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What is Blockchain Anyway?

Meet Cathy. She loves bread. Two slices of bread for breakfast really makes her day. But there is one hitch. She is gluten sensitive. Which means she can only have gluten free bread. And there are plenty of those in the market too. Just that, how can she be so sure? How can she trust what the label on the package claims? How does she trust the authenticity?

Cathy wondered, if only there was a reliable database that recorded all the information about the bread – where do the ingredients come from, where is it manufactured, what are all the stops during logistics – up until it reached the store. If only this tracking system was tamper proof and secure. If only she could somehow get this information directly without having to trust middle men and risk a compromise in transparency.

This is a good time to tell Cathy that this system can be made a reality today. It can be made possible through blockchain technology. Blockchain, at its core, is a growing digital ledger that records transactions and data through the means of cryptography. Each chunk of data is called a block, and these blocks are linked via a cryptic code. The digital ledger is decentralised, providing a copy to all the transacting parties. The data entered is automatically updated in every ledger holder’s copy – it is tamper proof and cannot be edited without the knowledge and consensus of the network majority.

We hear of blockchain and its disruptive nature today, but the seeds of this technology were planted over two decades ago. Blockchain technology used today is an amalgamation of different principles found in three research papers from the 90’s. In 1991 Haber and Stronetta published a research paper on using crypto-signatures to timestamp documents. Later, in 1996 Ross Anderson published a paper that talks about decentralised storage systems where records can not be deleted. Finally, in their 1998 paper, Schneier and Kelsey describe how to use cryptography to protect sensitive information on untrusted machines. But it was only in 2008 that Satoshi Nakamoto, an unidentified person or people, conceptualised the first blockchain, which was mainly implemented as the back bone for the digital currency, bitcoin.

Thanks to the hype around them in recent months, cryptocurrencies are sometimes assumed to be synonymous with the blockchain. But the truth is that cryptocurrency is just one application that functions on the concept of the under-pinning blockchain technology.

What is not common knowledge is that, blockchain is already being vastly experimented with. Since it pertains to record keeping and transactions, it’s applications are limitless.

For example, our Cathy, who desperately looks for authentic gluten free food, can now know everything she wants about the product in her hand, just by whipping out her phone and scanning the QR code on the packaging, and trust the reliability of the information provided.

Blockchain might be able to revolutionize the supply chain industry. Systems like logistics and large-scale packaging face challenges in tracking and management. Through blockchain this can be completely transparent, with the recorded tracking data being immutable and available to all the participants.

Using blockchain for medical records can drastically improve the quality of healthcare. With patients’ medical history maintained in a digitally secure yet easily accessible format, diagnosis and treatments can be a lot more accurate and effective.

Voting is another useful application of blockchain. Voting systems based on blockchain have the potential to be tamper-proof and guarantee fair results.

For philanthropists who aren’t sure if their generous donation is being put to good use, blockchain could be the solution. Charity through blockchain can make the whole system transparent, letting donors trace their contribution and know where it goes.

These are just a few of the very many uses of blockchain. This technology truly has the potential to be seamlessly absorbed and to change nearly every aspect of our digitized lives. But how will this impact urbanism? What role could blockchain play in the making of our future built environment?

In our next post we’ll try to comprehend how some applications of the blockchain technology could transform cities.

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