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As an investment, cryptocurrencies have been hailed and denounced in equal measure. Bitcoin has seen its value surge from a £130 in 2013 to almost £15,000 and [in late 2018] is now worth £4,200.
The figures are dramatic: One of the first real world Bitcoin transactions in 2010 – for two pizzas, paid for with 10,000 Bitcoins – would see those same pizzas worth approximately £49 million, at today’s exchange rate. However, cryptocurrencies were originally designed to free money, payments and people from centralised entities, not to fuel speculators’ greed.
London Business School (LBS) MBA alumnus Brian Forde, former White House Senior Tech Advisor to Barack Obama, has a life-long interest in using technology to improve people’s lives and he brings this unique perspective to cryptocurrencies. He is less interested in what Bitcoin is worth and more interested in what its technology can enable business to do. Business leaders need to understand the founding principles of cryptocurrencies and how it will disrupt existing business models.
How crypto works
Cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, work using a blockchain, which keeps a ledger of all transactions. Each Bitcoin is stored in an electronic wallet. And each transaction’s details is stored and verified by the network. Trust is distributed: there is no central authority that determines the ledger and a coin’s value is connected not to a resource like a commodity or a nation’s economic performance but to what people are prepared to pay for it, like gold or diamonds.
“Forde’s thinking on Bitcoin is not about where the value of Bitcoin, or any other coin, will go next, it is about understanding those founding features and how it will disrupt existing business models.”
California-based Forde believes cryptocurrencies have the potential to reshape the business landscape as completely as the internet did 20 years ago. This is crypto’s true value: not whether a currency is worth £100 or £1,000.
Forde’s path to becoming one of the leading lights of the cryptocurrency revolution goes via 9/11, Nicaragua and the White House. While in high school he founded an IT infrastructure firm, which he had planned to build up full-time upon graduation. However, when 9/11 struck in his final year of college it forced a rethink and he decided to join the United States Peace Corps, which sent him to Nicaragua to teach business skills.
When his time with the Peace Corps was up, he stayed in Nicaragua to found a phone company with the aim of slashing the cost of phone calls. Forde says the experience showed him that technology can lift up communities and families.
Using his experience in Nicaragua, he wanted to make sure start-ups looking to make a difference for ordinary working people in the US were successful. Recruited by The White House as a Senior Technology Adviser, he worked with tech companies and President Obama’s Senior Advisors and Cabinet Secretaries to leverage emerging technologies to improve the lives of all Americans, wrote the White House memo on bitcoin and even taught President Obama about the technology. After three-and-a-half-years in the White House, he started the research group on cryptocurrencies at the MIT Media Lab and taught students at the MIT Sloan School of Management how blockchain will disrupt existing business models.
Forde is returning to LBS next year to deliver a masterclass on what he sees as the next business revolution: Blockchain Strategy: How to use Cryptocurrency to Reinvent your Business Model. As well as exploring what blockchain is and how cryptocurrencies work, the masterclass will set out where we are today with these technologies, the implications for current business models and the opportunities for organisations. The programme is aimed at business leaders, who want to understand how to harness the opportunities and reinvent business models.
“Cryptocurrencies have the potential to disrupt a number of intermediary platforms like Amazon, Airbnb and Uber.”
Forde suggests that blockchain’s disruptive potential will put the capability of platforms like Uber into the hands of everyone. “In the same way Amazon, Airbnb and Uber were enabled by the open infrastructure of the internet to disrupt publishing; video rental and retail; holiday lets; and taxi hire respectively, cryptocurrency will enable the disruption of the disruptors,” he says.
“Similarly, cryptocurrencies have the potential to disrupt a number of intermediary platforms like Amazon, Airbnb and Uber - levelling the playing field for the little guy or gal. Through cryptocurrencies, marketplace companies can be replaced by a public ledger, an open platform that everyone can access, leading to an open, interoperable system that breaks down the barriers to entry around these private marketplaces.”
Ultimately, Forde envisions, cryptocurrencies will disrupt tech, finance, education, media, and government, among many others. Only companies that properly understand the implications will ride this wave rather than be swallowed up by it.
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