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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What does blockchain even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

I don’t know about you, but it seems like everywhere I turn folks are talking about blockchain and its potential to change all of the systems around us, from food to banking. But what does blockchain even mean?

I should start by saying I will do my best here, but (tbh) it is all a little over my head. Let’s establish first that a blockchain exists in the realm of digital information. Blockchain technology was originally created for the digital currency, Bitcoin, by a person or group of people known by the pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto. (And, no, I am not talking scifi, welcome to 2018.)

A blockchain is a continuously growing list of digital records or transactions, called blocks, which are linked chronologically. Each block includes the cryptographic hash (or fingerprint) of the prior block in the chain, linking two consecutive blocks and maintaining the integrity of the chain.

The next thing to understand with blockchains is that each blockchain exists across a network of computers and is automatically updated at short, regular intervals. The data is decentralized and thus it cannot be controlled or corrupted by any single entity. 

Another key aspect is that blockchains were originally designed to be permissionless (accessible without permission) and transparent. Early blockchains, including Bitcoin transactions, are open to the public. In the case of Bitcoin, owners of the currency are not explicitly identified, but the exchanges themselves can be seen by all. However, as the technology gets used in new applications, there has been a rise in permission (private) blockchains.

So what is the big deal? Well, blockchains have opened up a whole new world for how records are kept and tracked over time. Think about your own medical records, spread out across many doctors’ offices over decades. What if you had full access to your medical data that was stored via a secure blockchain that could connect all the dots and be shared at any point by those you give permission to? 

This technology may have profound implications for increasing traceability in our food system or encrypting electronic voting in elections. It is definitely worth staying informed about where this blockchain may take us.