Fourth Industrial Revolution

Blockchain: what it is, how it really can change the world

A Bitcoin (virtual currency) paper wallet with QR codes and a coin are seen in an illustration picture taken at La Maison du Bitcoin in Paris, France, May 27, 2015.

Image: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Mihaela Ulieru
Founder and President , IMPACT Institute for the Digital Economy
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Fourth Industrial Revolution?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Financial and Monetary Systems is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Financial and Monetary Systems

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

Blockchain – the technology behind the bitcoin digital currency – is a decentralized public ledger of transactions that no one person or company owns or controls. Instead, every user can access the entire blockchain, and every transfer of funds from one account to another is recorded in a secure and verifiable form by using mathematical techniques borrowed from cryptography. With copies of the blockchain scattered all over the planet, it is considered to be effectively tamper-proof.

The challenges that bitcoin poses to law enforcement and international currency controls have been widely discussed. But the blockchain ledger has uses far beyond simple monetary transactions.

Like the Internet, the blockchain is an open, global infrastructure upon which other technologies and applications can be built. And like the Internet, it allows people to bypass traditional intermediaries in their dealings with each other, thereby lowering or even eliminating transaction costs.

Loading...

By using the blockchain, individuals can exchange money or purchase insurance securely without a bank account, even across national borders—a feature that could be transformative for the two billion people in the world currently underserved by financial institutions. Blockchain technology lets strangers record simple, enforceable contracts without a lawyer. It makes it possible to sell real estate, event tickets, stocks, and almost any other kind of property or right without a broker.

The long-term consequences for professional intermediaries, such as banks, attorneys and brokers, could be profound—and not necessarily in negative ways, because these industries themselves pay huge amounts of transaction fees as a cost of doing business. Analysts at Santander InnoVentures, for example, have estimated that by 2022, blockchain technology could save banks more $20 billion annually in costs.

Some 50 big-name banks have announced blockchain initiatives. Investors have poured more than $1 billion in the past year into start-ups formed to exploit the blockchain for a wide range of businesses. Tech giants such as Microsoft, IBM and Google all have blockchain projects underway. Many of these companies are attracted by the potential to use the blockchain to address the privacy and security problems that continue to plague Internet commerce.

Because blockchain transactions are recorded using public and private keys—long strings of characters that are unreadable by humans—people can choose to remain anonymous while enabling third parties to verify that they shook, digitally, on an agreement. And not just people: an institution can use the blockchain to store public records and binding promises. Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., for example, have shown how drug companies could be required to add detailed descriptions of their upcoming clinical drug trials to the blockchain. This would prevent the companies from later moving the goalposts if the trial did not pan out as anticipated, an all-too-common tactic. In London, mayoral candidate George Galloway has proposed putting the city’s annual budget on the blockchain ledger to foster collective auditing by citizens.

Perhaps the most encouraging benefit of blockchain technology is the incentive it creates for participants to work honestly where rules apply equally to all. Bitcoin did lead to some famous abuses in trading of contraband, and some nefarious applications of blockchain technology are probably inevitable. The technology doesn’t make theft impossible, just harder. But as an infrastructure that improves society’s public records repository and reinforces representative and participatory legal and governance systems, blockchain technology has the potential to enhance privacy, security and freedom of conveyance of data—which surely ranks up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This is part of a series on the top 10 emerging technologies of 2016, developed in collaboration with Scientific American.

Have you read?

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Fourth Industrial RevolutionFinancial and Monetary SystemsEmerging Technologies
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How the Internet of Things (IoT) became a dark web target – and what to do about it

Antoinette Hodes

May 17, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum