Don Tapscott is chief executive of the Tapscott Group and the chancellor of Trent University. With his son Alex, he is the co-author of Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business and the World and the co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute, a think tank conducting 70 projects about blockchain opportunities and challenges.
One technology topic here towers over all others: blockchain. It is bigger than artificial intelligence, social media, robotics or anything else. Every year, more and more companies descend on this small Swiss ski village to show their leadership and pitch their services. This action around blockchain (the technology behind cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin) is striking.
What a change from two years ago. Back in 2016, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked me for my technology predictions for the near-to-mid term. I said blockchain would change our lives in the next 20 years as much as the Internet has changed our lives in the past 20 years. The book that I wrote with my son Alex, Blockchain Revolution, hadn’t been published yet. Bitcoin was trading for $100 and ethereum was still little more than a University of Waterloo dropout’s science experiment. The reporter was dubious. So were many others.
In 2017, the same reporter interviewed me and admitted blockchain was beginning to generate a bit of a buzz, albeit most of it centred on the financial industry and bitcoin. I agreed with him, and said bitcoin was just an early application of blockchain, like e-mail was an early app of the old internet. I bet him 2018 would be the year blockchain was one of the hottest Davos topics.
And this year, so it is. I was interviewed by the same reporter yesterday and he acknowledged blockchain was now recognized as the next technology tectonic event.
Sure enough, “blockchain” appears more in the Davos program than the words “Europe” or “the United States.” In one session, a commenter who had analyzed conversations at Davos said the word “blockchain” was the second-most uttered theme, after the word “Trump.”
As we can see in Davos, blockchain touches everything. Even French President Macron mentioned the technology in his keynote to the forum congress. Much of the action is taking place outside of the formal congress centre. I estimate there are about a thousand blockchain enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and activists assembled here, holding daily events throughout the town. I’ve spoken at a dozen of them.
An industry group called the Global Blockchain Business Council has been conducting panel discussions throughout the day in their main street pop-up, and two nights ago held a dinner and awards ceremony with 200 people. Apparently, there were hundreds of people on the waiting list to get in.
I was stopped in a hotel lobby yesterday by a person working for non-governmental organization. They were just about to hold a workshop about blockchain and human rights. Could I come and say a few words? I said sure.
So, for the next half hour, I led a discussion about how blockchain would bring billions of people without bank accounts into the economy. And that blockchain could help ensure products such as conflict diamonds won’t show up at your local jeweller.
I explained that 70 per cent of the people in the world who own land do so under tenuous title. Governments change or dictators come to power and steal the land from the farmers. Hernando de Soto, the great Latin American economist, says the No. 1 issue in the world in terms of economic mobility is proof of land ownership. It’s more important than having a bank account. If you don’t have a valid title to your land, you can’t borrow against it and you can’t plan for the future. Blockchain will change this.
Another example. The biggest flow of funds from the developed world to the developing world is not corporate investment or foreign aid. It’s remittances. People have left their ancestral lands and they’re sending money back to their families at home.
Today, a huge amount is skimmed off the top by companies that send money from, say, Toronto to Manila. A 10-per-cent fee is typical, generating huge profits at the expense of very poor people. So companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are figuring out how to use blockchain to move hundreds of billions of dollars around the world for a small fraction of today’s cost.
I spoke at another session sponsored at a pop-up on the main street called “Ukrainian House.” The room sat about 80 people and there had to be twice that jammed into it. The big topic was where will this “internet of value” be centred? Most agree that unlike the first era of the internet, this second era would not be based in Silicon Valley. The debate centred on Canada, Switzerland and predictably, given the venue, Ukraine.
You can be sure this has caught the attention of financial-services companies and central banks. Yesterday’s phone companies make enormous profits from long-distance revenue. Today, Skype does it all for free. What happens when banks can’t charge service fees because people can completely sidestep financial institutions and send money to each other around the world for a cost of pennies?
Such is the potential of blockchain. No facet of human activity will be left untouched. Many at Davos would now agree.