Keynote Q+A: A conversation with Hyperledger Global Forum headliner Don Tapscott of the Blockchain Research Institute

Oliver Johnston-Watt caught up with Don Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution author and Blockchain Research Institute co-founder, ahead of Hyperledger Global Forum, where Don will present a keynote talk. Read on to learn more about Don’s extensive history chronicling digital technology and some of the views he will bring to the stage in Phoenix:  

Oliver Johnston-Watt (OJW): Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed in advance of your keynote at the Hyperledger Global Forum. While most of us know you as the author of the Blockchain Revolution (2016), perhaps you could introduce yourself and talk a little more about the Blockchain Research Institute? 

Don Tapscott (DT): Blockchain Revolution is my sixteenth book, and the first I’ve written with my son, Alex Tapscott. All of my work, from Paradigm Shift to Wikinomics and Macrowikinomics, explores the intersection of digital technology with business and society. 

avatar for Don Tapscott
Don Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution author and Blockchain Research Institute co-founder

The Blockchain Research Institute (BRI) was established in 2017, a year after Blockchain Revolution was released, to provide a research foundation for enterprise and government leaders to begin exploring blockchain. We gathered a network of the world’s leading experts in a variety of fields to help create over 300 research deliverables, focused on blockchain’s applications in over a dozen different sectors.

We’ve continued expanding our offerings, though – we have released a MOOC in partnership with INSEAD and Coursera, we have put together the world’s largest enterprise-focused blockchain conference, and we are releasing a series of four books this year, the first of which is out now!

OJW: You have been travelling around the world giving keynotes about blockchain. I personally saw you speak in January at the Geneva Blockchain Congress before you travelled to Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF). Overall, do you think the market is becoming more receptive to blockchain? 

DT: I would call it “uneven and combined development.” In some sectors blockchain/DLT adoption has been rapid, but it’s been downright glacial elsewhere. On the whole, however, the enterprise community is considerably more literate than it was when Blockchain Revolution was first published back in 2016. 

From time to time, I still hear the sentiment that blockchain development has “stalled.” That particular view is deeply misinformed – we have seen a significant growth in production blockchain solutions in the past year.  The previous Internet (of Information) was targeted at the information and media industries. The disruptions were deep and spilled into other industries like retail, but relative to the Internet of Value (blockchain) they are small. 

Why so? Because blockchain targets elements of our economy and society that are more profound than information – assets – everything from money, securities, intellectual property, the data in our identities, deeds, contracts, to cultural assets and even votes.  It challenges the way that we treat valuable information and data assets that are owned too. 

OJW: You wrote for the WEF that bad PR, regulation and technological immaturity are the main obstacles to blockchain adoption. While regulation affects enterprise adoption of blockchain less than, say, cryptocurrencies, what role do software foundations, like Hyperledger, have in solving these issues? 

DT: The Hyperledger community is a core part of the ecosystem governing this historic innovation.  The organizations tackling such stewardship operate on three levels: platforms, application ecosystems, and at the broader cross-industry, societal level. Organizations like Hyperledger govern at the platform level but have proven extremely effective in promoting interoperability too, not just within their own ecosystem of DLTs but more broadly. Meanwhile, organizations like the Chamber of Digital Commerce (CDC) or the BRI provide advocacy and guidance to enable broader institutional changes. 

All of them are crucial, as I see it, in facilitating widespread adoption.

OJW: In your 2012 TED talk, you argued that the four principles of an open world are open collaboration, transparency, sharing, and empowerment through decentralisation. These principles are closely aligned with those of the open source community. Do you think that open source will prevail in the development of lasting blockchain technologies? 

DT: I think that open source is fundamental to the long-term development of this technology. Of course, above the very basic protocols and platforms there will be no shortage of proprietary applications, and that’s to be expected. Fundamentally, though, the success of a blockchain project depends on building and engaging an ecosystem of developers, which lends itself well to open source.  

OJW: Some may remember that, in the early days of the personal computer market, there were many competing offerings. Of course, very few market players survived in the long run – basically Apple and the IBM PC. Do you see a similar situation occurring with blockchain? With many different open source protocols available, will ultimately only a few survive?

DT: The specific offering changes the amount of diversity a market might accommodate, of course. If we’re talking about personal computing, it makes a big difference whether we’re discussing hardware, operating systems, or applications, for example. There’s no question we’ll see greater consolidation of blockchain platforms, but we’ll also see improved platform interoperability. Hyperledger Besu is a good example of the latter.

OJW: Whatever the outcome of the “ledger wars,” would you agree that it makes sense for enterprises to focus on smart contracts? Solidity has been around for a while, but there are now emerging open source smart contract languages such as Accord and DAML (from Digital Asset). Do you think smart contracts will follow a similar evolution to previous business model processing languages, that resulted in BPML (Business Process Modelling Language)?

DT: The areas of innovation that enterprises will, of course, change by industry, but on the whole I do think smart contracts probably have the most immediate impact on the largest number of businesses. This is especially true if your business is approaching blockchain solely as a means of reducing the manual processes involved in conducting business logic, but I think there are more fundamental transformations to work on as well. 

OJW: What role do you think organisations like the BRI and the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) should play in developing the standards required to accelerate blockchain adoption?

DT: The BRI exists to fill the knowledge gap in blockchain and help large enterprise leaders navigate this coming revolution. I have limited knowledge about the GBBC’s work, but I know they play an important role as industry advocates and they do helpful educational work such as the platform they offered this year at Davos. Both organizations, alongside the CDC, are focused on the highest level of stewardship that I mentioned previously – broad, institutional changes to facilitate further adoption. 

The BRI has been supporting various organizations’ efforts to build standards, specifically at the platform level. My most recent research, in fact, specifically explores the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance’s Token Taxonomy Framework – which is part of a truly breakthrough initiative. 

OJW: How can we work to develop standards particularly in the regulated financial services sector? An interesting example is the partnership between Digital Asset and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) to develop a Common Domain Model (CDM)?

DT: The goal should be not just to develop those standards, but to develop the tools necessary to help innovators and companies abide by those standards. Digital Asset’s CDM reference code library is a good example of that. We should also work to provide greater certainty that solutions or products being developed indeed abide by those common standards – certification systems built into testnets, for example. 

If we don’t focus on accessibility, clarity, and certainty, then it will be far more difficult for smaller companies and innovators to abide by those standards.

OJW: Finally, we keep hearing that this is the year that blockchain becomes mainstream, how close or, for that matter, how far are we from achieving this and what could derail this ambition?

DT: There will never be a distinct moment when we realize we’ve “arrived,” and there are already many applications that have reached a level of production that could be considered “mainstream.” In general, though, it will take time to embed this technology into every facet of business and daily life because it challenges very fundamental aspects of how firms and broader industries operate.

Blockchain often forces us to reimagine the role of some very powerful and deeply integrated institutions, which are – by design – not easy to change. It will take time to get there, but compared to where we were even a few years ago, the pace of change is astounding. It’s clear now that to sit this out is to resign yourself to obscurity, and smart enterprises working hard to bring about change. 

Don Tapscott’s keynote, “The Blockchain Revolution – State of the Union,” will be on March 4, 2020, at Hyperledger Global Forum. To register, go here.

Don Tapscott is a world leading authority on the impact of technology on business and society. He authored 16 books, the most recent being the best-selling Blockchain Revolution which he co-authored with his son, Alex Tapscott, who he also co-founded the Blockchain Research Institute with in 2017. Don received an Order of Canada for his leadership in the field of business and innovation, he is a current Adjunct Professor at INSEAD and former Chancellor of Trent University, Ontario. 

Oliver Johnston-Watt is Marketing Director of Blockchain Technology Partners (BTP), a leading enterprise blockchain company.  BTP brings the benefits of smart contracts and blockchain to business by providing Sextant – a management platform that radically simplifies the deployment and ongoing management of distributed applications. Oliver is based in London and is a graduate of the University of Oxford.