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Blockchain: What the tech?

Events are becoming increasingly data-driven, but is the industry ready to embrace the potential of blockchain technology?

Don’t know what blockchain is? Chances are, you’ve already heard about its most famous application to date, Bitcoin. In the past year, the chaotic realm of cryptocurrencies has drawn much public interest and intense speculation that resembles a digital gold rush.

But there’s more to blockchain technology beyond its use with cryptocurrencies to secure financial transactions, control the creation of additional units, and verify the transfer of assets.

Imagine if every agreement, process, task and payment had a digital record and signature that could be identified, validated, stored, and shared.

What would industry, or the world, look like if individuals, organisations, machines, and algorithms could freely transact and interact with one another with little friction and full transparency?

Filling in the details of that picture is precisely what advocates and developers of blockchain, the technology that would enable this, are working towards right now. Imagine how the business of events would, or could, change. But are event professionals looking at a potential blockchain overload in their near future?

The most obvious use of blockchain technology in the events industry is linking cryptocurrency and ticket sales, which some conferences already do.

Event potential… Coindesk runs Consensus, a blockchain tech conference series.

Joon Ian Wong, managing director for Europe and Asia at Coindesk, shares that the media and events company currently accepts Bitcoin and Ether for sponsorships and tickets for its blockchain technology summit series, Consensus.

In addition to payments, blockchain technology can be applied to improving the overall attendee experience, particularly with data collection and identity security. For example, with blockchain as an immutable ledger, attendees need not expose financial or personal details to numerous individual vendors. Instead, attendees’ identifiable data and transactional information could follow them around an event, or even multiple events — leaving them in control of data to be shared.

There’s also a potential role for smart contracts to enable the exchange of anything of value in a transparent, conflict-free way without a middleman. This could ease vendor management woes.

Shook Fung Yap, MCI managing director Malaysia, agrees that ticketing, smart contracts and payments are the most obvious applications for blockchain technology. “Besides these, we are also looking at how best to utilise the technology to improve accuracy and increase efficiency and productivity,” she adds.

However, the technology remains nascent, with Yap emphasising that despite its high potential, it will take some time for adoption and “achieving critical mass”.

Gabriel Yang, chief operations officer of Beyond Blocks, an event platform that seeks to connect blockchain enthusiasts, believes the technology is nowhere near ready for primetime. “Because there isn’t a proven and effective solution out there in the market yet,” he explains. “By proven, I mean something like Eventbrite or Peatix, which we currently use for our conferences in Tokyo, Seoul and Bangkok. They are easy to use and fairly secure.”

Beyond Blocks… Despite rising interest, there’s still a long road ahead for blockchain education. 

Yang points out that while there is high potential for blockchain solutions to seriously address some of the pressing issues facing the events industry, there must first be a mindset change. “The industry knows that technology can make our lives easier. And there is currently a variety of apps available to aid with audience engagement, marketing or data management,” he says.

However, Yang notes that the industry as a whole hasn’t proven itself to be an early adopter of technology due to hesitation stemming from cost, product reliability, lack of customer service and the lack of buy-in from clients.

“There’s also the barrier due to a lack of understanding about new technology and tools,” Yang says. “As an industry, we remain relatively old school, where tried-and-tested systems and workflows win most of the time. It’s a long road ahead for blockchain education and acceptance.”

Coindesk’s Wong notes that while event industry-specific solutions are currently not the major use-case for blockchain, there are a number of start-up companies developing solutions.

He cites Aventus, founded by two Imperial College students, which raised US$20 million in funding last year. Aventus believes that blockchain for event tickets could prevent fraud and touting, while also delivering and enforcing specific rights to ticket holders through smart contracts.

“This makes a lot of sense, but it’s a ‘boil the ocean problem’. They have to get everyone in the events industry to use their system for it to work,” says Wong, adding that several other teams such as Eventchain and Blocktix are trying similar things.

He says another interesting crypto-economic approach to blockchain and events is London-based Blockparty. To prevent “event squatters” from clogging up the guest list, attendees pay a deposit to the organiser in the form of cryptocurrency Ether sent to a smart contract. Those who fail to show up as promised forfeit their deposit. All forfeited deposits are collected in a pot and distributed to attendees who actually show up.

“This sort of approach has more promise because it can be easily implemented and doesn’t require industry-wide adoption,” he adds.

For curious developers or entrepreneurs keen to fulfil the needs of events professionals with blockchain technology, Yang advises: “Not enough event professionals are actually part of the development process. This needs to change before it becomes the norm. Listen to what the industry needs and keep it simple for them.”