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Why COVID-19 makes a compelling case for the wider integration of blockchain

Stalled train carriages, locomotives parked at a storage facility North Rhine-Westphalian town of Hamm near Dortmund, Germany May 6, 2015. Image: REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Project Manager, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution UAE at the Dubai Future Foundation
  • The COVID-19 crisis has revealed a general lack of connectivity and data exchange built into our global supply chains.
  • Future resiliency will depend on building transparent, inter-operable and connective networks.

When it became clear that many of us would soon be working from home, a majority took a cursory glance at their home office set-ups and decided it needed upgrading. What ensued was an unanticipated rush and surge of online orders for office desks, chairs, lamps and computer hardware. But such was the sudden spike that it has unsurprisingly caught suppliers large and small unprepared, off guard and exposed gaping holes in their ability to track purchases from one end of their supply chains to the other. Some customers, who have spent no small amount on revamping their home offices are still waiting to do so, without the consolation of being able to see where their orders are, or when they can expect to receive them.

Of course, no one could have foreseen the unprecedented upheaval caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has disrupted and dislocated economies and ecosystems across the planet but COVID-19 has brought supply chains to their knees. And while it would be easy to point fingers at consumer-facing companies caught unawares, what’s important now is rebooting and rebuilding the global trade network by putting into practice the harsh lessons we are forcibly learning now.

What has become abundantly clear over the last three months is a general lack of connectivity and data exchange built into our global supply chains. Quite staggering considering the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) era and Internet of Things (IoT) days we are living through. The fact we can track our Uber driver but not shipment placed three weeks ago from a department store less than 10 miles from our home is startling, humiliating and needs addressing.

If there were any lingering doubts over the value of blockchain platforms to improve the transparency of businesses that depend on the seamless integration of disparate networks, COVID-19 has all but wiped them away. We should look at this healthcare crisis as a vital learning curve that can show us how to build transparent, inter-operable and connective networks.

We have fully developed, scalable tools and technologies at hand to connect every item ever produced to the Internet of Things, each with a unique digital identity. There should be no hesitation in accelerating this process.

Blockchain is supporting efforts around the globe to battle the virus. The technology is helping us ship medicines from pharmaceuticals to areas of the world stricken by the COVID-19 outbreak. It is improving the efficiency of movement permits to residents in a near-future of controlled social movement.

Closer to home, it’s keeping economies moving. It’s facilitating cash-flow management for start-ups and ensuring timely payments for their products and pilots. It’s even helping consumers track their home office chair to improve their quality of life under lockdown conditions.

The “visibility, traceability, and interoperability” of blockchain platforms to fortify, better connect and improve the resilience of supply chains will also be critical to getting the recovery underway in the world beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

Getting there won’t be easy. Indeed, research carried out by the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution UAE (C4IR UAE), in collaboration with Accelliance, prior to the publication of a whitepaper at Davos 2020, analyzed the key challenges and success factors in wider blockchain deployment.

“We cannot afford to continue operating in the dark.”

—Mariam Obaid Al Muhairi, Project Manager at the Dubai Future Foundation

The more than 100 blockchain stakeholders from more than 60 public- and private-sector entities in the UAE, who shared their lessons and insights on blockchain deployment, said that an adaptive supply chain requires total and willing buy-in from all stakeholders, clear regulatory implications for businesses, and an educational awareness process at the beginning of the project. A lack of the latter form some of the biggest roadblocks to implementing blockchain on a more comprehensive level, the research said.

 

In response to these challenges, the World Economic Forum, in association with its international blockchain community, including C4IR UAE, co-developed the Redesigning Trust: Blockchain Deployment Toolkit, with a supply chain focus. The toolkit is designed to guide an individual, and their organization, through the development and deployment of a new blockchain solution. The toolkit provides tools, resources, and know-how to organizations undertaking blockchain projects. “The aim of the toolkit is to support decision makers in effectively deploying blockchain technology in their respective entities,” explained Nadia Hewett, project lead for Blockchain and Digital Currency at the World Economic Forum.

The toolkit, ahead of its release, was trialed with multiple entities worldwide, including the Abu Dhabi Digital Authority in the UAE to support their blockchain infrastructure development strategy. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an important contributor to this toolkit made up of leaders from governments, companies, start-ups, academic institutions, civil society, international organizations and experts across the globe.

As detailed in the C4IR UAE whitepaper “Inclusive Deployment of Blockchain: Case Studies and Learnings from the United Arab Emirates”, the common challenges identified across the sectors remain tied to operational and regulatory questions, as opposed to technical factors. The challenge is not about identifying the right blockchain technology for the specific need, it’s about providing the supportive structure around to adapt it – a challenge we see coming to the surface clearly in today’s COVID-19 world. And, with over four trillion consumer products made and shipped around the world each year, we cannot afford to continue operating in the dark when it comes to keeping track of these products -especially when some of these products could save lives.

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