The coronavirus pandemic has revealed significant weaknesses in the supply chains — the information is not being gathered and shared fast enough, including the data necessary for decision-making, nor are the resources deployed where needed. Blockchain is a solution for this, experts believe, but the improvement doesn’t come overnight, and it will require some major cooperation.
The head of blockchain for multinational tech giant IBM in Australia and New Zealand, Rupert Colchester, academics, and the World Economic Forum with many of its various partners, all emphasize the need for transparency across supply chains — a feature increasingly demanded by customers.
"You can drive completely new levels of transparency with blockchain," Colchester told ZDNet. This technology would allow security and transparency down a supply chain and "you can also do that bidirectionally which was historically been very hard to do," he said. The World Economic Forum agrees that the resilience of supply chains depends on transparency and integrity, and these two can be improved "through the responsible deployment of blockchain technologies that offer a "shared truth"," they said.
Blockchain is "uniquely suited to verifying, securing and sharing data," which makes them "ideal for managing multi-party, inter-organizational, and cross-border transactions," in a recent Harvard Business Review article wrote Remko van Hoek, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Arkansas, and Mary Lacity, a professor of information systems and director of the Blockchain Center of Excellence at the same university.
However, it’s the pandemic that’s breaking the barriers, including the regulatory challenges and the lack of agreement between partners using this technology. The authors went on to provide an example of Colonel James Allen Regenor, USAF (ret), who has been building a blockchain-powered platform for buying and selling traceable 3-D printed parts since 2013, founding VeriTX in 2019 to bring the platform to market. To help the efforts during the pandemic, he founded Rapid Medical Parts in March, gathering a global network of partners, while the Pentagon awarded it a contract for converting sleep apnea machines into ventilators at a tenth of the cost of a new ventilator.
A toolkit to redesign trust
On their end, the World Economic Forum with the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network Fellows from Hitachi, Deloitte and Saudi Aramco, as well as a number of collaborators, such as Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and the Vaccine Alliance, have released the ‘Redesigning Trust: Blockchain Deployment Toolkit,’ meant as a guide for organizations to develop and deploy blockchain solutions, and as a blockchain adoption accelerant. Furthermore, Nadia Hewett, Blockchain and Digital Currency Project Lead at the World Economic Forum USA, believes that this toolkit "can level the playing field for small and medium-sized enterprises," given that small players "may not have access to the resources required to unlock the value of blockchain technology."
Meanwhile, a number of organizations, developers, tech companies, health experts, etc., including IBM, the World Health Organization, and Microsoft, have partnered up to build the blockchain-based open data platform, MiPasa. Created by the enterprise blockchain firm HACERA, the data streaming platform uses IBM Blockchain Platform and IBM Cloud in order to provide necessary data to technologists, data scientists, and public health officials.
"We’re not saying that blockchain will fix everything," warned Colchester. "You can’t just install blockchain and suddenly, miraculously, you have no problems with supply chains." However, it will provide transparency and necessary data to identify a problem right away and find a solution for it.
"If you could rewind a year, or two years, let’s just say, and you spend some time drastically improving some of these major supply chains, both cross-border, cross-continent, for large numbers of products, then you probably would have seen a different state of affairs in the global supply chain right now," he said.
Colchester added, however, that blockchain requires cooperation within departments in a company and between different companies, and it will be especially beneficial when used alongside other technologies, like Internet of Things, robotics, machine learning, etc. "The power of blockchain definitely is at its highest when you are creating those trusted links between organizations," Colchester told ZDNet, asking "how do you exchange data securely in a trustworthy manner with potentially even a competitor of yours?"
The current pandemic has many lessons to teach, believes the World Economic Forum’s Hewett, who hopes that the new toolkit will help improve long-term pandemic preparedness and accelerate an economic recovery led by public-private cooperation.