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Blockchain will go far beyond finance to affect the lives of “almost everyone,” according to Jeremy Wilson, Vice Chairman of Barclays Corporate Banking.

“It will change not just finance, but the lives of almost everyone, directly or indirectly,” he told The Economist’s Finance Disrupted conference. “At the risk of overstating this, it looks as if it has the makings of a new operating system for the planet.”

Wilson was taking part in a panel discussion alongside fintech entrepreneurs Adam Ludwin and Eric Benz, and blockchain guru Helen Disney. He offered insights from his experience in Barclays and through his chairmanship of the Whitechapel Think Tank, a vehicle for government, regulators and the private sector to tackle issues arising in the emerging blockchain eco-system.

It will change not just finance, but the lives of almost everyone, directly or indirectly
Jeremy Wilson, Vice Chairman of Barclays Corporate Banking

Asked whether blockchain is a threat to banks, Wilson said: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it mentioned in Barclays or in the Whitechapel Think Tank that blockchain is anything other than a significant opportunity for the banks. And not just for the incumbents, but for everyone.”

Describing the opportunities of the technology, Wilson said: “We’d better get our heads around where blockchain is going to deliver most. It seems to me we’ve gone past the hype stage and we’re now seeing some quite serious business applications beginning to come forward.

“I think the simple principle is this: don’t try to use it in a place where things are on the whole working well. Apply this technology where things are presenting big challenges and need resolution. Go to the places that are ineffective, inefficient and expensive.”

New solutions

Looking at areas in banking where blockchain is already making an impact, Wilson identified trade finance and capital markets – citing a recent groundbreaking example: “Barclays have just done a pilot for trade finance, which usually involves a very long, complicated supply chain. It’s a sophisticated process developed over hundreds of years. The most inefficient thing in it is a document called the bill of lading, which can take weeks to get to the other side of the planet. And if you use blockchain, you can transform that.

“In the capital markets arena, it is becoming increasingly clear that blockchain is driving down significantly the inefficiencies and costs in the transaction process surrounding the buying and selling of securities.”

Wilson cautioned, however, that it will take industry-wide adoption of blockchain before its full capabilities can be unlocked: “It depends on how broad the constituency is that you have to address when you’re bringing a new capability. If it’s a very large universe, it will take time. Although things are moving much faster than anyone anticipated, I think it’s going to be another five to ten years until we really see this beginning to be embedded.”

Jeremy was speaking at The Economist's Finance Disrupted conference

Collaborate or die?

The overall theme of the conference was ‘Collaborate or Die?’ and this was particularly pertinent in the blockchain discussion, as Wilson described the importance of banks working together to create industry standards to allow the best outcomes for new technologies: “When you get something as profoundly new as this, you will get different consortia, different gatherings and different forms of collaboration, and of course you’ll get intense competition. If you go back and look at Betamax and VHS, those were standards that conflicted with each other, and we may well find that we’re heading a bit in that direction. But I think there is a genuine attempt in the banking industry to make sure that doesn’t happen. So you get major collaborations to avoid the situation where we have a conflict.”

Barclays is backing a number of blockchain innovations, both in-house and through incubators. Asked about the chances of “backing a winner”, Wilson said: “The whole community of investment banks, capital funds and angels backs horses when the reality is most will not reach the finish line. But that’s the nature of innovation on this scale. It’s entirely right that it should be fostered and developed, and it’s entirely right that banks should seek to do all they can to bring this together, competing vigorously where they need to and collaborating when they can.”

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