Navigant Research Blog

Putting Blockchain in Its Proper Context

— November 10, 2017

Coauthored by Stuart Ravens

If blockchain evangelists are to be believed, it is going to be big. The so-called Internet of Value will disrupt and decentralize our financial system, healthcare, and electric grids. The massive, centralized powers-that-be will not make it out of this transformation intact.

The truth? There is something out there with significant potential to decentralize much, but not all, of our societal infrastructure. Is blockchain the magic ingredient used in decentralization? No, not really. As Bitcoin expert Andreas Antonopoulos notes, claiming that blockchain is the factor that creates decentralization is like claiming that wings alone are responsible for aviation … but put wings on a building and it still won’t fly.

What Guarantees Trustless, Immutable Decentralization?

Released in 2009, the Bitcoin platform revolutionized decentralization by making every transaction 100% verifiable by every participant without having to rely on anything beyond the software it runs on. It also prevents anyone from meaningfully gaming the system. Andreas Antonopoulos spells out four key pieces of Bitcoin that—only in combination—lead to a fully decentralized and immutable application:

  1. A blockchain ledger that is distributed throughout the system and can be validated by any participant.
  2. A consensus algorithm that is open and subject to precise and consistent rules.
  3. A reward of real value for properly validating the next block, (importantly) paid in bitcoin.
  4. A competition that determines who gets to validate the next block and receive the reward. Critically, each competitor must pay a significant cost in computing energy as an entry fee.

Similar levels of decentralization are critical to proving asset, identity, or land ownership. However, there are many instances when decentralization or immutability need not be so strict, including when:

  • Only partial decentralization is needed.
  • Specific actors can be trusted.
  • Access to the ledger should be closed.
  • The ledger may require (limited) editing.
  • There are no rewards for validation.

Given individual application requirements and significant practical issues with implementing Bitcoin (e.g., mining costs, limited transaction throughput, and validation latency), blockchain solutions have been developed that rely on different structures and consensus mechanisms. Their properties fall within a wide range of decentralization and immutability.

Blockchain Does Not Guarantee Bitcoin Superpowers

Although blockchain is an underlying technology of Bitcoin, it is wrong to equate all blockchain-based solutions with Bitcoin—yet, this happens frequently. There is a risk that such misinterpretation will confuse and disappoint potential customers, and wasted resources will lead to negative press.

Utilities keen to investigate blockchain must ensure they get the right qualities, and enough of these qualities, to satisfy their requirements. They must also understand that each custom combination of consensus, trust, risk, and reward remains unproven until it has been tested at scale.

As the common component of many distributed data and/or asset systems, blockchain is becoming the de facto term for trustless, immutable decentralization. However, this is often not the case. Unfortunately, there is presently no competing term that covers the range of features and characteristics of products that include blockchain.

Navigant Research believes the industry must be more circumspect about blockchain. While there are some attractive use cases for the technology within the utility industry, there are many issues that must be resolved. Potential users should add a caveat emptor to their optimism. Navigant Research will publish a series of blockchain reports in the near future that will investigate the consequences of these issues in greater detail.

 

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