But in the last five years there has been an explosion of interest in the distributed ledger technology as an unparalleled organizing force and an answer to problems that have plagued humans for thousands of years.
"Blockchain can have the greatest effect on traditionally opaque systems where information sharing across traditionally siloed groups can benefit from information verification, validation, and record confirmation, and especially places where 'trust' needs to be rebuilt or increased with such transparency," said Sandra Ro, CEO of the Global Blockchain Business Council.
"Over time, we could see a world where blockchain underlying technology can help create networks which not only verify, validate, and secure information as a single source of truth, but also, add layers of embedded payments, smart contracts automating processes, and create an overall friendlier, more efficient user experience," she added.
SEE: Quick glossary: Blockchain (TechRepublic Premium)
Dozens of groups like IBM and the Linux Foundation have been hard at work demonstrating the universal applications of blockchain technology in fields like agriculture, real estate, government, media, environment, energy, healthcare, and financial services.
Here are ten innovative ways enterprises are incorporating blockchain to revolutionize their industry.
The finance industry is where blockchain started, and no industry has adopted it more voraciously. Ro said blockchain has a range of popular uses within the financial services industry, including for cross-border transactions, clearings and settlements as well as in trade finance.
Huge names like JP Morgan, Fidelity, London Stock Exchange Group, and BTG Pactual in Brazil are working on various use cases like improving settlement processes, and institutional custody solutions for digital asset storage to digitization of assets for investment and trading.
Some companies are focusing on efficiencies and cost saving use cases to others, honing in on new revenue opportunities and development of ancillary business lines.
Vice President of IBM Blockchain Jerry Cuomo said they have been on the ground floor of innovative financial blockchain solutions across the world.
He spoke about one example from Canada where all of the country's seven biggest banks joined together to verify the identity and authenticity of their commercial users.
"If you want to open up a bank account, chances are in Canada that you've already done banking with one of the other banks. They have probably already vetted who you are because there are laws everywhere that force you to know your customer," Cuomo said, adding that the banks took it a step beyond just sharing records.
"What if we used the blockchain to block the data from each other, and only let the user have the data. And then almost license the rights to exchange the data under the control of the user and not the bank. So while onboarding, I say 'Hey, I'm onboarding for TD Bank credit card. I'm going to allow TD Bank to access my data, and I'm going to allow TD Bank to ask one or more of the other banks in the network if they're allowed to do it.' Your identity almost exclusively now sits in an encrypted wallet on your phone versus in all of the banks' databases," he explained.
Cuomo added that internationally, banks are taking the initiative to incorporate blockchain in a number of different ways. Through the Blockchain Community Initiative, 21 banks in Thailand lend each other money with a letter of guarantee through IBM Blockchain. Banks in Australia and South Africa are working on similar projects.
Kazu Gomi, CEO of blockchain research group NTT Research, said contract management was a particular point of interest for certain companies, especially those that deal with sensitive documents, corruption, or fraud.
One of the areas where blockchain is universally seen as an answer to a litany of problems is supply chain management. Ro said the distributed ledger technology and its embedded immutability and transparency are a dramatic improvement over traditional logistics systems.
"Brand names like IBM Food Trust, Wal-Mart, Salesforce, and blockchain startups like Everledger are working on supply chain related 'provenance,' meaning the ability to track and trace commodities. Food, packaged goods, parts, anything that moves from point A to B to C in a supply chain," Ro said. "Some say the world is a series of supply chains."
Cuomo went into more detail about IBM's Food Trust, which brought together some of the biggest rivals in the food industry to better manage the entire system.
Wal-Mart, Wegmans, Nestlé, and four other major food providers banded together with IBM to create the network about three years ago. Now dozens of companies have joined in, hoping to take advantage of the system so that they can identify things like outbreaks much faster.
Before the trust was created, Cuomo said it would take Wal-Mart at least seven days to catch something like E-coli or another problem. Using the example of a bad batch of mangoes, Cuomo explained how blockchain effectively eliminates all of the investigation wait time.
"So imagine, something bad happens, and now you start feverishly trying to figure out where it came from, perhaps you get terrible reports back of people getting sick in certain cities or, God forbid, someone dies. You throw away all the mangoes just to be safe and now, not only do you have food making people sick or killing them, but you also have tremendous amounts of food waste," he said.
With blockchain and the Food Trust, it now takes Wal-Mart 2.2 seconds to trace any of their food products back to the exact farm. In another example, one major fast food retailer uses blockchain to track the temperature of meat as it moves along the supply chain from farm to restaurant.
Kimberly Quinones, executive director of the NYC Blockchain Center, said media companies in New York City were eager to use blockchain for things like copyrights and authentication.
"Those are ready applications and blockchain is great for processes where you have a lot of data, and you want to make it verifiable, trustworthy and readily searchable," she said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it works in really specific areas. A lot of entities are looking at applying this to new challenges rather than going back and changing something that's already well established."
Ro echoed those comments and said the Global Blockchain Business Council received interest from the media and entertainment industry, particularly related to copyright management, micro-payments, and the distribution of royalty payments.
Blockchain is even being used to help better manage large advertising budgets. Cuomo said IBM works with advertisers who now have to produce ads for a very diverse network of mediums, and they need a way to see what is effective.
With IBM's help, advertisers can now tell their clients precisely how their money is being spent, where its performing, and where it isn't all in real time.
Entertainment and sporting venues are turning to blockchain to get a bigger piece of the pie. They're also hoping to stop the spread of fake tickets.
"The original use case of blockchain with ticket tracking was to help prevent scalpers from selling fake tickets. The idea is that all ticket transactions from initial selling to reselling get tracked in the blockchain, allowing event managers to see if a ticket has been resold and at what price," said SailPoint senior software architect Kelly Grizzle.
"An interesting side effect came from this: event organizers can use blockchain to understand who is sitting in each seat so that they can offer special services and promotions to the fans," she added.
Blockchain has found an unlikely home in the ticketing industry, which for hundreds of years has been plagued by scalpers who buy tickets on the cheap and hike up prices closer to the event date.
IBM's Cuomo said True Tickets, a company born out of a blockchain system, would enable venues to get a larger share of the rising ticket value.
"If a basketball team gets hot and makes a run for the playoffs, their ticket might be worth as much as $100. But the scalpers know that as the game gets closer, and the ticket is in demand because now they're a playoff contender, that ticket can sell for $1,000. The scalper will pocket $900 and give the $100 to the team," Cuomo said. "Shouldn't the team or the music venue get more of the take if the demand for the ticket goes up."
True Tickets does exactly this, working to keep track of a ticket value to make sure venues get their full cut.
Healthcare is a major industry seeing the effects of blockchain integration. NYC Blockchain Center's Quinones said regulations around healthcare data and information have been somewhat of a roadblock, but that hasn't stopped companies from using blockchain to better manage patient diagnostic history and the supply chain of pharmaceutical medicine.
Cuomo said companies were testing blockchain on things like drug authenticity and the accuracy of drug trials.
In the future, he said both blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) could work together to help doctors provide a quicker diagnosis using a person's symptoms and life-long medical history.
While education institutions have not been the biggest adopters of blockchain, there are some schools eager to use the technology for certification and authentication.
Cuomo said universities have come to IBM hoping to use blockchain as a way to address fraudulent degrees, or people who falsely claim to have degrees. Right now, most employers go by a person's LinkedIn page, but really there are very few ways, other than personally calling a school, to verify that a person received the degree they said they did.
The same could go for language skills and professional certificates in a number of different industries. All of these degrees need to be verified, and could be done using blockchain technology.
One example that Ro, Cuomo and Quinones mentioned was real estate and the opportunities for blockchain to revolutionize land registries.
"Land registries are typically operated by a government on a network with a single point of failure and/or paper records. Imagine a world where not only are land titles securely verified and confirmed for public record but also, could help reduce times to buying and selling property as well as allowing for more efficient movement and recording of ownership during the history of a property or piece of land," Ro said.
Quinones added that in New York City, an entire field, which she called "proptech," is emerging around technologies designed to help better manage real estate deals and property exchanges, which are rife with the kind of secure contracts and paperwork that blockchain can protect.
Cuomo spoke of his own experience with his home, having to repeatedly pay for title searches to prove that his home was his own. There is huge room, he said, for blockchain to handle land registries and titles.
Last year, IBM announced the creation of TrustChain, a collaboration with global jewelry industry leaders seeking to use cloud-based blockchain technology to provide "one immutable and continuously updated record of transactions that is shared to all network participants."
They also teamed up with diamond conglomerate De Beers for their blockchain-backed platform Tracr, which helped track 100 high-value diamonds throughout their journey from mines to stores.
With Tracr, diamonds will be given a 'Global Diamond ID' that records carat, color, clarity, and other attributes, the report said. The ID number is used to track the diamond through the supply chain and verify both its source and end destination.
Of all the fields that could benefit most from more blockchain, governments were repeatedly cited by analysts in the industry.
Blockchain could be wildly successful at addressing problems of stolen identities, voting, and central banking.
"Sovereign, local, and state governments can really benefit from showing its citizens easier to understand, verified, transparent information as well as potentially digitizing some forms of payments," Ro said.
Cuomo said he has spoken in front of the US Congress multiple times but has mostly gotten questions about blockchain's relation to cryptocurrency, not how it could help the government run more efficiently. Thankfully, other nations are realizing how useful blockchain could be for a variety of troublesome issues.
Cuomo was in Brazil two weeks ago to inaugurate a deal with the government there to help manage birth certificates and death certificates. One of the chronic problems the government had was with the identities of people who died. People rarely reported deaths, allowing them to keep using identities for fraudulent services.
Two weeks ago, IBM recorded its first birth on the Brazilian blockchain platform in Rio
"I do see some movement around the world from governments, but I do think the upside of governments fully embracing blockchain will change every day life in a positive way," Cuomo said. "We can do so much around eradicating identity theft and things like taxes. What if the IRS was just perpetually in line with your ecosystem so there's no need to audit because they have enough visibility?"
There has also been a huge push to use blockchain for good causes. Antti Saarnio is the founder of financial blockchain company Zippie, which he created three years ago with the mission to create earning opportunities for the underbanked and financial access for underbanked people.
"I was interested in business opportunities in bridging the wealthier world with the less wealthy world, the south and north. I saw real decentralization as an opportunity for peer-to-peer economic activity," Saarnio said.
Zippie now handles dozens of financial transactions in Kenya and Zambia. Part of what has made the platform popular is that it allows everyone to make a small percentage of money from everyone they bring on to the platform. People can buy prepaid minutes for their phone and send money through messaging apps with just a link.
A few charities are using the platform to reward local communities for conservation work. Some Zambian companies are using the platform to reward their customers for shopping with them by providing digital coupons and tokens that can serve as a point system.
They plan to expand into microlending as well, bringing small loans to communities, which have been kept out of official banking systems.
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