The rapid rise and fall in bitcoin’s price last year brought blockchain into the global public consciousness, but the technology’s use cases go far beyond digital currencies and could transform the way we live and work.
Such potential is well understood in Dubai, where the government announced its Dubai Blockchain Strategy in 2016.
Three core themes underpin this strategy: government efficiency, industry creation and international leadership. It envisages creating an open platform to share the technology with other cities worldwide.
First and foremost, Dubai aims to be the first city fully powered by blockchain. Processing the likes of visa applications, bill payments and license renewals generate more than 100 million documents annually – by 2020, all these will be transacted digitally on the blockchain. Going paperless will save US$1.5 billion (AED 5.5 billion) in administrative costs each year, reduce C02 emissions by 114 MTons and free up 25.1 million hours of economic activity.
“There is a very large opportunity to reduce the amount of paper that gets used. It's an understated opportunity that is undervalued by many,” said Jan Grabski, Director of Enterprise Scaling, Consensys. “The promise of a paperless office is over two decades old – blockchain can actually make that happen now.”
ConsenSys is a blockchain specialist, having helped develop Ethereum-based solutions for public and private sector entities including GlaxoSmithKline. Dubai’s blockchain strategy convinced the firm to open its MENA headquarters in the city.
“Waving the flag had a huge impact,” said Grabski. “It drew attention. Many other companies also came to Dubai – people passionate about blockchain – and began talking to each other. It was an enormous catalyst, which is hard to overstate.”
The company will use its Dubai hub to engineer new products.
“Our work in Dubai focuses around helping enterprises and other organisations understand and adopt blockchain,” said Grabski. “We're attracting some of the best talent globally to come here and build the hub with us.”
Dubai’s government believes blockchain will facilitate thousands of new business opportunities in the private sector. Among the industries expected to most benefit are real estate, financial services, healthcare, transportation, energy, retail and tourism.
“Blockchain is universal in its application. The only thing that differentiates between the speed of adoption is the level of understanding,” said Grabski. “There’s an enormous opportunity for all kinds of businesses - established and new, private and public. Everyone's still learning, we're in the midst of a hype cycle where lots of parties are still figuring out what it is that they're going to get out of blockchain, how they're going to do it and how much it's going to cost them. “Since Dubai is open and has announced the blockchain strategy, it is the place to come and explore options.”
Linking the sectors together
Developments continue apace. In May, three government entities partnered with IBM to unveil Dubai Blockchain Business Registry Project. This is a first-of-its-kind unified business ledger that will make investing and doing business in Dubai easier. It will streamline the process of setting up and operating a business, roll out the digital exchange of trade licenses and related documentation, and ensure regulatory compliance.
“Dubai is a leader in innovation with many ambitious projects that have already become a reality,” Amr Refaat, IBM Middle East General Manager, said in a statement launching the registry.
“With the first phase of this project already in place to form the first active Blockchain commerce registry network, there is keen interest from other public and private entities to join the network.”
Dubai Future Foundation, chaired by Dubai’s Crown Prince, launched the Global Blockchain Council in 2016, which already has nearly 50 members from the public and private sector. These include Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, SAP and UAE telecom operator du. Another government entity, Smart Dubai, is also working on 20 more use cases with multiple entities city-wide and hopes to launch these in 2018.
Prior to joining Consensys, Grabski worked for Dubai bank Emirates NBD where he invented a blockchain-based security feature for cheques. This purports to be one of the first full-scale enterprise blockchain deployments worldwide.
“The career opportunities in Dubai are excellent,” he added. “A lot of people take a job in Dubai thinking they’ll just be here for a few years, but what you soon realise is that because this place embraces so many changes and new ideas, it's also an excellent base to meet people from across the world to explore new ideas and then implement them.
“It would be hard to imagine that my career would have developed in the same way anywhere else.”