Blockchains are about to disrupt everything from stock trading to global shipping.
There ought to be a restraining order preventing the word “revolutionary” from getting too close to the word “technology.” The overwhelming number of apps, algorithms, and other inventions of code that emerge from week to week do not, in fact, transform society or even upend an industry, despite the marketing hype that often accompanies them. Nor do most wizardly machines, from Fitbits to VR helmets to Google Glass, truly alter everyday life or business practices—at least not right away. For all the heady talk of “disruption”—and we in the media are big on that—technological advancement tends to be accretive, even slow.
But in this issue, a formidable trio of Fortune writers—Robert Hackett, Jen Wieczner, and Jeff John Roberts—dive into a technology that may well change everyday business in scores of industries: It’s called blockchain.
Blockchain is the sophisticated accounting architecture that underpins Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency at the center of an investing mania of late. (As the Sept. 1, 2017 issue was going to press, the price of a single Bitcoin was around $4,200, up sevenfold from a year ago.) But as Chris Dixon, a general partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, tells our own Mr. Hackett, the “money stuff … overshadows the more important technology story.”
Indeed, the same distributed code-based ledger that drives Bitcoin has the potential to move any kind of data swiftly and securely—and, at the same time, make a record of that change, movement, or transaction available instantly and permanently to anyone. That’s a critical (and maybe even business-saving) advantage for companies in a host of industries, from finance to shipping to health care, as our reporting team shows.
Danish shipping giant Maersk is testing a blockchain that enables its customers to keep tabs on their cargo as it moves from port to port, while simultaneously letting Dutch customs officials and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security do the same. Walmart is testing its own tracker—potentially allowing it to identify every stop a product makes on its journey to a store shelf, which could be a game-changer in the event of, say, an outbreak of foodborne illness. (It could take mere seconds to identify whether a given package of mangoes or lettuce was at risk.)
Financial companies are testing blockchains as platforms for stock trades and interbank money transfers; diamond dealers are investigating a version to verify the provenance of precious stones; aircraft makers are exploring how a blockchain might track disparate parts of their jets as they make their way from machinist shop to tarmac. Even the state of Delaware, where the majority of Fortune 500 companies are incorporated, is experimenting with a system that may soon allow companies to register shares, undertake proxy votes, and do virtually all of their public filings via a blockchain.
The tech is hardly glitch-free, as Wieczner relates in her gripping tale of high-tech cryptocurrency heists (see “The 21st-Century Bank Robbery,”). But “having witnessed what the advent of digital, cloud, and mobile did to laggard companies,” writes Hackett, “no one wants to be the sucker left behind.” There isn’t a sector of the economy today, after all, where customers aren’t demanding faster transactions and lower costs.
Given the promise of this tech in so many industries today, it’s no surprise that it’s a magnet for brilliant young innovators. You’ll find three on our 2017 40 Under 40 list, which highlights the most influential global leaders under that witching age. This year’s roster includes everyone from statesmen to stand-ups to startup idols.
It’s a generation filled with revolutionaries—some of them, even the technological kind.
A version of this article appears in the Sept. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “New Kids on the Blockchain.”