Blockchain years are like dog years. 30 months on from when I originally wrote this article, things have changed, and my opinions with them. I’ve just revisited this post and written a version for 2019. Read it here.
According to Gartner’s Hype Cycle 2016, blockchain technology is hovering somewhere near the peak of inflated expectations, and probably just about to fall off a cliff into the trough of disillusionment at any moment. All over the place, overblown ideas and proofs of concept oversold by those who really don’t understand how the technology works are colliding head-on with scalability challenges, industry-specific regulatory obstacles, dinosaur technology departments and corporate perceptions of events such as the Ethereum hard forks.
As I said in a previous post, when overzealous innovation teams are claiming that blockchains can do anything you want them to, including making your morning cup of tea, it’s more important than ever to examine the problem your use case is solving and ask yourself whether it involves trust, consensus, immutability or an intersection of the three. If not, then you probably don’t need blockchain in the mix.
However, it’s also important to remember that it’s borderline-crazy blue-sky kind of stuff that gets people thinking.
When people outside the blockchain/cryptocurrency ecosystem start referencing discussions like this on /r/bitcoin, you know that the possibilities are starting to sink in, even if reality hasn’t quite caught up yet.
If we revisit this Medium in 2018, many of the 30 examples I’ve given here will be consigned to the dustbin of history. Some of them may already be dead on arrival.
But the important thing was that someone, somewhere, saw the possibility of transformative power and seized the opportunity to try to make something new work. Seeing the glimmers of a nascent technology evolve is exciting.
These use cases may not be fully realised towering edifices of technological excellence. But some of them may turn out to be the building blocks of our future world. And when we are plunged down into Gartner’s trough of disillusionment, it’s important to remember that.
So, if you’ve ever wondered what you can do with a blockchain, here are 30 ideas:
1. Transfer money
Bitcoin has been described as “blockchain’s first use case”, and with good reason. For more than 40 years, since David Chaum’s DigiCash, economists have been seeking the holy grail of a digital currency that can eliminate the problem of double-spending and circumvent the issue of needing to trust an unknown third party. When Satoshi’s famous White Paper was published in October 2008, few people realised its impact at the time. Eight years on, the Bitcoin blockchain has still not been hacked — and you really need to try using it for yourself to realise how simple and how amazing the protocol is. The convergence of mobile payments, particularly in the African market, with cryptocurrency, is a niche to watch… companies such as BitPesa are leading the charge here. Read more about using Bitcoin here.
2. Make micropayments
Closely related to 1, the ability to use blockchains to transfer minuscule amounts of money is a potential game-changer. Whether you’re talking about in-app payments of a fraction of a cent, microgrid transactions or household appliances moving towards a pay-per-use rather than an ownership model, being able to make tiny payments using cryptocurrency without incurring bank fees that exceed the original payment is a huge opportunity.
3. Lend people money
Peer-to-peer lending is one of the fastest-growing areas in personal finance, with users attracted by the opportunity to make a return on their savings in a low-interest environment while enabling other users to borrow at a sensible rate — and all without giving the bank their cut. In contrast to fiat competitors such as Zopa and Funding Circle, BTCJam allows users to do all of the above, but with Bitcoin.
4. Pay your parking fines
Last year, New York City councilman Mark Levine suggested that recalcitrant motorists in New York should be able to pay for parking tickets not only with ApplePay, but with Bitcoin.
No news yet on whether this will actually happen, but in the context of BitLicense, it’s an interesting aside.
5. Consume content
The rise and rise of ad-blockers has thrown the traditional business model out of the window. All-or-nothing paywalls have proved successful for a few publishers, but research has shown that users are more prepared to reward content creators if the process is seamless and if they can pay only for what they consume. Startups such as London-based Smoogs, Berlin-based SatoshiPay and Yours provide an easy way for writers, film-makers and other content producers to be paid for what they do. The groundbreaking Brave browser is yet another example.
6. Charge an electric car
Small, incremental payments are good for more use cases than just content consumption. Traditional car-charging stations normally require drivers to pay in fixed increments, regardless of how much electricity is consumed by the car’s battery. Additionally, for electric rental fleets, the hire company needs to develop software to track the charge left on the battery, or to do this manually. Imagine a system where every electric vehicle has a chip that allows it to pay directly for exactly the power it consumes, and where all the driver has to do is top up the payment allowance from time to time. German energy giant RWE developed exactly this pilot scheme with Ethereum pioneers slock.it, allowing electric cars to charge while waiting at the traffic lights. Read more about it here.
7. Certify a supply chain
Many consumers would prefer to make ethical choices about the products they buy. Recent scandals such as the sale of horse meat as beef in the UK, and revelations about the poor conditions of garment workers in developing countries has pushed this issue into the headlines. However, proving the origin of every component in a product can be impossible, and even if this information is held by a centralised authority, it may not be trustworthy. London startup Provenance offer decentralised supply chain certification. Read the white paper here.
8. Share electricity with the neighbours
It should be the easiest thing in the world to do. Take one street that has a sunny side and a shady side. The lucky people on the sunny side of the street have solar panels on their roof. It’s more efficient to use electricity close to where it is generated, so instead of selling the excess power back to the grid (which most networked domestic solar installations do), imagine if the owners of the houses with excess power could sell it on the local market. Unfortunately, this would normally come at a cost, with the homeowners having to agree a price among each other and monitor the amount of electricity being used. The MicroGrid project in New York’s Brooklyn solves this requirement by allowing the households to buy and sell energy via smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain. No independent calculation or monitoring required.
9. Prove your identity
A reliable digital identity system is the Holy Grail of our connected world. We already live so much of our lives online, but it all comes to a grinding halt as soon as we need to somehow connect our carefully honed digital identity with our presence in the physical world, verified by some kind of government-issued paperwork or proof of existence at a particular address. Meanwhile, as we struggle to maintain our credit records and prove who we are to employers, banks or car rental companies, private corporations are making money from selling our data: data which belongs to us as individuals, and which we should be able to monetise. Too many organisations to mention are working on digital proof-of-identity schemes, many of them blockchain-based. Deloitte’s Smart Identity System is probably the best known .
10. Let your household appliances pay for things
IBM’s ADEPT [Autonomous Decentralized Peer-to-Peer Telemetry] research project was one of the first blockchain/IoT proposals, and certainly the highest-profile of 2015. The idea of a blockchain on which a household appliance is registered at the point of manufacture, and which has some kind of autonomous identity which it can use — for example — to purchase consumables such as washing powder, is a powerful one. As the white paper itself notes, scalability is (and remains) the major barrier: “A blockchain to cater to hundreds of billions of devices needs to be scalable…”
The SPUR scheme under development by Quantoz is based on these principles.
11. Prove ownership of an asset
If someone steals your car in most countries of the world, there’s a reasonable chance it will be traced or recovered. Most governments operate some kind of registration scheme based on licence plate and/or chassis number. But what if your stolen possession is a bike? A jetski? A luxury handbag? A drone? Such high-value portable assets are easy to steal and also to remove from a particular geographic area where they may have been registered. Our startup Mamoru aims to provide a global standard for proof of ownership.
12. Issue shares
Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne is a long-time Bitcoin advocate, and the retailer already has its own issuance and trading platform, t0. At Money2020 this week, Overstock announced that stockholders would have the opportunity to subscribe for shares of its Blockchain Series A Preferred, which will trade exclusively on t0.
“Through this public issuance of blockchain-based securities the history of capital markets is entering a new era, the era of blockchain-based securities,” said Byrne.
13. Execute an equity swap
Enterprise blockchain technology firm Axoni recently conducted a test of OTC smart contracts for equity swaps involving institutions such as Barclays, Citi and JP Morgan. “Using a blockchain you have a reliable record of who signed to the transactions and when each action was taken, so what you end up with is this distributed data store with a valid, provably gold version of the trade,” said CEO Greg Schvey
14. Issue money from a central bank
The idea of a cashless society is hugely appealing to governments around the world. Not only does it circumvent the need to print notes and mint coins, but it also means an end to the anonymity of cash, and provides a way to track the spending of individuals. Various central banks have flirted with the idea, but the Bank of England has gone as far as endorsing an independent study at University College London which proposed how cryptocurrencies might be issued by such an authority. Read the white paper and read my earlier Medium about why it’s different from Bitcoin.
15. Smooth the shipping process
Shipping across national borders generates so much paperwork that it can be measured in whole kg (or pounds, if you prefer imperial). When shipments are delayed, it can cause an impact on the whole supply chain as factories wait for components, and in some cases (for example, perishable goods), it can affect the viability of the whole shipment. Days of time and huge administration costs are tied up in producing bills of lading, so there was plenty of interest when shipping giant Maersk recently announced a blockchain-based bill of lading proof of concept.
16. Authenticate sneakers
San Francisco startup Chronicled hit the headlines when they partnered with high-end sneaker manufacturer Mache Customs to produce a range of smart-tag-enabled shoes in honour of Kanye West. Busting the counterfeit trade is one of their stated aims.
17. Run a decentralised marketplace
Open Bazaar is widely seen as a successor to Silk Road, but it is far more than that. Silk Road was a website on a server hidden by the Tor network. The FBI was able to track it down, seize the server, and arrest those involved. In contrast, Open Bazaar is a peer-to-peer network like BitTorrent. You can download the software and set up your own storefront. It’s worth mentioning that Open Bazaar does not explicitly endorse selling illegal items. From their FAQ: “Sellers on the OpenBazaar network host their own products and are therefore directly responsible for complying with local laws (and their own conscience) when listing items or services. Users engaged in illicit activity cannot hide behind a third party service.”
18. Register music copyright
Channelling income from music to the artist who created it is a huge global challenge. Often, the administrative costs of recovering royalties exceed the amount due. Friction caused by cumbersome payment processes mean that fans who would otherwise be prepared to pay to consume music end up illegally downloading content, just because it’s easier.
Singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, assisted by various Ethereum people, announced the launch of Mycelia in July to address this problem. Billed as ‘fair trade for the music industry’, it aims to offer extra functionality such as allowing fans to pay for additional content, and targeted pricing, such as allowing charities to use tracks at a lower or zero cost.
Swedish startup Zeptagram are also operating in this area.
The idea that we are still voting with pens and paper in 2016 is an anomaly. But electronic voting — whether at local or national government level, or in the context of corporations — is justifiably regarded with suspicion as the results seem open to manipulation without the relevant oversights. Because of the transparency offered by public blockchains such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, proponents of open government are vocal about the advantages of blockchain-based voting. Nasdaq has already announced plans in Estonia to allow corporate shareholders to vote and various startups are developing e-voting machines for state and national elections that work in a similar way.
20. Register land rights
Maintaining a national register of land ownership is an expensive and labour-intensive operation. Additionally, in countries where there is a history of government corruption, they may not always be trustworthy. Factom were widely reported to be working on a solution with Honduras to come up with a proof of concept for a blockchain-based land registry. This proved to be less concrete than originally reported and the project has stalled, but someone, somewhere will implement this one day.
21. Execute a legal contract
Code is not yet law! Remember this. But some legal firms are so convinced that one day this will be the case, that they are already making the first moves in this direction. London law firm Selachii have already announced plans to launch digitised agreements based on blockchain technology.
22. Run a prediction market
The decentralised prediction market Augur is a brilliantly simple idea. Their platform allows you to make predictions by trading virtual shares in the outcome of events happening in the real world, such as the upcoming US election. If you buy shares in the correct outcome, you make a profit.
23. Manage a swarm of robots
This sounds pretty sci-fi, but is rather more based in fact than the title suggests. Increasing automation means that all kinds of industries, from farming to manufacturing, are now predicted to rely on large numbers of robotic labour. MIT Media Lab affiliate Eduardo Castelló Ferrer explains his rationale in this white paper.
24. Manage healthcare records
Think of any sector where there is an overriding need for untamperable data and a clear audit trail, and one of the first to come to mind is healthcare. Various startups are competing in this space, as this Bitcoin Magazine story describes, but one of the more interesting is the Factom/HealthNautica partnership in which they “are looking to secure medical records and audit trails. This is done by encrypting the data onto the Bitcoin blockchain with a timestamp to verify its accuracy. The records can’t be changed and, because it is hashed to the blockchain, it can’t be accessed without permission. HealthNautica hopes to improve efficiency of claims processing and certainty that the records have not been changed.”
25. Certify students
In a world with a mobile labour force, verifying academic qualifications (which are often needed for work visas) can be a slow and painful process. Vietnamese architect applying for a job in France? Russian developer seeking work in Germany? When universities have to be contacted individually and employer references verified over the phone or email, these processes consume time and money. Imagine a world where your certifications were written into a secure global data structure where they could not be deleted or altered. MIT wrote an interesting post about their certification architecture. Similarly, B9lab certifies successful graduates of their excellent blockchain developer courses with an entry on the Ethereum blockchain
26. Trade cryptocurrencies
Bitcoin is not the only cryptocurrency! Hundreds of other cryptocurrency blockchains exist, although the majority of these are either defunct or carry virtually worthless tokens. A host of exchanges, some more reputable than others, have sprung up to cater for those which are worth trading: Bittrex, C-Cex and Poloniex are some of the popular options. Check out CoinmarketCap for an exhaustive list. And of course, I can’t resist mentioning my own altcoin portfolio tracker, CountMyCrypto. Since my friend Bruce and I launched it nearly three years ago, we’ve seen countless coins and exchanges spring up and die, and enough drama to put a soap opera to shame.
27. Rent a car
The car rental process is often more cumbersome than it needs to be, with insurance documents and identities that need to be verified, and vehicle mileages and damage reports that are still manually verified in many cases. This is how DocuSign described their smart contracts trial for car rental, in conjunction with Visa’s innovation team.
28. Verify your work history
Closely aligned with student certifications on the blockchain, the idea of a careers networking API based on a blockchain is one that’s been around for a while. At Mamoru, we’ve been working on this, since we won a BlockchainX grant from Wanxiang Blockchain Lab earlier this year.
29. Get compensation for flight delays
When the Ethereum DevCon2 conference happened in Shanghai earlier this month, attendees who flew to China from all over the world were notified of an interesting opportunity before the event. The Flight Delay dapp trialled a new proof of concept that allowed travellers to share the risk in the event of flight delays. Stephan Karpischek wrote a good post about the results of the experiment.
30. Buy beer
OK, so this is really a subset of use case #1, but you can’t be in Berlin and not mention Room 77. It’s a piece of cryptocurrency history, as the first bricks-and-mortar establishment anywhere in the world to accept Bitcoin. And, of course, it’s also a favourite haunt of Mamoru and all the other awesome Bitcoin and blockchain startups based in Germany’s capital city.