In the book Blockchain Revolution, we issued a challenge “to transform the economic power grid and the old order of human affairs for the better.” We had no idea so many people would step up to the plate.

The Blockchain Research Institute’s (BRI) first member summit in Toronto last week provides evidence that profound changes are in the works. On November 8 and 9, leaders from over 60 organizations—including the mayor of Toronto, John Tory, and more than one hundred people passionate about the transformative power of the blockchain—joined us to discuss how best to steward this nascent technology. The event opened with a session attended by 350 members, faculty and special invited guests.

“There’s a big distinction between hype and reality,” said Michael Casey, co-author of the forthcoming book, The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything. “We are in a bit of a blockchain bubble, and there will be a reckoning,” as there was with dotcoms in 2000. “But it is also a boom, with lots of ideas.” In his keynote address, he explained about how bitcoin “changed the paradigm” for what constitutes value by instantiating the concept of a uniquely identifiable digital asset, which makes digital scarcity possible. It democratized and centralized the assets of finance. “To think that it’s a crazy scam is to miss the opportunity,” he said.

Tom Serres and Bettina Warburg of Animal Ventures said that a blockchain future was inevitable. “It’s not necessarily better, but it is inevitable,” said Serres, quoting Kevin Kelly, author of The Inevitable. How this future unfolds, however, is not inevitable. That’s why the theme of our summit was “Navigating the Blockchain Revolution,” to underscore how each member organization could shape this unfolding.

We agreed that job number one was to restore trust in our markets and institutions. “Trust is the currency of government,” said Maryantonett Flumian of the Institute of Governance.

“Blockchain is all about trust,” said Jerry Cuomo of IBM. It provides a means of creating a single shared and immutable version of the truth that enables us to unlock value, create new opportunities, and minimize risk in our economy. Those are huge benefits. According to Tony Scott, Federal CIO under President Obama, the two big questions are how to modernize and decentralize legacy systems that are centralized and siloed, and how to govern and finance them going forward?

The governance of standardization at three levels—platform, application, and industry ecosystem—is critical at this early stage, and BRI members have embraced their role in influencing the development of standards in their domains. Cuomo described how IBM was “dreaming big” about its future in a blockchain-enabled world, and “acting incrementally” to achieve this future. That meant developing a blockchain strategy that included strategic experiments and pilot projects with partners.

“It’s a very generative space,” said Warburg. “There will be great experiments and great failures, but not because the ideas were bad.” Marley Gray of Microsoft said, “Fail fast, fail cheap.” The point is to be experimenting and learning from everyone else’s experiments, and that’s what the Blockchain Research Institute is all about: studying those who are boldly living into their blockchain futures, reporting on what worked and why, and then gathering together to share leadership insights.

“Supply chain may well be the killer app,” said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, an Internet pioneer and MIT fellow. He was commenting on Serres and Warburg’s keynote on the future of supply chains as friction-free, blockchain-enabled, and an always learning “shared state.” As such they become “Asset Chains” – a cognitive supply machine. Nearly everyone in the room was nodding.

Companies such as Fedex, for example, are exploring blockchain for supply chain dispute resolution, which costs a lot and ties up enormous sums of money. Serres smiled, “We created a sticker, ‘Supply chains are sexy.’” Warburg added, “Think about it: everything has a supply chain.” That’s why every company should be developing its blockchain strategy.

“The issue isn’t getting started,” said Kevin Humphries of Fedex. “The issue is getting to scale.” So where should leaders drive capital? “Toward infrastructure,” said Serres. That’s where early funding went in the Internet, and that’s where standardization and interoperability are key. However, to agree on standards, develop business cases, and build out infrastructure all require collaboration. Serres and Warburg believe that the leaders of this blockchain revolution will be coalition builders, like many of the leaders at the summit. Large firms that want fully-baked business cases before they begin experimenting might miss out on the opportunity to learn, said Iliana Oris Valiente of Accenture.

As I reflect on my last 36 hours with the members of the Blockchain Research Institute, I can’t help thinking of the words of Sir Harry Lauder, echoed by Robert F. Kennedy: “The future is not a gift, it is an achievement.” Just as the first era of the Internet was inevitable, so is this second era, powered by blockchain. But we need to shepherd it so that it indeed alters the economic power grid and reorders human affairs for the better. The expertise of our faculty and our members as well as the quality of the discussions over these last two days has convinced me that we will achieve a future that is inclusive, respectful of human rights, and perhaps the most creative ever.

“These are of us, they are with us, All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind, We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing, Pioneers! O pioneers!”

– Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Leaves of Grass, 1865


Don Tapscott is the author of 16 widely-read books about technology in business and society, including The Digital Economy, Growing Up Digital and Wikinomics. With his son Alex Tapscott he is the co-author of Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business and the World and the co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute, a think tank conducting 70 projects about blockchain opportunities and challenges.

The Blockchain Research Institute’s All-Member Summit featured sessions on the following topics:

  1. The Token Economy
  2. Climate Change and Sustainability
  3. Blockchain and the Internet of Things
  4. ICOs and the Future of Finance
  5. Unlocking Healthcare on the Blockchain
  6. Asset Chains – The Future of Supply Chain Management
  7. Quantum-Safe Blockchains
  8. Triple-Entry Accounting and CFOs of the Future
  9. Navigating the Legal and Regulatory Landscape
  10. Distributed Energy
  11. Government Transformation