IBM's "master plan" to democratize blockchain

IBM has been investing heavily in blockchain in an attempt to facilitate access to the technology and drive innovation – we talk to Todd Scott, VP blockchain global trade at IBM, to find out more


IBM is a heavyweight with more than enough credentials and influence to shake the foundations of entire industries, something it has proven time and time again. The 107-year old technology giant has held the record for the most US patents generated for 25 consecutive years – the invention of the ATM being just one of its many, many hyper-successful inventions.

And it has now turned its colossal eye toward the latest trend with the power to define this new era of industry: Blockchain.

IBM and blockchain so far

IBM's investment in the technology these past couple of years has been vast. What's more, it has led the industry by successfully predicting that the technology will grow beyond the limitations of its historic applications within cryptocurrency. Instead, IBM has identified that the immutable ledger blockchain provides is a system with the potential to entirely disrupt business as usual, everywhere.

IBM has spent the last few years working on a number of initiatives which seek to not only employ the technology in a range of businesses but to use its own heavyweight status to utilize blockchain as a tool to democratize industries.

For example, earlier this month it applied for a new patent "Blockchain for Open Scientific Research", aimed at using blockchain technology to aid scientific studies and provide a "tamper resistant log of scientific research". In it, IBM lays out a system of dynamic collaboration whereby researchers can track their work across institutional borders.

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IBM also recently applied to patent a system that would use distributed ledger technology as a solution for drone privacy and security concerns in addition to launching its own blockchain payment network for "near real-time" facilitation of international settlements between banks.

As well as filing numerous patents and creating blockchain-enabled solutions across various industries, IBM has established several initiatives that support blockchain innovation from the ground up. For example, this month IBM in conjunction with Columbia University set up two new accelerator programs to support startups at various stages of blockchain innovation.

IBM, blockchain and the supply chain

IBM has focused its blockchain innovation within the supply chain, one of the key areas the transparency and ledger system has the potential to completely change.

One of these systems launched in 2017, IBM Food Trust, is a blockchain-enabled food traceability platform for retailers, wholesalers and suppliers. Another investment in bringing blockchain to the supply chain industry has been TradeLens, its solution with Maersk to introduce a blockchain-powered shipping solution. This solution aims to reduce time-consuming processes to offer a secure digitized option for international trade collaboration.

TradeLens' system

In an interview with Innovation Enterprise, Todd Scott, VP blockchain global trade at IBM, explained just how big the impact of TradeLens will be for the whole supply chain. "There is a need by all members of the ecosystem who move cargo over the waterways to embrace digitization," he said.

For TradeLens, that means two things: "The first thing is that there will be a single platform that all participants can publish or subscribe to, to receive information about the containers," Scott outlined. The demand for transparency along the supply chain has never been higher and by using blockchain IBM and Maersk have created a method whereby carriers can contact all the different parties along the way and see the status of shipments in one place. "This has a huge impact on shippers," he said. "Having all the information on one single platform that's open and easy to access has tremendous business value.

"The second thing is that TradeLens addresses is the huge number of documents that need to be exchanged throughout supply chain participants today," continued Scott. Companies currently tend to pay couriers huge amounts to move these documents around, but this method is far from perfect. Lots of factors, such as an individual in the supply chain being unwell, means that things can be delayed or lost, costing the industry serious amounts. Blockchain can provide a platform where all these documents come together, increasing reliability while cutting cost and inefficiency.

"We're very excited about helping an entire industry, an entire ecosystem to move towards digitalization faster while at the same time reducing cost," he added. And the potential impact of TradeLens' system is significant. "This is projected to lead to an improvement of as much as 5-7% of global GDP if this ecosystem improves just a simple 15%," Scott noted.

IBM and the future of blockchain

These examples are just a small selection of some of the work IBM has been doing to spread the technology and welcome a new era for businesses. Overall, the firm is working toward introducing blockchain to streamline many industries and help businesses utilize it in the future. And it is prepared to do the heavy lifting.

"I think our clients expect us to figure out the hard things," disclosed Scott. "From a technology standpoint, clients feel very comfortable with IBM managing the blockchain, they don't have those concerns that the system is insecure or that it will run out of capacity because they trust us to create a secure platform. This is because we've done it before – we've been in the platform business for decades.

"One of the things we've always done is listened to the marketplace to make sure their needs are met. And when it comes to blockchain it's the same: They expect us to exhibit that leadership and demonstrate that we have the ability to deliver on that."

So, what is it about blockchain that makes IBM so sure it is the future?

"It just addresses a lot of unilateral concerns and business problems," Scott explained. "If a client comes to us looking for a platform for business processes that is secure and trusted then blockchain has the capability to address those concerns. Using the technology, they can minimize paper and work in a trusted environment where they know information isn't shared without their permission.

"We're very excited about the solutions that we have, we are very excited about the reception in the marketplace and we're very optimistic. We've made good progress in 2018, but we are looking forward to making even more progress in 2019," concluded Scott.

What does this mean for blockchain?

IBM's current investments in the technology are just the tip of the iceberg and, as we watch it evolve, no doubt the number of innovations springing from it will multiply. With one of the biggest tech companies with a century-old history of technological innovation behind it, blockchain's potential to disrupt and democratize a range of industries may yet prove to be unstoppable.

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