Stellar offers its own virtual currency, lumens, and also allows users to retain on its system a range of assets, including other currencies, telephone minutes, and data credits. Stellar initially focused on Africa, particularly Nigeria, the largest economy there. It has seen significant adoption among its target population and proved its cost-effectiveness. But its future is by no means certain, because the ecosystem coordination challenges are high. Although grassroots adoption has demonstrated the viability of Stellar, to become a banking standard, it will need to influence government policy and persuade central banks and large organizations to use it. That could take years of concerted effort.
Into the last quadrant fall completely novel applications that, if successful, could change the very nature of economic, social, and political systems. They involve coordinating the activity of many actors and gaining institutional agreement on standards and processes. Their adoption will require major social, legal, and political change.
“Smart contracts” may be the most transformative blockchain application at the moment. These automate payments and the transfer of currency or other assets as negotiated conditions are met. For example, a smart contract might send a payment to a supplier as soon as a shipment is delivered. A firm could signal via blockchain that a particular good has been received—or the product could have GPS functionality, which would automatically log a location update that, in turn, triggered a payment. We’ve already seen a few early experiments with such self-executing contracts in the areas of venture funding, banking, and digital rights management.
The implications are fascinating. Firms are built on contracts, from incorporation to buyer-supplier relationships to employee relations. If contracts are automated, then what will happen to traditional firm structures, processes, and intermediaries like lawyers and accountants? And what about managers? Their roles would all radically change. Before we get too excited here, though, let’s remember that we are decades away from the widespread adoption of smart contracts. They cannot be effective, for instance, without institutional buy-in. A tremendous degree of coordination and clarity on how smart contracts are designed, verified, implemented, and enforced will be required. We believe the institutions responsible for those daunting tasks will take a long time to evolve. And the technology challenges—especially security—are daunting.
Guiding Your Approach to Blockchain Investment
How should executives think about blockchain for their own organizations? Our framework can help companies identify the right opportunities.
For most, the easiest place to start is single-use applications, which minimize risk because they aren’t new and involve little coordination with third parties. One strategy is to add bitcoin as a payment mechanism. The infrastructure and market for bitcoin are already well developed, and adopting the virtual currency will force a variety of functions, including IT, finance, accounting, sales, and marketing, to build blockchain capabilities. Another low-risk approach is to use blockchain internally as a database for applications like managing physical and digital assets, recording internal transactions, and verifying identities. This may be an especially useful solution for companies struggling to reconcile multiple internal databases. Testing out single-use applications will help organizations develop the skills they need for more-advanced applications. And thanks to the emergence of cloud-based blockchain services from both start-ups and large platforms like Amazon and Microsoft, experimentation is getting easier all the time.