Digital strategist Kate Baucherel, author of Blockchain Hurricane: Origins, Applications and Future of Blockchain and Cryptocurrency (Business Expert Press, 2020) examines the importance of lifelong learning in harnessing increasingly rapid innovations in tech.

What does ‘emerging technology’ mean to you? Your thoughts may turn to “beam me up, Scotty!” and the future worlds of book and film, but the technology in our reality is just as interesting. The changes that have taken place in a few short decades are simply astounding and the pace of innovation is accelerating.

We are living in fascinating times, although we don’t always notice what is happening around us. Emerging technologies are simply the next set of tools which we hope will change our lives for the better and which are eventually incorporated into our daily routine as if they had been there all the time.

People now in their forties started work before desktop computers became common in offices, factories, schools and universities. Those entering the workforce today cannot remember a time without smartphones. It is hard to remember how we worked, lived, travelled and communicated one, two or three decades ago.

We have adapted to use new tools, as humans have done since prehistory. The challenge we now face is that paradigm shifts in technology are taking place within barely a generation. Once, you learned your craft at the start of your career and that learning stood you in good stead throughout. Now, that in-depth expertise can be out of date before the ink on the page has dried.

Predicting the future

New technology becomes familiar very quickly. We only have to look at the sudden COVID-driven global familiarity with video calling and remote working tools to see this and there are many other examples to be found.

The Gartner Hype Curve is well established as a guide to the emergence and adoption of new technologies. In 2009, Gartner was predicting the eventual emergence of (among others) cloud computing, ebook readers, augmented reality and 3D printing - within a two-to ten-year time frame. These are now established and accepted in our homes, in our work, in the games we play and in industry, from healthcare to manufacturing.

Other technologies which had not found their niche in 2009 included online video, speech recognition, mobile phone payment systems and location-aware applications, all of which we have come to expect as basic functionality on the smartphone in our pocket. Even quantum computing is becoming almost commonplace: IBM alone has eighteen quantum machines (as of May 2020) and there are many more deployed by other organisations around the world.

Transformational innovation

2009 also saw the emergence of the first decentralised currency, Bitcoin. The progress of the technology underpinning Bitcoin is a good example of a disruptive innovation which demands new learning. It did not feature in the Gartner report for that year, but a decade on, the organisation has said that “Blockchain Will Have a Transformational Impact across Industries in Five to 10 Years”. To be part of that transformation, staying abreast of the development and use of new technology is vital.

Blockchain is specifically disruptive because it enables the development of new processes and even entire business models which may not have been possible before. Peer to peer services, trustless data, disintermediation of processes and the use of transparent ledgers of record are already changing the way we work. Digital currencies are gaining traction and notoriety in equal measure and are being taken increasingly seriously by central banks and global organisations.

Blockchain is, strictly speaking, a type of distributed ledger technology (DLT), but the term is becoming generic. It has its roots in the work of cryptographers, going back to Ralph Merkle and David Chaum in the 1970s and early 1980s and gained its disruptive features from the crypto-anarchist community in the 1990s.

The problem it solved was one of trust, or rather a lack thereof. It is no coincidence that Bitcoin was forged in the fires of the 2008 global financial crisis. As trust in banks and financial institutions eroded, the concept of an open, public, neutral, censorship-resistant and borderless currency was realised.

The significance of blockchain

The systematic stability of the ledger which enables Bitcoin to function did not go unnoticed by industry. It gives every transaction positional integrity through timestamps, makes the ledger transparent for all participants in a network and, through the mechanism of linked blocks, makes it impossible to change a record without editing every subsequent record in the chain. In a nutshell, everyone can see the data, everyone agrees on it and no-one can change it.

From processing, mining, harvesting, or manufacturing of products through to their consumption by the end consumer, blockchain applications are now springing up in the most unexpected corners.

While a seamless network of transparent ledgers spanning the globe is still the preserve of futurist fiction, there are commercial systems in place for authentication in the food supply chain (IBM Food Trust, DiMuto); for provenance of luxury goods (Everledger, Louis Vuitton); for shipping insurance (InsurWave) and container handling (Port of Rotterdam).

The promise of decentralised finance has triggered significant innovation in back office processes, fund audits and the architecture of financial asset classes, with initiatives ranging from small proofs-of-concept to deployed and scaling systems.

From grids to gaming

In the world of large capital projects, both public and private, blockchain models are improving the record keeping for complex supply chains and for decision approvals from design intent through construction and operation (Kraken IM). The future of energy grids is under scrutiny, with blockchain-driven transparent microgrids being explored at increasingly greater scale for the management of energy prosumers (Brooklyn Microgrid, Siemens Pebbles).

Blockchain is a factor in the development of proofs of identity (UN ID 2020) and the support of refugees (World Food Programme). In the public sector, land registries are a popular potential use case, although only the Republic of Georgia has, to date, fully adopted a blockchain registry. It is also highly likely that, when a reliable electronic voting system is finally developed, blockchain will provide the platform for a transparent, trusted and verifiable results service.

Gaming has exposed and developed the concept of digital asset ownership, starting with collectible unique tokens (cryptokitties) and moving to complex game mechanics and open marketplaces, with the tantalising potential of earning a living from liquid virtual assets and gaming skills.

Some of the most exciting innovations are coming from the gaming industry and being adopted for mainstream use, including by established traditional game companies (Fortnite, Atari, Ubisoft). You can read about all these applications and more in my recent book, Blockchain Hurricane: Origins, Applications and Future of Blockchain and Cryptocurrency.

Drivers of innovation

It is a measure of how blockchain is becoming familiar that we are starting to notice, not the technology, but the functionality. Putting the technology first is like putting the cart before the horse, betraying a lack of in-depth knowledge of how something new can best be applied.

Gartner’s Hype Curve recognises this, going on a journey from the technology trigger to the peak of inflated expectations and back down through the trough of disillusionment to productivity. The cry that is guaranteed to strike despair into the heart of a responsible software developer is, ‘Hi, I need a blockchain.’ The end goal must be in sight before the technology is chosen.

Problem-driven innovation is the happy union of understanding both the challenge to be addressed and the available tools. If an organisation is striving to improve existing products and services, or to eliminate process pain points, costs and administrative headaches, it relies upon your expertise to propose the right technologies for the job.

Lifelong learning benefits not only the individual, but employers and the wider economy. Businesses must innovate to survive and to grow; they must rely on the competence of their IT staff as digital leaders. Emerging technologies will change the way we work and live and it is up to you, as digital professionals, to lead on informed and visionary process change.