Walk into any boardroom in 2018, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear a conversation about blockchain. Not everyone, however, may be clear about what it means. Blockchain is a digital ledger in which transactions made in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency are recorded. Exchanges between two users belonging to the same network are stored in a secure, verifiable, and permanent way, inside cryptographic blocks. Those blocks are connected in a hierarchical manner to one another in an endless chain of data blocks (hence the name).
The technology is doing much more than powering the popularity of cryptocurrencies, however. It’s also behind Walmart’s plans to improve food safety, Barclays’ efforts to combat identity theft, and Maersk’s aim to make global trade more efficient. “No other architecture offers such a radical alternative to how things work today,” Sandra Upson, senior editor at WIRED, wrote in May. “Once blockchain technologies mature, they will recede into the background to become one of the fundamental systems powering the internet.”
Blockchain could change everything: the way businesses manage supply chains, the way governments count votes, and the way hospitals handle patient records. As the technology transforms society, what will it do to the events industry?
PCMA Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy and Integrated Media Peter Wigren sees a wide range of opportunities for blockchain to solve one of the big challenges confronting events in the wake of the EU’s GDPR legislation: data management. “At a trade show with lots of exhibitors, attendees are going to demand some kind of higher level of privacy,” Wigren said. “And they’re not just going to believe that the data will be safe because someone says it will.”
Wigren envisions the potential for an attendee’s personal information to live on a blockchain for that particular trade show. “Every event has an exchange of data between attendees, vendors, and the event organizer,” Wigren said. “And the attendee’s data is often duplicated into multiple systems without giving the attendee any insights into how it’s being used. In this scenario, a blockchain solution makes a lot of sense. For instance, attendees could grant permissions to exhibitors to a subset of their profile.
Exhibitors could in turn reward attendees with a digital token system, which is a key part of many blockchain solutions. It could function almost as a local event currency. And I can easily see an industry blockchain being extended post-event to offer attendees and suppliers a way to interact throughout the year and deliver on the promise of a 365-days-a-year connected community.”
Attendees won’t be the only ones who benefit, though. Wigren said that there could be significant savings of time and money for event organizers. “In the current tangle of APIs [application programming interface], blockchain could offer significant efficiencies,” Wigren said. “Whether you were at CES, SXSW, or any other event, data would be exchanged in the exact same way with an industry blockchain solution. It would eliminate the need for a complex web of integrations between an always growing number of platforms.”
Bringing the Industry Together
While Wigren is excited about the possibilities of blockchain, one major hurdle stands in the way. “A blockchain solution for the events industry cannot succeed without having broad support from a large number of industry players,” Wigren said. “Standards need to be developed.”
Before those guidelines arrive, Wigren expects to see plenty of blockchain startups promising to transform business events. However, a standalone startup will struggle to deliver the full potential of blockchain technology. “They will offer few benefits unless they get broad support from the industry,” Wigren said. “Imagine a startup claiming to have a blockchain solution for attendee badges.
As a standalone solution, it will add very little value to attendees and organizers, as it is just a different way of storing data. But if the company earns support from other players such as registration systems, mobile app providers, and location-based services, it will start to get interesting.”
Wigren foresees established industry organizations making announcements of various blockchain solutions, but also facing the same limitations as startups. Without broad industry support, he reiterated, there will be a lack of benefits for planners, attendees, “and anyone involved in the ecosystem of an event.”
Despite the current buzz about blockchain, there is a hiccup: speed. While Visa can currently process approximately 100,000 transactions per second, Bitcoin — the poster child of blockchain — is nowhere near those numbers. In fact, the organizers behind the North American Bitcoin Conference stopped accepting bitcoin payments earlier this year due to slow payment processing.
However, Wigren pointed out, truly transformative technologies fail to deliver instant gratification. “One should look at the promise of the concept of blockchain,” he said, “not the current state of the technology.”
For a glimpse of the future, Wigren recommends looking at the past. Consider the early days of recording music on computers in the 1980s. “Storage and speed limitations made professional use of it impossible,” he said. “At the time, most people said that digital audio recording would never happen. Ten years later, nearly every recording studio switched from analog to digital.”
Fast forward to the present: The laptop used to type this article comes with digital recording software that can capture a full orchestra. “Many people struggle to see past a one- or two-year horizon,” Wigren said. “So, while it’s true that blockchains can be much slower than traditional servers and computers, will that matter in five years? If you consider the ongoing improvements to the technology, it’s easy to see how all its possibilities can be fully realized.”
Big challenges require collaboration from competitors. Consider the advertising industry’s struggles to accurately track when and where online ads appear, if they’re running next to malicious content, and whether or not real human beings — or bots — are actually seeing them.
To give greater transparency to the brands that spend billions of dollars on digital ads, a group of publishers, brands, agencies, and technology providers — many of which are competing for the same customers — united to develop standards and solutions using blockchain technology. The group is called AdLedger, and members have quarterly face-to-face working groups and monthly virtual meetings. For blockchain technology to transform the events industry, a similar all-competitors-on-the-same-page approach will be necessary.
Watch “Understand the Blockchain in Two Minutes” by the Institute for the Future on YouTube at convn.org/blockchain-IFTF.