When Life Imitates Digital – Blockchain Insights

When Life Imitates Digital – Blockchain Insights

Sometimes the parallels between your day-to-day life and your workaday career are eerily curious.  Take my recent day in Banff and the way blockchain technology is evolving.    

The backstory

Recently, I spent the day with my research assistant at a conference in Banff, Alberta, hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (the IEEE). The conference topic was Requirements Engineering—including the related technologies, business analysis and communications. 

In case you’re unfamiliar with Requirements Engineering, this discipline is about gathering, clarifying, documenting and communicating user or customer requirements for a product, process or service.

I had been asked by one of the conference organizers, Dr. Prashanth Southekal, to deliver a presentation on the current and evolving developments in blockchain in oil and gas. This made sense—blockchain was expected to have an impact on process design, the conference was in oil country, and the specialists in requirements engineering were keen to understand the impacts. When process and product designers begin to grapple with blockchain requirements, it’s a clear sign that this technology is coming quickly to industry. 

The Message

I called the presentation “The Flywheel is Turning”. Blockchain, over the past year, has been advancing at a surprising rate. Accenture estimates that over 200 projects, probably more, are currently ongoing. Most of the trials have proven successful at solving certain business problems, or improving customer experience. Blockchain trials in transferring currency across international borders (say from Canada to the Philippines) have cut delays from weeks to seconds. Porsche’s Blockchain experiment are doing well, and are demonstrating benefits for the consumer by speeding up and automating parking, keeping maintenance records, and simplifying ownership. 

Ownership of land or property is also being deployed on blockchain. GuildOne has made the first royalty payment with blockchain. VAKT will launch blockchain-based petroleum trading later this year. The ability for Blockchain to secure, verify and automate assets, trust, ownership, money transactions, identity and contracts (to quote William Mougayar) is being repeatedly proven this year. There is now far too much money and effort going into the technology for it to go away.

Blockchain has emerged from being an over-hyped and buzzy piece of technology that put itself ahead of business strategy or problem-solving, to an important foundational tool with highly relevant use cases when applied properly.

 

The Questions

Engineers ask a lot of questions. The first was on the interoperability of Blockchain, and whether that would be a problem with adopting the technology. Several projects are tackling interoperability, including Cosmos, Polkadot and Hyperledger Quilt.

The second was the ability for Blockchain to help indigenous communities protect their land rights, and whether those applications exist. They do: in South America, some communities are using Blockchain to record their largely oral agreements and contracts, to preserve them in the face of government actions to illegally seize property. 

The third question had to do with the capacity for blockchain to actually inhibit governments from seizing property. Blockchain could prevent a rogue state from rewriting the ownership papers for land and assets, assuming they don’t do it at the point of a gun. However, it allows for companies and governments to sue to recover seized property, as blockchain can provide irrefutable evidence of identity and ownership. 

Reflecting on the day, I was struck at how this adventure paralleled my experience working with blockchain. 

One. Art meets science

The conference was held at the Banff Center for the Creative Arts. I wondered about the irony of holding an engineering conference, with its disciplinary emphasis on hard math, detail, technique, and precision, at a creative arts facility. 

Then again, blockchain is more art than science too. It’s such a new technology that digital engineers lack a shared language to describe it. Its workings are fraught with hard to define terms, like token, cryptocurrency, distributed ledger and nonce. Even the easy to understand terms, like bitcoin miner, are twisted—bitcoin miners don’t do mining in the earthy sense.

Two. The fog of uncertainty

A trip to Banff was not out of the ordinary for this time of year, save perhaps the unusual amount of smoke wafting in from British Columbia next door. We arrived in Banff by ten in the morning, surrounded by swirling fog. Or was it smoke? Banff’s main attraction, the great mountain peaks encrusted with bright pines, was hidden behind the opacity.

Working in blockchain is like working in a fog or smoke—you’re pretty sure you’re making progress, but you can’t see too far in front of you, and occasionally the smoke clears enough that you get a glimpse of something very exciting, or very alarming. 

Three. Be ready to pivot

I had a pretty good idea of where the Centre was located, but we decided to rely on town signage to get there. Turns out that some routes were more efficient than others, not unlike developing new technologies. Wheeling into town, we meandered our way to the Centre, had a brief struggle to find ourselves a parking spot, took a services only road, stopped for directions—basically the usual when two guys set out on a road trip without a map. Finally, we managed to find the Kinnear Centre for Creativity and Innovation, a large, rectangular site, complete with 13 or so pianos, an eclectic collection of art, and massive sun-loving windows staring out at the smoke. 

Blockchain projects feature these same kinds of pivoting, direction reversals, backtracking,  inefficient execution, and lack of clear maps. This is true for most new technologies, but blockchain in particular. Which platform should you use? Ethereum, Ripple, Litecoin? Should you leverage a public or private chain? Every week seems to bring fresh and confusing news about new developments in the sector. 

Four. Handling the unexpected

I was as prepared as I usually am for these kinds of presentations, which means very prepared. Ryan had done a thorough job researching the subject, building the slides and creating the narrative. Speaker notes were printed and prepped, key points rehearsed and memorized, and slides tested on the conference laptop. As this was to be my first attempt to video one of my presentations, we spent a solid hour testing the video recording, adjusting the lapel mic, picking the right lens, and deciding the camera angle.

And still, it didn’t quite work out. The podium only had room for the laptop and no room for my speaker notes, so I had to go from memory. At one point, the laptop froze and I needed an intervention from tech support to get me back on track. 

Despite lots of testing and preparation, blockchain sometimes doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to. Smart contracts are tricky things and need a lot of testing, and yet, there’s always the one condition you hadn’t anticipated. CryptoKitties was likely just an experiment to test out some technology assumptions, but proved so popular that it about cratered the Ethereum network. 

Five. Get a River Guide

Did you know that my brother has a business in Banff? He owns the rafting service that launches from the foot of Bow Falls, and has been a Banff resident for decades. He knows where to get just about anything done in the shortest amount of time, even when Banff is bombarded with tourists, traffic is impossible and the line ups are suffocating. And he is, literally, a River Guide. 

After testing our equipment, the noon hour rolled around, so we headed off to town for lunch. I wanted to eat quickly so that we could do some final rehearsing, and figured my brother had the skinny on options. His suggestion? The Golf Course canteen and snack bar. I never would have thought of that. I’d have driven all around the town, trying to park and settling for something substandard. The canteen, according to my brother, was the best place for a speedy meal—no line ups, a great kitchen thanks to the sit down restaurant at the club house, and, with the smoke clearing out, a fine outdoor venue.

Later in the day, we headed back to town for dinner, only to find the streets utterly rammed with people. I really wanted to take in the Park Distillery, but the line up was out the door, and no parking to be had.  

Thankfully, the River Guide came to the rescue. He knew of a fantastic restaurant just outside the town with a captivating view of the now-clear Rocky Mountains, stretching out for miles.

If you’re working on a blockchain project, get yourself a River Guide. They know what works, what doesn’t, where to find resources, and, most importantly, they know the answers instantly. No lengthy project, no vested interest, just straight advice. 

Conclusions

And that’s how my day mirrored the blockchain movement. Like when the mountains were obscured by fog first thing, Blockchain’s use-cases and value were hidden at first. Or how the eager early adopters were like the tourists, braving the fog and smoke to find some value. Or how the competent River Guide gave us just the right tips to help us find what we needed when we needed it. 

 

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