Scotchain (see what they did there?) hit its second year at full velocity.
I arrived at RBS’s Edinburgh campus slightly sweaty, having decided it was a cracking idea to walk from the airport along the main roads in the rain. Having had some delightful pleasantries hurled at me from passing white vans, I knew the day was going to be worth the 4.am alarm and 7am flight.
The RBS campus is huge. I fell into a small group of people also looking for the conference hall – a woman from Deloitte, an angel investor and a 20-year old student from Cameroon, who wanted to use Blockchain as a way to remotely fund microbusinesses back home.
The motley group was a strong reminder of how many people are pricking an ear up to Blockchain technology.
On finally arriving at the RBS conference center (after a long detour around their sculpted grounds and accidentally wondering into the wrong building), the first thing apparent was the unmistakable energy.
Scotland is forging ahead when it comes to technology and FinTech companies, and there was a definite buzz amongst the 300-odd delegates, with a few commenting that it felt like “the good old days of the 90s”.
We filed into the Amphitheatre for a series of talks by the great, good and notorious of the scene, and although the day was weighted towards the use of Blockchain in the financial services sector, there were a few themes that appeared consistently throughout the day.
Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy opened the day with an enthusiastic call to arms for Scotland’s tech sector, and highlighted the ability of Blockchain tech to assist in the public sector.
A key narrative was “disclosure without exposure” - the power to selectively reveal information without giving access to the entire data set or context.
For instance, a Blockchain mechanism might prove that a customer is old enough to drink without revealing their actual age.
This was all tied into the recurring idea that a consumer’s data should be solidified and belong to the consumer - not fragmented and owned by hundreds of different institutions.
The desire for one clean block of individual data, allowing institutions access as and when required surfaced in almost every talk. In this utopia, a citizen might allow the NHS access to their health data when needed and allow their utilities company another - but the data would be a single, controlled batch, not duplicated across departments and corporations.
Areas most likely to be impacted by Blockchain are those where existing systems lack efficiency or relay on middlemen.
For example, in a breakneck presentation Ross Laurie talked us through his initiative to get those in construction paid in real time - as beacons on site monitor their arrival and departure, their funds are instantly transferred into their bank account. Of course, as his Etch system started to take off, they realised they also needed to start working on real-time tax payment… watch this space.
He also shared the Blocktopus – a sprawling visualization of block chain use cases and embarked on a brief detour into the possibility of fog computing.
Prof William Buchanan bowled onto the stage with some glee, enthused by the idea GDPR will change everything for citizens – that they might take back ownership of their data.
On the following panel, Prof Buchanan described GDPR as “The best thing that’s happened – there’s no get out jail card anymore.”
The panel agreed that blockchain breakthroughs are going to come from the edges - ticketing, e-gaming etc, not heavily regulated areas like finance.
David Birch introduced the concept of “ambient accountability”, citing the example of a robber-proof bank designed solely from glass, so everyone can see what’s happening inside. He trod a more cautious path on Blockchain uptake, wondering how we can build shiny new futures from it when we haven’t even agreed on the correct terminology.
So, a day of disagreements, innovation and a lot of the nervous energy that seems to build just before a big breakthrough.
Although Blockchain is still nascent technology, its momentum (especially North of the Border) seems undeniable even if its benefits are only slowly becoming apparent.