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Why Blockchain Needs Design



The global supply chain is incredibly complicated, with millions of ships and airplanes and trucks bringing goods thousands of miles across the world, crossing national boundaries, and changing hands along the way. If that’s totally overwhelming to imagine, that’s nothing compared to keeping the pieces of this system moving efficiently. The most baffling thing? Much of this unthinkably complex global system still runs on old-school forms of record keeping: namely, paperwork.

Blockchain could be the technology to change all this. Popularized over the past decade as the structural framework behind bitcoin, blockchain is a digital record of transactions that are cryptographically secured–effectively, a digital ledger that works a bit like a Google Doc. If another person adds to it, you can see the changes, and you know who made them and when. Many industries are moving to make blockchain part of their business, and it’s easy to see how such a technology could be used to understand the global supply chain, since it streamlines the complex network of transactions into a verifiable record that every member of the supply chain has access to.

But blockchain itself is technologically complicated, and people along the supply chain need it at different times for different reasons. For instance, someone scanning pallets of food at a warehouse is simply recording what veggies have arrived and when, whereas a customs officer at a major port needs to know where goods are coming from, where they’re going, and if they meet all regulations before giving their seal of approval.

As blockchain makes its way into the mainstream, it will be up to designers to temper its technical complexity with usability–in short, blockchain will need interfaces. IBM is in the early stages of creating them.

IBM uses a design thinking process to map out all the users for a single blockchain. [Image: courtesy IBM]


IBM launched its blockchain division in 2015, and has worked on 400 blockchain projects for individual clients like the FDA, BNY Mellon, the London Stock Exchange, and Dubai customs. But today, the company is launching a blockchain platform: an easy-to-use product that allows everyone in a supply chain, from customs agents to truck drivers to bank officials, to develop blockchain networks together.

In the global supply chain, banks, farms, and consumers are all interconnected. IBM wants to use blockchain to integrate information between all of the stakeholders. [Image: courtesy IBM]

IBM’s global design lead Krystal Webber provides the perfect illustration of why blockchain is such a radical leap from how the world runs today. While researching a proof-of-concept for a global trade and logistics blockchain, she worked on an early design for an interface that tracked a shipment from Kenya to the Netherlands. Just to leave the Kenyan port required 30different documents–the signing of which required a bike courier to shuttle back and forth from different offices. And because paper customs documents are easily forged, they’re very difficult to verify quickly.