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Think blockchain is a niche technology that’s all about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? Think again. According to Sandra Ro, blockchain pioneer, entrepreneur and CEO of the industry body the Global Blockchain Business Council, blockchain will be all-pervasive.
“We are living in an increasingly data-driven world,” she says. “Blockchain will be the infrastructure on which next generation tech applications are built.”
The time will come, she says, when people will use blockchain without noticing it or even knowing it, much as mobile phone users rarely give a thought to the computers that switch their calls from one “cell” to another. How did Ro find herself in the world of “distributed ledger technology”? After leaving London Business School with an MBA in 2004, she first went to work on the trading floor of Deutsche Bank in London on the foreign exchange side, then moved to Morgan Stanley, where she worked on M&A derivatives.
“Then came the financial crisis. I first heard of Bitcoin in 2012, and although word had reached London trading floors in 2010/2011, the attitude was: ‘Hey! This is new technology,’ as if it were quite interesting but no more than that. I came quickly to realise it was really viable and potentially paradigm-shifting.”
Ro moved to the London base of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as head of FX product development and was able to take crypto-currencies under the general R&D umbrella. “We grew organically, a small internal group working deep into this space. We built up a lot of knowledge. This gave us a two-year heads-up, including having produced papers on the subject and filed patents.”
In 2016, she and her colleagues launched the CME CF Bitcoin real-time index and daily Bitcoin Reference Rate. It was one of the first such indices and had been years in the making. The CME was one of the first big institutions to give this new asset class its stamp of approval. The index products were well-received.
“CME’s success in this area was about timing as much as products,” she recalls. “We had talked to the regulators, it was pioneering work. We had our own budget and our own people. We were not a cost centre but a business unit. We had buy-in from most of the top and across the board.”
There are, she believes, important lessons here for any businesses wishing either to innovate using blockchain or simply to incorporate the technology into their operations. In such cases, she says: “The education piece is important. It is very difficult for large institutions to create an environment of creativity and innovation. They need to let the team adopt a running mentality, not a walking mentality.”
Furthermore, she says, any business leaders bewildered by the different versions of blockchain that are available need first to decide precisely what it is they are trying to achieve, what problem they want to solve. It ought then to be easier to select the ‘correct’ blockchain.
At the end of 2017, the CME moved into Bitcoin futures based on the previously launched Bitcoin Reference Rate. She left July 2017, but had designed the Bitcoin futures product as it trades today.
By this point, a “blockchain summit” held in 2016 on Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island in the Caribbean had conceived what became the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC), a body to put the case for an industry that is often misunderstood.
"We need to get beyond the idea that blockchain is just about payment systems. It is much, much bigger.”
“The need arose from how pervasive and confusing blockchain is, for policymakers, business executives and the rest,” she says. “Business and others need to know that this is a technology that does not sit within its own borders but is rapidly spreading everywhere. Our three functions are education, advocacy and partnership, and of them education remains the most important.” In this regard, a key focus of the GBBC through its Open Learning Forum, is to draw attention to innovative blockchain research that academic institutions around the world such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Digital Currency Initiative (DCI) are producing.
Diplomatically, she adds: “The technologists who gave us blockchain were not always good at messaging.”
The GBBC is registered in Switzerland as a non-profit, with offices in Geneva, New York and Washington, of which the last is the most important in terms of operations. There are people on the ground in London, and planning for a small London office.
Not that this need matter too much in the context of the technology in question. “We are distributed,” says Ro, “just like blockchain.”
The GBBC may represent the interests of the blockchain industry but it’s not just focused on financial returns. “Making money and social impact are not mutually exclusive,” she says. The GBBC is also active in measuring the technology’s social impact and dedicated to the notion that blockchain can “solve real-world problems”.
Ro gives three examples of areas where exciting blockchain developments are already making an impact:
1. Agriculture and food. Tracking and tracing is an important feature of food management – and not only in terms of establishing the provenance of foodstuffs, important though that is. “It allows us to get smarter regarding the destruction of crops thought to be infected or otherwise impaired,” she says. “Blockchain can help to reduce the need for wasteful wholesale destruction.” It can also, she adds, head off trouble before it become serious, by “identifying faster what is going wrong”. Ultimately, she says, blockchain will form part of a suite of solutions in this area, along with artificial intelligence and the “internet of things”.
2. Energy and climate change. “We must do better as a global community in terms of energy management,” she says. “There is really interesting work being undertaken, for example in Australia, the UK and New York. Not just in terms of P2P energy trading but in terms also of coming up with solutions that are sustainable.”
3. Digital identity. “All digital identity users will interface with blockchain,” she says. “People won’t be aware when the use of blockchain to verify digital identities goes mainstream. The identity gateway will be on blockchain but they won’t know they’re on blockchain.” Who will control the identity? “At present, we just don’t know.” She hopes that ID2020 or similar recommendations become the standard. They are designed to improve the digital experience of internet users with special reference to users’ privacy – by this year, “all browsing traffic should be encrypted by default”, according to ID2020. Data is “the gold of the future”, and the winners in this new environment will be the sources of the data, the biggest distributors of the data or the best-in-class analysts of the data – or a mixture of all three.
Aside from her work with the GBBC, Sandra Ro is co-founder and chief operating officer of UWIN, an acronym for Unleashing the Wealth in Nations (UWIN), which puts into practice the GBBC’s objective of positive social impact. It has held discussions with African governments as to how blockchain can change for the better the working lives of the continent’s farmers, allowing them to register proper title to their property, including their crops, and to trade their produce on a trusted platform.
She concludes: “Blockchain is about community and building humancentric tech. We are all humans and the essence of blockchain is human connectivity, facilitating lives through technology. We need to get beyond the idea that blockchain is just about payment systems. It is much, much bigger.”