted that 2017 is the year of the pilot, and 2018 the year of production.

The BlockChain industry is showing signs settling into "categories" in a BlockChain software stack. This usually predates a bunch of things that end in larger scale enterprise adoption: i.e. 

  1. Analysts like Gartner publish leader/visionary/niche player/challenger diagrams
  2. The capabilities required to deploy robust real-world systems become available and proven
  3. Enterprises see multiple vendors, less risk, and start to buy and build stuff
  4. Vendors compete to make lots of money

We met Joyce Shen (Thomson Reuters lead BlockChain strategist) who published her stack and ecosystem explanation of BlockChain as a "full stack" technology (i.e. spanning network, security, infrastructure, data etc.)

Wallet.Services agree with this notion and foresee that BlockChain-based systems will become commonplace amongst enterprises and government by the 2020s, in much the same way that relational databases powered client/server and web models in the mid and late 1990s.

Optimism for the future - There's much more to come

Right from the kick-off of the Construct conference the core libertarian themes of BitCoin's Bank-free world shone through. Ryan Selkis, Managing Director of CoinDesk, brought up Trump's inauguration and Brexit as examples of how we see global erosion of trust in Governments, institutions, and corporations. He went on to identify the role of BlockChain in building trust and in systems of governance. Throughout the conference speakers repeatedly returned to the themes of:

  • removing "rent-seeking middlemen" (quote from behind the impressive beard of Gregory Maxwell, BlockStream architect of the SideChain 2-way peg) from systems of commerce and administration,
  • individual sovereignty over sensitive information, and taking back control from "faceless corporations
  • BlockChain saving the free world by presenting robust means of protecting internet systems from cyberattack

So the BlockChain community were people with an interesting mix of motives - including delivering "social good" and the more capitalist motives of building a tech company with billion dollar exits for the founders and investors!

Most keynote speakers also had the view that

the most amazing applications are yet to be discovered

So although the conference topics were those that appeal to techie and enthusiast (like consensus mechanisms, developer environments, confidentiality and privacy models), as these evolve more entrepreneurs in more industries will be empowered to build schemes that can deliver on BlockChain's disruptive promise.

Fixing the Internet

Many of the conference attendees seemed to think that the Internet is broken, and that BlockChain might be a way to fix it. The narrative goes something like this:

"The Internet was originally devised as a distributed network of networks, but the web has evolved into a model where data are centralised into isolated and fortified databases, managed by corporations and governments. Today's security models, based on secured access control, intrusion detection and so on, seem to no longer be able to adequately protect sensitive data."

This fundamental assertion has driven initiatives around

  • Identity systems and sovereignty over sensitive info
  • Data governance and document sharing
  • More robust protocols

All of which enable replacement of fragile centralised networks and their freely copied data with the governance of a more robust distributed alternative.

Wallet.Services SICCAR is one such use case.

Public Services joins Financial Services in BlockChain focus

Financial Services was unsurprisingly the industry where BlockChain enterprises are most active, with product developed and pilots underway.

Our global Finance system though reliant on lots of digital systems, manages assets which are not "digital first" (i.e. currency, equities, derivatives, and all the financial instruments whose complexity led to the Financial crash of 2008). So each FS organisation has to maintain its own "state" in a ledger. All these ledgers have to be settled and balanced, leading to problems with errors, long settlement times, and poor transparency.

Wallet.Services confirmed their view that most FS activity is based on this problem space (i.e. incrementally improving efficiencies of existing Financial Services systems) ,  rather than looking at more fundamental innovations which apply digital first assets like CryptoCurrencies, and all their talents, to the task of speeding and promoting more commerce and rewarding and generating new economic activity.

At the conference hot off the press was the announcement from the Australian Stock Exchange to move its trading and settlement systems to Distributed Ledger Technology with Digital Asset Holdings, the start-up set up by an ex-JP Morgan exec which has raised $60M from big FS investors. Chain, who focus on permissioned BlockChain-based financial asset and token transfer, had the best Whitepapers, printed with embossed card covers and were giving away pens; but refused to do a demo despite claimed pilots with Visa and NASDAQ. R3CEV were also conspicuous at the conference - their claim to be the worldwide consortium spanning Finance, Banking, Insurance and Payments starts to lose momentum as they shed big FS members (Banco Santander and Goldman Sachs) and with few pilots to show for the rapid burn through their $150M of funding.

Less conspicuous at the conference, but in evidence in recent news, were Jan and Feb news of Public Services BlockChain pilots throughout the globe. In addition to the US and UK ongoing welfare payments experiments, Dubai announced their Global BlockChain initiative - an ambitious attempt to establish the Emirate as a global public services BlockChain leader. The Swedish National Land Survey announced public testing of their land titles system in March (with Chromaway). Estonia continues to show the way in digital-first public services with Guardtime's Keyless Signature Exchange system behind their own and other governments Health records management and access control. Russia have established their BlockChain strategy and have announced document sharing pilots.

As a final thought, IBM's recent reports says 9 out of 10 government executives polled plan investment in BlockChain projects for transactions, asset recording, regulation enforcement, and identity by 2018.

So many national governments around the world have clear BlockChain strategies agreed and are moving into pilot. At Wallet.Services we are working hard to promote understanding of the BlockChain opportunity in Scottish Government.

This conference couldn't have come at a better time for us as we approach the release date of our developer platform in March - sign up to our newsletter to keep updated on its release. You can also watch our talk at the Scottish BlockChain Meetup on what we learned at #Construct2017 here.