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ENTERPRISE BLOCKCHAIN: DRAGGING INSURANCE OUT OF THE DARK AGES

INSURANCE

Ryan Rugg, Global Head of The Industry Business Unit at R3

 

The history of insurance traces back to the development of modern business and insuring against its risks; property, cargo, medical and death. Insurance helps mitigate losses, wary of the financial losses a capsized ship could cause, forward-thinking vessel owners established communal funds that could pay for damages to any individual’s ship within the group. While this basic concept holds strong to this day, insurance is now a multi-trillion dollar industry that impacts almost every other sector of business, from healthcare to capital markets and aviation.

Despite the insurance industry’s image of being a conservative sector, insurers have been consistently innovative in the property and perils they protect against, but the supporting technologies and infrastructure have remained antiquated and unfit for purpose. Operational inefficiency is the single biggest threat facing the insurance industry today, and insurers are now taking steps to tackle this challenge head-on with purpose-built enterprise blockchain technology.

 

INSURANCE

Ryan Rugg

Inefficiency and fragmentation

Blockchain provides a solution to drive efficiency and security that would allow private data to be shared in a secure manner. Many policies are still sold over the phone rather than online, and the policies themselves are then processed on paper contracts, introducing huge potential for manual errors in claims and payments. This anachronistic infrastructure is even more surprising when you consider the complexity of the insurance ecosystem and the amount of parties involved in a transaction, including consumers, brokers, insurers, reinsurers and more.

The costs of this inefficiency and fragmentation are well documented. Inaccurate, disparate sources of data acquisition lead to long underwriting cycles and inaccurate risk profiling. Extensive manual intervention is required across the insurance value chain, ranging from contract placement to claims settlement. Archaic billing systems and complex billing processes lead to high reconciliation costs. Ambiguity in loss conditions, assessment procedures and claim settlement delays leads to increased litigation risk. It has been estimated that as much as 60% of customer premiums is consumed by these inefficiencies.[1]

In addition, increasingly stringent and dynamic regulatory requirements continue to impact areas such as renewals and claims assessment. Insurers often have a complete lack of visibility of their liabilities and obligations, and a lack of transparency across the entire business. In today’s regulatory climate, it is unsurprising that authorities are beginning to demand more from insurers.

Blockchain technology is not a panacea for all of these problems, but with the right architecture a platform can address and reduce inefficiencies.  There are also new revenue and growth opportunities in cutting-edge sectors such as cyber insurance that blockchain technology can help enable.

 

Tackling the blockchain privacy challenge

Blockchain offers insurance firms a new way to coordinate information between each other, by using a pre-agreed technology solution instead of relying on a third party’s bookkeeping. The technology enables disparate parties to connect via a shared platform environment. While this premise may appear simple at first glance, the insurance industry has specific requirements in relation to privacy and security that only certain blockchain platforms can fulfil.

For example, if a blockchain has the appropriate data privacy architecture in place, each insurance firm can maintain the same amount of control over their data as today, but with more flexibility. Unlike the traditional permission-less blockchain platforms – in which all data is shared with all parties – Corda shares information with those who have a “need to know,” ensuring the confidentiality of trades and agreements while also capturing the benefits of a shared distributed ledger infrastructure.

Blockchain platforms such as R3’s Corda have been purpose built for enterprise usage in industries such as insurance and tackle issues such as data privacy, scalability and security head-on. Following a period of experimentation with multiple consortia and technologies, insurers are now consolidating their blockchain efforts around Corda.

Testament to this is the recent decision of the industry-leading B3i consortium to port from IBM’s Fabric to Corda or RiskBlock decision to port from Ethereum.  All the major insurance groups and ecosystems are coalescing on Corda in order to effect change and form standards. As Metcalfe’s Law states, the value of a network is proportional to the number of connections in the network squared – the more insurers that build upon on a common platform, the more valuable the platform becomes to all participants due to the interoperability of applications. The consolidation around Corda creates network effects industry-wide.

 

Contract placement: leveraging the network effect

To more tangibly examine the benefits of these network effects, we can look at a specific insurance use case that involves a network of many different entities and counterparties – contract placement.

Contract placement is the process of negotiating a potential insurance contract between a broker and an insurer in order to issue the contract to provide coverage for an end customer. For most commercial and specialty insurance scenarios, except for small commercial and some mid-market products, this is an arduous, complex process involving several entities – a broker, one or more insurers, and potentially a reinsurer and reinsurance broker. Furthermore, outsized risks generally mean that multiple insurers come together to insure the risk at the requested limit price, resulting in additional complexity for the broker in managing the placement process.

Contract placement, with the extensive negotiation cycle between a broker and insurers, as well as between an insurer and reinsurers – with or without a reinsurance broker thrown in – has several inefficiencies related to inter-firm coordination. Extensive manual intervention and reconciliation is required for brokers, insurers and reinsurers to keep track of requests and responses; high IT spend is required for all participating parties to maintain an audit trail of the negotiation history between different entities; and each firm must make heavy investments in document storage systems to maintain separate contracts over the policy lifecycle.

Leveraging the network effect by connecting brokers, insurers and reinsurers onto the same blockchain platform can deliver numerous benefits. These include:

  • Near-instantaneous communication between participating parties to eliminate delays associated with reconciliation and coordination;
  • Real-time consensus among all parties involved in the contract on coverage, price, terms and conditions;
  • Complete audit trail from all sides of negotiations and data exchanges;
  • Greater regulatory compliance throughout the insurance industry due to instantaneous communication of in-force contracts to the regulator;
  • Eliminating the “double spend” problem of having the customer buy the same policy from different insurers by involving the notary (regulator);
  • Reduced IT spend for individual firms, with eventual decommissioning of legacy document storage systems and reducing spend on document generation systems.

 

A brighter future

Blockchain technology offers great promise across many avenues, not only contract placement. Platforms like Corda can add value to many insurance business segments – commercial and specialty insurance, life insurance, personal lines and health insurance, along with niche areas like marine and trade credit.

The industry’s recent consolidation around Corda reaffirms that data privacy is pivotal for a network of enterprises and that the platform’s peer-to-peer data sharing approach matters for insurance blockchain applications going into production. For a highly regulated industry like insurance, only Corda can ensure that the entire supply chain of brokers, insurers, reinsurers and consumers can interact in a seamless, secure and private manner.

From contract placement to insurance as an industry, we are excited to see the new opportunities and efficiencies that blockchain technology will enable between this wide ecosystem of participants now that the right network – Corda – is in place.

[1] https://marketplace.r3.com/solutions/Blocksure%20OS/448484fb-ad8d-40c1-8a1f-47e76381fb85

 

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2020: THE YEAR BLOCKCHAIN COMES OF AGE

– By Rob Coole, VP of Cloud Technologies at IPC

 

Despite headlines over the years stating that blockchain will change the world, it has not been validated or deployed at such speed and scale like other new technologies such as AI or cloud.  Blockchain’s intensive power consumption, reliance on multiple servers and the sheer expense of it, are some of the main reasons cited. In the past, the hype had not met the reality.

But in 2019 blockchain came into its own. With more understanding of what blockchain can do for financial markets and its use points becoming more clear, real-life deployments and advances have started to develop. 2019, for instance, was the year when we saw new blockchain alliances such as Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, increase of blockchain start-ups and the introduction of new infrastructure projects.

Additionally, Gartner’s own Hype Cycle for Blockchain Technologies shows that blockchain is sliding into the “Trough of Disillusionment” – predicting that over time, “permissioned blockchains will integrate with public blockchains, and will take advantage of shared services while supporting the membership, governance and operating model requirements of permissioned blockchain.” Additionally, Gartner predicts that blockchain will be fully scalable by 2023. IPC’s sense of the future of blockchain, particularly in the enterprise space, is just as positive. We are seeing customers truly learning about the practical purposes to deploy, leading to more investment in time and money in blockchain.

Rob Coole

Blockchain is suited for complex, collaborative, multi-party, and critical application use-cases and one reason why the hype around blockchain took much longer than some predicted. Adoption in highly regulated, complex markets such as the financial services industry shouldn’t be a surprise. However, we are now seeing a rise in organisations taking a competitive advantage by adopting next-generation blockchain, rearchitected and redesigned to meet the stringent requirements needed for the financial industry.

Next-generation blockchain organisations are leading the way showing the industry how the technology can be used intelligently for the world we live in today. R3, an enterprise software company for example, is working with an ecosystem of over 200 financial institutions, regulators, trade associations, professional services and technology companies to develop Corda, a Blockchain platform designed specifically for businesses to deliver two interoperable and fully compatible distributions of the platform that address issues such as transactional certainty, data privacy, and the scalability limitations.

Both application service providers and subscribers should exploit service providers with products and solutions so that they are not left behind.  It is important that partners are complementary to both service providers and subscribers in terms of operational level integration to complement application services.  It is critical for adoption success.

We are now seeing blockchain have real value with the integration and support from the hyper-scale platform community such as Microsoft Azure and AWS together with open industry platforms, such as IPC’s Connexus Hub, that creates end-to-end solutions that solve business problems.

We are, like many technology sectors, seeing a move to an API approach. APIs support partners integration and gives institutions the ability to easily access data, provide insights and inspire innovation for the market need.

Service providers, like IPC, can play a critical role here by supporting operationalisation in the systems-oriented context. Such providers are a natural connector embedding connectivity to key market participants. IPC, for example, enables access to all asset classes with over 2,000 sell-side firms, 4,000 buy-side firms and over 75 exchanges in its vast, diverse ecosystem.

Of course, 2020 has and continues to bring new challenges, with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting every aspect of our lives. The World Economic Forum, however, believes technologies such as blockchain “will benefit all countries currently impacted by COVID-19”, as it provides an efficient approach to reduce trade cost on a global scale.

Digital initiatives such as blockchain is non-partisan and open to all which allows users to act quickly at low cost with low barriers for innovation – all valuable factors in getting the global economy back on its feet. So, although blockchain adoption was slow in its early stage, 2020 seems to be the year blockchain comes of age.

 

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AI IN THE FINANCE SECTOR: WHAT’S NEXT?

By Rui Vasconcelos, Product Manager for AI/ML at Canonical – the publisher of Ubuntu

 

The last few years have seen the promise of general AI acclaimed across multiple industries and this vision has been particularly strong in the finance sector.  We’ve currently hit the trough of the hype curve and it will take some time for engineering solutions to deliver on the touted promise. The potential is so great, that hope for general AI will require a longer term and collaborative investment, rather than a quick ROI for a single financial company. As a result, we need to see a continued collective effort from organisations in the direction of making general AI a reality – whether that is in the near future or further in time.

 

Artificial intelligence within financial organisations has developed from an almost unfathomable vision into tangible deployments, with applications ranging from back-end decision making to front-end customer-facing services. Financial services companies are now placing a much greater focus on AI/ML and are rearchitecting their IT and business operations to take advantage of what this new technology can offer. However, these implementations are what is known as ‘narrow’ AI, which is focused on a single or limited task and operates within a pre-programmed state. Almost all of the AI that surrounds us today is narrow AI. Everyday examples within the financial industry range from Robo-advisors to tailored credit and insurance tools. In distinction, general AI is a progression of this and is often described as an AI solution that can solve a wide range of financial services issues – from natural language understanding to anticipating risk and detecting fraud  – with the additional advantage of self-learning to solve any problem without human intervention.

 

Rui Vasconcelos

Narrow AI is goal-oriented and solves a particular problem, which is not necessarily bad. We have seen AlphaGo perform a singular task (playing the complex game of Go) and beat the top human expert at it. Organisations focused on being highly competitive in specific use-cases, should concentrate on narrow AI, however it is a short-term win. Those looking at wider-range problems and planning to gain long-term competitive edge need to consider investing in work that will make general AI more accessible, benefitting both the company and society in the long run. Getting there will harness tools and insights that will be very  valuable to other financial services applications, even if we do not reach general AI in our lifetime.  Where a ‘narrow’ AI would take into consideration historical stock prices to make time-series predictions, general AI would look into all types of accessible data that might influence the mood of investors on that day.

 

It’s unsurprising that AI development is a resource heavy and challenging process, and general AI development will be even more so. However, we possess an unparalleled capacity today to move it forward, both in terms of computation and human collaboration. The open source community may be able to help tackle some of the hurdles to general AI development by encouraging collaboration as well as pooling knowledge and resources. For instance, open source software allows IT teams in finance companies to benefit from frameworks, data sets, workflows, and software models in the public domain at reduced costs. In addition, the open source community sees projects as a shared responsibility, so provides an extra layer of security by continually monitoring source code for potential flaws and vulnerabilities.

 

A further advantage of the open source community is that it assists financial businesses to overcome the AI skills gap – one of the most frequently discussed obstacles to AI adoption. In fact, recent research shows that  a third of IT teams cite a lack of skilled people and difficulty hiring for required roles as the third most-common challenge. The first hurdle is a lack of institutional support from within the business. In another study, technology’s lack of transparency was also cited as a major hurdle. With collaboration promoted at its very core, an open source approach to AI allows smaller IT teams to benefit from the wider expertise of the much broader community.

 

Open source will be fundamental to democratising the development of general AI. Financial services organisations who are invested in refining and improving AI for the benefit of their own operations and society will look to open source for future development. However, realising general AI will require long-term  investment. Without it, the likelihood of reaching  general AI in our lifetime is low. So, it’s up to financial services businesses to start concentrating resources into general AI now to make this future a reality in a short timeframe.

 

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