The United Arab Emirates is fast becoming involved in financial technology. It is no wonder that when ‘Future’ magazine attended the Blockchain Conference in Abu Dhabi, they learned a lot more about the topic. The conference combined a strategic view of the future for this particular segment, expertise in the field of state regulation and practical experience in examples of international cases.
The strategic view
A Google search for the term ‘blockchain’ will provide around 21 million results, in the same way that The Internet of Things (IOT) will give around 90 million search results, Virtual Reality (VR) will harvest 115 million results, and a search for ‘Donald Trump’ will produce more than 400 million results. This was the brief illustration showing how blockchain has penetrated the real world with which Blockchain evangelist and representative of IBM Middle East, Saqr Ereigat, began is presentation. Notably his introduction to the nascent industry discussed how these modest stats aren’t surprising – since the uptick in interest in blockchain happened only at the end of last year, and the beginning of this year. It all means that awareness of this technology is not widespread so far, even in the world of finance professionals.
Even so, various sources suggest that 80% of banks are studying the possibilities of blockchain technology, and 78% believe that blockchain will come into widespread use in five to six years time. Research carried out in the Global FinTech Survey 2016 envisages the major transformations over those five to six years will be seen in segments such as consumer banking, payments and fund investments, and wealth management. As Max di Gregorio from PwC Middle East commented, there are 219 FinTech companies linked to blockchain already registered today – with 30 industries seeing the value of advantages in financial services based on blockchain, and whose investment revenues in blockchain-FinTech stand at around $900 million dollars.
Thus we see heightened interest among leading finance players today in blockchain technology. To give one example, the French AXA Group , had put $55 million dollars into the Canadian Blockstream startup located in Montreal. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs have recieved a patent for its own cryptocurrency SETLcoin. Parallel to private investment projects, there is an observable trend for forming consortiums and syndicates – R3, Hyperledger, and similar groupings. ‘Companies are going to achieve more being together’, as the PwC speaker observed.
Over the period in which blockchain technology has translated into real business, the topic of regulation of the nascent industry has become more and more pressing – especially in respect of its overall connections with FinTech. One of the most interesting panel discussions at the Blockchain Conference Abe Dhabi was given to a regulation. The panel hosted two different presentations – from PwC Middle East, and from Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.
The presentation given by Madhukar Shenoy of PwC Middle East highlighted actual case studies from Great Britain, Singapore, Australia and Switzerland, systematised in framework format. The underlying theme of the presentation was that the basis of successful regulation lies in the presence of a responsible regulatory institution with a clearly-outlined strategy – aimed at setting up transparent game-rules for business alongside assurance for consumers; creating the practical operation of regulation on the basis of two-way dialogue between regulators and business (using a ‘sandbox’ format, which offers the chance to try-out business processes to find appropriate regulatory solutions); as well as regulators taking a technologically neutral position, which is of critical importance for establishing effective regulatory practice.
Christian Chamorro-Courtland’s presentation from Zayed University, Abu Dhabi focused on what the result of regulation should be, and how to boost its effectiveness. Regulatory practice from the British Crown Dependancy of the Isle of Man, from the European Union, and from the U.S. city of Ontario (CA) featured as illustrations in this presentation. The idea was mooted of creating a ‘bottom-up’ regulatory field, based on business practice. In reality this involves business creating the game-rules itself (including envisaging them in various jurisdictions, with the chance to incorporate progressive thinking), and the development of methods of self-regulation. The creation of a transnational regulatory environment is of huge significance, since this would involve combining the forces of regulatory bodies in different countries.
In a short-term perspective experts emphasize on growth in the need for regulation in such spheres as the internet, DLT organisations operating with blockchain technology, and the market for crypto-assets. Overall, the international experience highlighted in the presentation could be described as universal milestones for setting up successful regulatory practice in any of the growing FinTech markets.
Blockchain in practice
During the practical case session the experience of putting blockchain into practice was presented in a number of completely differing spheres. For example, Marina Reznik from Ubitquity LLC (Canada) talked about the issues in deploying blockchain technology in the real estate segment. Its advantage here is the fair and transparent access it offers all parties to a wide variety of information (across an impressive listing of transactions and procedures involving real estate properties) – something which offers significant improvements in communications and the pace at which business procedures can be concluded.
Dominik Schiener from the German IOTA corporation discussed the prospects of integrating the Internet Of Things (IOT) with blockchain technology. Some global stats to start with – by 2020 there will be over 50 BLN connected devices. Herr Schiener explained how combining online and offline ecosystems can create scalable data-clusters set up on the principle of ‘smart’ decentralisation (based on blockchain technology and smart contracts). This could lead to establishing an Economy of Things that would make various resources more accessible, and improve people’s quality of life. Another presentation during the practical sessions showcased a blockchain-based digital bank (Hashcoins), and also a case study involving improved transparency in green investments and solar energy (SunExchange, South Africa & SolcryptoJV, Japan). For example, SunExchange is a p2p micro-financing platform for blockchain. As Abe Cambridge from SunExchange commented, this kind of crowdfunding platform makes it possible to invest minimal capital in high-transparency assets, offering companies and individuals the possibility of investing sums as little as $10 in distributed solar energy projects all over the world. The project began in South Africa – a country with extensive solar potential allied with growing demands for electricity.
The outcome of the conference prompts us to comment that scope for the application of blockchain technology exist everywhere – we just need to begin from the specifics of any given geographical area, alongside economic needs and consumer demand. Moreover, as experts note, in five or six years the whole world will be a global public blockchain ecosystem (with of industry- or function-based specifics). This kind of global ecosystem will be entirely digital, connected to the offline world through the Internet Of Things. The crunch question when establishing such a global ‘world map’ and a global blockchain-space will be the issue of cross-sector and cross-border cooperation.
editor-in-chief of “Future” magazine