Alberta has potential to become hub for revolutionary database technology
Blockchain is new enough to still be hard to explain, other than to say that the technology got its start by playing a key role in the buying and selling of cryptocurrency.
But another way to describe blockchain is as a promising tech-sector avenue by which Alberta can continue driving toward economic diversification. The way Alexis Pappas and Koleya Karringten see things, the province is ideally suited to serve as a hub for companies working in the space.
For one thing, Alberta has an attractively low cost of living, explains Pappas, a director at the Canadian Blockchain Consortium and co-author with Karringten of the curriculum for NAIT’s Blockchain certificate, launched this fall. Pappas also points to the ample technical talent in the province and relatively inexpensive energy (blockchain requires a lot of both).
Alberta, she adds, would be leading the charge. “It’s not the case right now that every major city is trying to do this.” What’s more, adoption is at a point that “we know that we can be reasonably successful if we do this right.”
We talked to Pappas and Karringten about the fundamentals of the technology, growing applications across sectors, and what a career in the industry might look like for those who’ve learned to fully explain what blockchain is and how to use it.
A simple way to think about blockchain
“A lot of people think about blockchain [as] something extremely technical, like machine learning or AI,” says Karringten, who teaches courses with Pappas in the certificate program.
“Blockchain, in essence, is a database.”
That database, explains Karringten, is designed to allow multiple parties to meet and agree upon facts that can be immediately used to complete a transaction (such as a cryptocurrency sale).
It’s built in blocks of information linked in a way that guarantees the data is secure, and therefore trustworthy, requiring no further verification.
Blockchain as a global solution (or, it’s not all about cryptocurrency)
Databases made of conventional spreadsheets and tables, however, might not always be considered trustworthy by all users – creating “a hidden friction that [is] slowing down the economy globally,” says Pappas.
That friction comes from companies introducing third parties, such as notaries, to verify data before a transaction can occur, thereby also introducing a delay.
Eliminating that delay could add US$1.76 trillion to the world’s GDP by 2030, says Pappas, referencing a recent PwC report.
“That kind of friction happens in every industry.”
In finance, it can take the form of conventional auditing. In energy markets, it can show up as disputes over royalties. In supply chains, it might slow the transfer of products to market.
Pappas points to Wal-Mart as an example of the latter. The retail giant conducts 500,000 shipments a year to stores across Canada using its own fleet and others. This generates a lot of data that affects invoicing – so much so that discrepancies once delayed 70% of invoice payments and increased transaction costs.
Introducing blockchain to verify that data led to discrepancies on less than 1% of invoices.
For Pappas, that’s proof that blockchain is “the leading solution” for challenges to a variety of business functions.
Current careers in blockchain
Wal-Mart, like any company, needs employees with the right skill set to help implement such a solution. Pappas and Karringten designed their curriculum to help students look at business problems across industries and understand how blockchain might be applied.
Through discussions and case studies, the program also demonstrates where students might look for those opportunities.
“Something like 90% of the top Fortune 100 companies currently have ongoing blockchain deployments,” says Pappas.
One area of rapid growth is smart contracting, where changes to information in the database will automatically generate a new agreement that can immediately be put in place, saving time and money. Right now, the possibilities in this field are “only held back by a lack of people who are able to actually execute these projects,” says Pappas.
But the greatest source of career opportunities may come as little surprise: cryptocurrency, including everything from mining to guarding against fraud. “The kind of work that goes into developing cryptocurrency exchanges and protocols is a huge employment driver.”
Blockchain and the future
The metaverse may be virtual, but it has a real economy unto itself – one that will grow to be worth US$8 to $13 trillion by 2030, says Pappas, citing a recent study by Citigroup. That economy will be underpinned by blockchain.
Whether it’s rooted in the web or not, she adds, “there’s a general consensus among big investors and financial institutions that in the near future that the economy is going to be primarily digital – and that blockchain is going to be an essential part of that economy.”
Pappas feels it’s time to prepare for that shift. “People who see that coming … are going to be significantly ahead of the game. Albertans can be a big part of the evolution, and we can get a head start into that digital economy.
“This is a really opportune time for us to move forward.”
A short history of NAIT’s Blockchain for Financial Services certificate (and future plans)
There’s a skills gap in the rapidly growing blockchain industry, one that NAIT is helping to fill with its Blockchain for Financial Services certificate.
As a member of the Canadian Blockchain Consortium, the polytechnic reached out to the organization about developing a program to meet the need. The result is three foundational courses on the defining features and current and potential uses of the technology.
“We look at it as an opportunity to help with jobs and employment,” says instructor Koleya Karringten. An advisory board of industry members offers her and co-instructor Alexis Pappas insight into education gaps and skills they need to see in employees.
“An institution like NAIT can fill those gaps and help support the growth of the entire industry in Alberta through being able to create that pipeline of talent,” says Pappas.
Future courses being considered for development may focus on technical elements of blockchain creation and management.
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