Kate Baucherel is a business development and strategy consultant specialising in the application of emerging technology in enterprise. She has held senior technical and financial roles in businesses across multiple sectors. Kate’s first job was with an IBM business partner in Denver, back when the AS/400 was a really cool piece of hardware and the World Wide Web didn’t exist, and she has enjoyed the journey to today’s awe-inspiring technical landscape. Her published work ranges from the challenges of technology adoption through digital ethics to fiction, and includes the SimCavalier sci-fi thriller series. Her book, ‘Blockchain Hurricane’ has recently been published by New York’s Business Expert Press. She holds a 2nd Dan black belt in karate, and has two children.
You have already written a book about informing and educating for effective digital adoption, what prompted you to write a book more specifically about blockchain?
I first really came across the technology back in 2015 when somebody I was talking to said they were going to use Ethereum for their project. I went off and started researching and speaking to people and I began to understand how blockchain would actually be part of a business proposition. As I discovered more, I realized I that I understood what was going on. I’m an accountant by background, so the idea of a ledger makes sense to me. I was actually asked to write this book about blockchain and cryptocurrency for executives and MBA students to give them a really broad understanding of how useful it could be. So, the impetus was education and getting people to understand how they can use the technology appropriately. I think the education is still so needed because people have so many questions about how blockchain applies to business and where it can be used.
Last year, blockchain scepticism was at its height as people became very weary of hype and various scams came to light. What were the areas you identified that people were most sceptical about when it comes to blockchain?
The scepticism around blockchain is really interesting. I think part of that comes from the culture of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), which is a form of crowdfunding using digital tokens. ICOs became a way for people who didn’t necessarily have a really great business idea, or a lot of business acumen, or a strong team, to raise funds. There was a feeling that if you stick a blockchain in it, you’d get some magic internet money, so we got an awful lot of bad projects coming through where blockchain was levered in where it wasn’t needed. That has set back the development of the real solutions because blockchain is just a tool. It’s another tool for businesses, another tool for developers. It has some really interesting, unique qualities. But it’s not the be-all and end-all and it’s not going to solve every problem. So, there is still an undercurrent of all this that’s hanging around. I think conceptually it is quite a hard thing to grasp anyway. Blockchain is a fantastic technology but only when it’s understood and used in the right place.
There’s also been bad press around cryptocurrency and the fact there is suddenly this digital cash that can fly around the world. And obviously there’s been plenty of controversy about the kind of things that people are – or were – using crypto to buy. But when you really go back to the origins of Bitcoin, you realize that this mechanism arose to enable mutually suspicious groups to trust each other. Once you understand that, you realize it’s not necessarily relevant or useful for a single company to implement a blockchain solution within a trusted network. On the other hand, if you have something that’s massively decentralized, and you are managing it as best you can with current tools, there’s a very good chance that by examining the properties of distributed ledger technology and the wider blockchain ecosystem that you could solve some really important business problems. People are now starting to revisit problems with old business models that they couldn’t thoroughly solve before.
In an attempt to ‘make blockchain real’ for the sceptics, a question I often get asked is how and where is blockchain being used right now. What answers or examples do you give when you get asked that question?
Some of the most interesting elements of blockchain are about making sure that records can be trusted when they’re examined in the future. There’s a really interesting use case coming through in construction and infrastructure at the moment. Where I live in the North East of England, on Teesside, there is a yard which dismantles oil rigs. According to local legend, there is a 36-inch pipe on one oil rig, and no one has any clue what’s gone through it. They don’t know what hazardous materials to manage or whether they can recycle the metal or anything. You can’t just rely on memory in these situations. And because of the changes that happened during a construction project from the original design intent through to commissioning through to operation, you can’t even go back to the original designs and say, well, it was supposed to carry this liquid. We’re seeing that particularly at the moment with, for instance, the Grenfell inquiry. What was the design intent of the cladding? What went wrong before the final commissioning?
There is an application I know of where they are very simply recording approvals and changes to design intent on an immutable chain so you can see when changes have been made, and who made them. They’re actually observing more rigour in the approval process as a result because people know that it’s now set in stone. And, when you get to commissioning, you have a much clearer idea of exactly what you’re dealing with.
Assuming we manage to convince a business audience that blockchain is worth learning about, the next step is trying to implement a project. How can business leaders best navigate the complex marketplace of different blockchains and DLT platforms?
It goes right back to choosing the tools for the job, not adjusting the job to the tools. So if there is significant commercial confidentiality and there is no need for a random public verification of transactions that you’d get on a public blockchain using Proof of Work (POW) or Proof of Stake (POS), then going towards a permissioned distributed ledger makes sense because you’re harnessing the properties of the distributed identical copies of the information and the immutable recording of really key points. But you’re not going into the realm of recording transactions on a large public blockchain and having them being particularly transparent. If the project genuinely requires interaction with the public and you’re comfortable that what you’ve put on that public blockchain is able to be transparent within your business model, then use a public blockchain. I think it’s hard to give broad-brush advice, because every single application is different. Every single problem is different. And unless you define the actual problem, we don’t know what tool you need to use. Strikingly, there are so many times that people come and say, we need a blockchain to solve this, which one do we use? And you actually go through the detail of the problem and say, well you actually don’t need a blockchain.
We’re still at a remarkably early stage with this technology. It’s not as if we have a mainstream understanding of products and services as we do with other software services like Apple and Google and so on. It is sufficiently early days with blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) that you do need to gather some expertise. But it really does boil down to defining the problem first and then sitting down with people who are able to think creatively about ways to solve it. And to think about the potential for a new way of doing business.
Although the book is called ‘Blockchain Hurricane’, do you think in reality that DLT will be more likely to provide the solution to most business problems rather than public blockchains?
Blockchain is a catch-all phrase and I can see it sticking. Maybe DLT will be the phrase that is used in business briefings and boardrooms but in business conversations the terms are becoming interchangeable. My only concern is that ‘blockchain’ as a term sometimes has negative connotations, where people are disparaging about the cryptocurrency aspects and some of the scams we have gone through in the unregulated times.
What are the biggest risks for businesses looking to adopt blockchain at the present moment? Would it be less risky to wait and see?
It goes right back to the business needs again. I do think that if the business requires it, and it will give people a competitive advantage, they should grab it with both hands. Some might say “we’ll wait and see”. In banking, there are certain financial institutions that are willing to go ahead faster. It was ever thus.
There are some very, very big organizations now getting behind distributed ledger technology and blockchain. Obviously, it’s now well-known that IBM have their Food Trust platform and other blockchain initiatives. We have ConsenSys doing a huge amount of work around the Ethereum enterprise ecosystem. And there are professional services firms that are very active in the space like Ernst and Young, for instance, who have been instrumental in working with the Insurwave project, for insurance of cargo hulls.
There are already very large trusted players in this space, and anyone who wants to adopt blockchain because it’s the right tool for the job can see that. They can go to the trusted player or they can go to independent players with the knowledge that this is an emerging technology, but it is also a real one.
What was your favourite or maybe most quirky use case that you identified as part of your research?
I love my digital cats, my Cryptokitties, but archiving is one of my favourites. There’s a project that the National Archives and the University of Surrey have been working on called ARCHANGEL. Their challenge is that when you look at native digital assets like a Bitcoin, for instance, you can see how the transactions and the movement of that asset works and you can be confident that it’s the same asset at the start as it was at the finish. But, obviously, the archives are dealing with enormous volumes of non-digital assets going back hundreds of years. If you take a video recording from a camcorder from the 1970s then you get somebody to transfer it onto VHS, then onto DVD and maybe then from DVD into an mp4, is it still the same video? How can you be sure that that’s the same thing?
They did an awful lot of work with ARCHANGEL to establish authenticity of the content and being able to verify that content regardless of the format that it was held in. And they were doing this in parallel with the rise of deep fakes. It’ll be really interesting to see how the blockchain and AI solution that they developed could be applied to verification or exposure of deep fakes as well.
You have also written a sci fi novel based around bitcoin as well as writing business books. I am sure each style poses different challenges, but which is more fun to do?
They’re very different things but they’re both fun and I found the discipline of writing nonfiction really interesting. The story of how I got into writing fiction is a funny one. I was initially asked to write a book about cyber security, but quite quickly they asked if I could do it as fiction because that would really engage people. I said: “Don’t be silly, I can’t write fiction!” After about eight months of nagging, I wrote 300 words, and my contact said, “Keep writing”. Into my head popped an idea which sprang from my accounting background combined with my interest in cryptocurrencies. I thought about how we might move into a world where cryptocurrencies are on a par with – or even taking over from – traditional currencies.
I ended up with a plot which involves the baddies manipulating both traditional currencies and cryptocurrencies in order to take profits from the market. And that was the first book, but I’d left a body in the corridor at the end. So, I published that book and then went right on to tidy the body up in the second book where I started looking at wider issues around artificial intelligence, and digital twinning and all sorts of fun stuff.
I actually use the fiction as a real outlet for my imagination on emerging tech. I’ve been so embedded in sci fi since I started hiding from the Daleks at an early age that sometimes my imagination gets the better of me. I have to be really careful when I’m talking to clients.
Blockchain Hurricane: Origins, Applications and Future of Blockchain and Cryptocurrency is published by Business Expert Press. You can find out more about Kate and her upcoming speaking appearances at her website.