BETTING ON BLOCKCHAIN: Digital data islands pose interoperability problem

The proliferation of trade finance blockchain platforms is a positive move toward digitizing the sector. What it has created, however, is a number of platforms operating on different systems that cannot communicate with each other.

As several market participants put it, these platforms are digital data islands, with paper acting as the bridge.

Each bank has a different requirement and a specific level of knowledge, meaning that not everybody is using the same platform; there are estimated to be around 30 networks in commodities trade finance alone.

“Everybody is racing to add new members and gain volume, and some participants are on more than one platform because they want to be in more than one race. Everyone is doing something different,” TradeIX chief marketing officer Oliver Belin said.

“This means that not everybody is reading into the same standards, and this creates data islands, which makes communication between each other difficult,” he added.

Having a single network for global trade might be the Holy Grail, but it’s highly unlikely to materialize any time soon.

The more likely result is that a network of networks is created, with shared standards for governance.

Another common thread will be technology, with R3’s Corda or Hyperledger Fabric already popular.

Some networks may provide more specialist services focused on a particular area, such as letters of credit (Voltron) or know-your-customer (komgo SA).

According to Arnoud Star Busmann, ING’s program director, trade & commodity finance – blockchain innovation, there will likely be numerous groups developing competing platforms.

“There will be some mushrooming and consolidation in the different sectors, but I think there will always be multiple platforms with a particular focus on a particular offering and a particular user base. I doubt there will be the mother of all commodity platforms; I just don’t think industry and regulators will want or allow that level of centralization, even if it’s decentralized,” Star Busmann told Fastmarkets.

“The projects we’re involved with will be developed on open standards, with key aspects being: Ensure the user base is open, that it’s not limited to just shareholders, that we use as much open source as possible, and publicly available structures and standards,” he said.

There already has been a move in this direction: GS1, the global business communications standards organization, is collaborating with IBM and Microsoft to leverage GS1 Standards in their enterprise blockchain applications for supply chain clients.

Ramesh Gopinath, vice president of blockchain solutions at information technology firm IBM, said that while he doesn’t have a crystal ball, he envisions the future bringing a relatively narrow domain of networks.

“It’d be better if everyone in the ecosystem was on the same platform, but let’s say there are two or three other options. As long as they all use the same standards, like GS1, then interoperability is going to take care of the problem,” he said. “Effectively you could have a small number of solutions in a small industry trying to do the same thing, which cooperate and work together because the benefits are recognized.”

The notion of a blockchain network of networks does exist – IBM and Maersk’s Global Trade Digitization ecosystem, which has since morphed into TradeLens. The venture is designed to improve the cost of transportation and address the lack of visibility and inefficiencies with paper-based processes.

“In global trade there’s already a trade finance, trade logistics and trade insurance network, all of which are independent ecosystems. Say they all got together and said, ‘Let’s make it all happen effectively,’ and you can immediately see the link between all of them,” Gopinath said.

“You need all networks to link together – it’s not that complicated. You don’t need one blockchain globally, you just need networks talking to each other. I have a hard time seeing how you’d get everyone in an industry onto the same platform, the same uber-network,” he added.

Founding partners of platforms are already starting to look across the trade finance ecosystem and recognize synergies with other networks; that’s why the market is starting to see consortia tie-ups and collaboration efforts.

Banks involved in trade finance consortium Marco Polo, along with technology providers TradeIX and R3, have also recently set up Universal Trade Network, a project to create global standards and enable interoperability among trade business networks and hence create the network-of-networks for trade.

The goal is to create a new and neutral standards body, the Universal Trade Network Organisation, in 2019. The Steering Committee and working groups are reaching out to potential funding partners to secure funding for the set-up of the industry body and its first year of operation.