Blockchain and Design Go Hand-in-Hand

Blockchain Design

The democratizing technology will make human-centered design the most important competitive advantage in the new economy.

Human-centered Design—the process of deeply understanding human beings and using those insights to inspire creative solutions to intractable problems—is growing in influence every day. No longer is it just a process to make better products. It’s been at the heart of successful startups, found its way to the C-suite of huge corporations, and been recognized as a driver of enormous value creation. Recently, another buzzword has also gained huge hype: blockchain. I believe these seemingly unrelated “technologies” go hand-in-hand: As blockchain reaches its true potential to reshape our economies (a big if), Design will emerge as one of—if not the only—truly sustainable sources of competitive advantage for corporations.

Blockchain is still a mystery to most of us. If we know it at all, we do so as the technology behind Bitcoin. But as an excellent article in the New York Times Magazine points out, blockchain isn’t really about replacing paper money with electronic money. Its true power is in democratizing information ownership, security and authenticity.

In today’s information economy, the most valuable companies derive their value from the proprietary ownership and maintenance of platforms built on vast troves of valuable information. Facebook is the keeper of information about who we are and with whom we relate. Amazon maintains the information about, and means of connection between, who sells what and who wants to buy it. And Uber’s platform is built on information about who is traveling and who is capable of getting them there. All these platforms are proprietary, and their owners’ principal competitive advantage has been their ability to act on and leverage the intelligence they provide. The idea of platform creation is central to countless start-up business plans and countless corporate digital transformation strategies. One could argue that it is the dominant theme of competitive strategy in the information age.

Blockchain has the potential to change that. It allows, and economically incentivizes, everyday people—you and me—to create and maintain these platforms in a distributed fashion, with equal or greater security and authenticity, but no central owner. [I’m not going to go into the “how” of block chain. If you want to know more about how it works, watch this.]

The implications of this shift are too numerous to list (again, I’ll refer you to that NYT article which describes many of them). But I find one question particularly intriguing. If the information economy has been dominated by the competitive advantages associated with platform creation and those advantages cease to provide economic value, how will companies in the Blockchain age make money? In other words, if all the valuable information is available for any company to use, what will be the principal basis of competition between those companies?

I think it will be the ability to design truly great products, services and experiences built on top of that information. For example, imagine that information at the heart of Uber’s platform—information about driver availability, passenger need, and participant history—were available for all to use in an open, blockchain-enabled platform. We’d have a plethora of companies creating new applications and services to use it. The ones offering the best service and experience, not the one with an information monopoly, would win. In the open-platform blockchain future, the companies who deeply understand the people they serve, harness the democratized information available to them, and continually create new offerings those people love, will be the true unicorns.  That’s Design. As blockchain democratizes today’s information, technology and scale advantages, Design will emerge even more clearly as the competitive advantage of the future.

So, by all means, keep your eye on those Bitcoin prices. Find a way to hook into the blockchain phenomenon. But you may also want to invest in Design. When the proprietary platform business case is gone, you are going to need it.


Curious about the interlock between Design and another major tech trend? Read our paper on how to Design Smart, Connected Products.

Dan Ostrower

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Dan Ostrower