Railforum 2017 - Blockchain reinvents rail

IBM Fellow John Cohn believes that blockchain technology is set to revolutionize rail traffic – and Kouvola will be in the thick of it. Appearing at RailForum 2017, Cohn called blockchain the digital disruption that rail has been waiting for.

If anyone has a handle on emerging new tech such as blockchain, it is John Cohn. He has been with IBM for 35 years, achieving the designation ‘IBM Fellow’ a decade ago. IBM Fellow is the highest technical rank within IBM. Cohn is also the Chief Scientist for all things IoT and “Chief Agitator” at the company. With more than seventy (70!) patents under his belt, it is no wonder he has a pretty wide license to roam and seek innovation wherever it may surface.

Tracing the evolution of rail traffic at RailForum 2017, Cohn says that the transition from horse-drawn wagons and steam engines to such out-of-the-box concepts as HyperLoop has been a remarkable one – but the best is yet to come.

“Never in all my years have I seen something that has as much disruptive power,” he says about blockchain on rail. Taking the integrated approach of blockchain from the digital world – which gave us Bitcoin, for example – and putting it to work in the very physical world of logistics is a real gamechanger. 

What if…?

Cohn and his colleagues had written a paper on the potential of blockchain in late 2014 and Mika Lammi from Kouvola Innovation Oy had happened to stumble onto it. Lammi was convinced that blockchain could be introduced into container traffic in a big way and the two men started a dialogue.

The key take-away was this: in the blockchain logistics system, you only need to trust the system, not the individual player. Via shared ledgers and smart contracts, one can build a safe transport system that is shared, replicated and permissioned – eliminating fraud. Blockchain is very good at reconciling multipartner problems that are often the bane of logistics. In fact, Cohn argues that the cost of various “friction” at border zones, for instance, is greater than that of the transport itself.  

“With blockchain, the over-all time used in goods transport will decrease, as will the risk involved. At the same time, efficiency and trust are increased,” he sums up.

Billion Dollar Opportunity

And what’s at stake here? - The total annual value of global trade is estimated to be around 1.8 trillion USD – and according to Cohn, blockchain could help save about 10% of that staggering amount.   

Pushing forward with their project, IBM and Kouvola Innovation Oy recruited another player, Kouvola-based Propentus Oy, to hone their concept under the name SmartLog. Using the IBM’s HyperLedger 1.0 framework, the project is launching its first pilots to companies in October 2017. Funded by EU Interreg Central Baltic Programme, the over-all goal is to “start something big”, as Cohn puts it.

“I have been very impressed by Kouvola’s progress,” he says, joking that “playing with trains” has been a real treat.   

“I think that Kouvola is the perfect place to try this concept out – small enough to be daring. As it turns out, it may be easier to do it here than elsewhere,” he says, adding that the new innovation will work, too.

“I bet my badge on it.”



Text by Sami Anteroinen, Dialog Designs Oy

Foto by Johannes Wiehn: John Cohn speaking in Railforum 2017 -seminar in Kouvola