What is Blockchain and why are we exploring it at This Place?

We live in a world with an excess of software. It is not uncommon to have three or four ride-hailing apps installed on the phone. And more than likely, the ride-hailing app that survives is the one that customers enjoy the most — the software with the best design and user experience.

At This Place, we believe that the success of any software is dependent on designing a remarkable user experience.

Exploring the potential of new technologies is integral to who we are at This Place. Whether it’s a prototype in Virtual Reality technology or the mind reading user interface Mind RDR, we experiment, prototype and challenge both ourselves and the technology to unlock its potential to serve.

Technology often begins as either a hyper-complex tool or so simple as to be derided as a frivolous toy. But given the opportunity to evolve and grow into a thoughtful, considered user experience, technology transforms into a part of daily life. What was yesterday’s geek-tool or toy, is now today’s critical tool. Powerful technology drive by a delightful user experience will find it’s mainstream audience.

Consider the life of RSS feeds … perhaps now known as Twitter. IRC (Internet Relay Chat), a chat technology that has been around since the late ’80s had bots, channels, mentions, topics and almost everything we now have come to know and love in Slack. Rsync, a file system synchronisation application that launched in the mid ’90s, follows many of the principles we now rely on from Dropbox.

Following this paradigm, we can assume that soon many more geeky technologies will discover their mainstream appeal by becoming more user friendly or simply more fun to use.

And now Blockchain is the latest to capture our imagination. Blockchains — the technology underpinning the cryptocurrency Bitcoin — are currently reinventing digital transactions and set the stage for reimagining everything from financial markets to politics.

Despite its surging popularity, Blockchain remains something of mystery to most. It often gets confused with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which is only one of its many applications.

However, Blockchain is poised to overtake the significance of the World Wide Web within less than 10 years time according to the World Economic Forum.

Why do we think Blockchain has such a big potential?

This is what we want to explore with our readers in a new article series here at This Place.

Original diagram by the Financial Times explaining how Blockchain works in the context of digital currency, modified by This Place to make more generally applicable.

To begin, a basic understanding of Blockchain is needed. It’s helpful to look at Blockchain through the technical, business and legal perspective.

Technical

From the technical view, it’s a database that is distributed on many servers. These can be a few servers for private Blockchains within or between organisations, up to thousands, if not millions of computers for public Blockchains such as Bitcoin. The data on those servers is always kept in synch and it is impossible to tamper with the data. If one server or even a number of servers (at the same time) get compromised, the other servers will notice and invalidate the data.

Business

From the business view, Blockchain is a ledger that allows storing and transferring value digitally without having to trust a central authority. In the world as we know it, if we want to transfer money from one account to another via wire transfer, we need an intermediary (i.e. a bank) that both the sender as well as the recipient trust. This intermediary will then transfer the digital representation of the money from one to the other account. With Blockchain technology however, this intermediary is no longer needed. Value can be transferred from one peer to another directly and the trust is provided through the decentralised, unhackable, indisputable single source of truth which is the ledger of all transactions within the Blockchain.

Legal

The third view is the legal view. Imagine that a contract between two parties could be “programmed” and this program could be stored in the Blockchain. As an example, consider an insurance contract: Farmers can buy an insurance contract and if the weather in a specific year does not fulfil the criteria described in the contract, the contract will automatically be executed as programmed and the farmers will get paid out. Typically the logistics of this would be handled by an insurance company. But in a world where such contracts can be programmed and stored in a Blockchain as a “Smart Contract,” the contract could be executed automatically should the conditions be met. In this new Blockchain-powered world, it is possible to set up insurance business models that require very little overhead — the legal agreements run autonomously as they are indisputably stored in the Blockchain.

In a nutshell, the technology allows transfer of assets, value, peer to peer, without any intermediary and it allows the enforcement of pre-agreed rules and contracts. The fundamental nature of the technology enables us to reach consensus automatically, based on algorithms, which addresses current issues of trust.

The Blockchain will help transform the Internet from an “Internet of Information” that we live in today to an “Internet of Value” that we look forward to. We’re excited to share our ideas and experiments with you here in the near future.