(Supply + Block) chain: How can we apply it?

July 10,2016 Blockchain, Dapp Education

For those of you who missed it, the “Distributed: Trade” conference is a bellwether of what’s to come in the blockchain world. As far as I’ve seen, it’s the first event with an entire track dedicated to use cases outside of the financial services realm, where we’ve seen the majority of initial mainstream interest over the past few years. Rather, the conference focus was supply chain management and included panelists and speakers representing a cross-section of industries and a diverse array of business models. The attendees were also not the standard blockchain conference crew — beyond the industry insiders, there was healthy representation from incubators, academics, and industry leaders from the health care and pharmaceutical, natural resources, and finance world. And this is just the subset of groups that I had the opportunity to interact with in the short, but packed timeframe. Supply chain management has far reaching consequences, underpinning our modern day economy, and the diversity of thoughts and opinions represented at the event fuelled the many offline conversations taking place outside of the forums.

Although I could attempt a full recap of the event, it wouldn’t do the presenters justice. Rather, I’ve opted to highlight a handful of takeaways and include some personal insights on how blockchain technology will impact industries, FSI and beyond.

The day kicked off with a few general assembly sessions, before the agenda separated into two tracks: FSI and non-FSI. The panel sessions in the non-FSI track covered how blockchain is being applied to supply chain management and trade finance, as well as how businesses can integrate with blockchain technology.

Opening remarks came from the organizers, namely David Bailey, from BTC media, Atul Kamra from SixThirty, and Joe Reagan from the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce (yes, the conference was in St. louis — otherwise known as the “gateway to the west”).

To level-set for the audience, Jeff Garzik, from Bloq did a great job providing a simple and succinct overview of blockchain technology. For anyone in the audience that may have found themselves accidentally at a blockchain conference, while expecting a traditional supply chain conference, would have walked away after this session with a basic understanding of the subject to set the tone for the rest of the day. The stage was then passed to the Executive Director of the Hyperledger Project — Brian Behlendorf. Brian kicked us off with a few stories of the http protocol wars in the ’90s and TCIP history, drawing parallels to what he sees potentially occurring now, decades later, with a new crop of open source technologies. The Hyperledger project has generated significant buzz since its launch in 2015, yet the takeaway from the audience members heading into the conference was that very few understood what the project really is. Is it one infrastructure? Who is it built by? What are the projects within the Hyperledger project? What does it mean when it’s announced that one organization is a member of the project? Brian walked through the paradigms of working in an open source community and the challenges of incentives and alignment. With the backing of the Linux foundation, the Hyperledger project is hoping to introduce a guidance framework to the seemingly chaotic blockchain development world (essentially the overhead tasks done for the common good), while incubating individual projects such as Fabric and Sawtooth Lake.

For everyone who has been asking me for the summary notes of the keynote address I delivered before lunch, Pete Harris from the Distributed Ledger media team did a fantastic job in capturing and conveying the essence of the session. The link to the piece is here:https://godistributed.com/ledger/32/. Overall, my session focused on the intersection of inefficiencies and breakdowns across multiple value chains in the pharmaceutical supply chain industry, in parallel to the opportunities blockchain technology presents as a part of the solution. I also shared insights gleaned working with enterprise clients where we’ve built blockchain applications, from a cross-section of industries.

The afternoon sessions in particular were quite lively. One of the panels included Lamar Wilson, CEO of Fluent, Marc Christman from Commerce Bank, as well as Madhav Goparaju from EY, joined by David Gustin as a moderator. Lamar kicked it off with his world view of supply chain systems and inefficiencies and how that translated into the network his team is building around trade finance. If this event was more so similar to other panels I’ve seen, the banker in the group would typically be expected to cover the media-sanctioned topics from their PR team extolling the value add of the banks in any and all circumstances. It was a pleasant surprise when David broke that mold in very explicitly carving out where his employers had strengths and areas where the bank perhaps didn’t want to play. With the focus on the SME business portfolio, the presence of a blockchain start-up promising more efficiency in the antiquated trade finance process didn’t faze the Commerce bank representative.

In fact, Lamar’s comment that the Fluent network can be thought of as a waterway connecting business, and that the most progressive banks “will jump at the opportunity to become ports on the waterway” garnered some approving nods from the Commerce Bank Senior Vice President .

Madhav brought the perspective from the trade finance advisory angle, commenting on the potential for secondary markets in purchase orders across banks. Really the takeaway here seemed to be that networks players, including Fluent, are working to address some of the challenges in today’s systems and are looking for integration partners along the way, and the benefit to the integrated bank would be access to a new type of financing role that may not have been previously part of their mandate.

The following panel included demos by Dave Sutter, COO of Fluent, and Dominik Schiener, Cofounder of CargoChain and IOTA Foundation. The Fluent demo was fairly smooth — simple UI in a much more intuitive layout than the MS DOS-style interfaces often found in backrooms at companies everywhere. Dominik introduced the IOT trends he’s been tracking and the overlap in a blockchain world, highlighting that rather than human-to-machine interaction, we’re moving towards a world of machine-to-machine interactions. This reminded me of one of the demos from the hackathon that had wrapped up the previous day. The demo idea revolved around access to an autonomous shared vehicle that could ultimately interact with a lawn-mower, such that when the lawn-mower is done with your lawn, it can interface directly with a vehicle passing by to arrange its own transportation to the next closest home that has requested a service, all powered by a blockchain infrastructure for micro payments. We’re a ways-away from this world view, but Dominik was laying out the framework for the IOTA non-profit group to start driving this conversation, as well as shedding light on the Tangle technology they’ve built.

Wrapping up the day, the focus shifted to discussions of the increasing array of blockchain and smart contract products in the marketplace from start-ups, and how the established IT vendors are also getting involved with their own products and services. The start-ups pitched their supply chain solutions and some of the panelists shared their experience of introducing blockchain technology to their organizations. On the enterprise panel moderated by Joyce Shen, Director of Emerging Tech Partnerships & Investments at Thomson Reuters, the speakers frequently reiterated the need for established businesses to start contemplating how blockchain could be best integrated into any IT architectures that are relevant and are already in place.

There was no shortage of ideas and alternative approaches to supply chain innovation introduced in the structured agenda, from IOT and its impact on manufacturing, to the rise of power of consumers, with blockchain as an enabling technology. Not that it came as much of a surprise since there’s an opportunity to innovate from design to manufacturing to delivery to end consumers. Meanwhile, blockchain technology is poised to fundamentally change the way we interact with information and other parties.

At this intersection, I believe there’s a tremendous opportunity to tie the pieces together, connecting the dots between business requirements and emerging technologies.

As a caveat, I’ll be the first to point out that blockchain should be viewed as a piece of the overall technology puzzle, especially given the early stages of where the technology is on the maturity curve. With that said, I’m often asked what the killer app will be of today and tomorrow. My suggestion has been, and continues to be, to think longer term in how we can support the blockchain ecosystem, creating a feedback loop where business requirements can be relayed to the deep technology teams so that technology can advance and move forward in practicable ways.

Right now, we are in the early, hypothesis testing phase: small idea, leading to a hypothesis to test in an MVP (minimum viable product), incorporating learnings, and repeating the process iteratively.

Eventually, as the technology matures and scales, the mechanisms for blockchain technology adoption will adjust accordingly.

Ultimately, that’s what the Distributed: Trade conference was is meant to do — spur ideas, communication, and meaningful connections between a diverse set of people that perhaps wouldn’t cross paths in their day to day operations.

Yet it’s these collisions between technology and business that lead to the most meaningful breakthroughs.

With all of that, I’ve already blocked off my calendar for “Distributed: Health” edition set to take place on October 3rd! Will you be there?