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Blockchain beyond Bitcoin

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Distributed ledger technology like blockchain was only associated to the financial services until recently. However, companies in other industries are starting to understand its power, write MARY ANN FRANCIS and GILLES GRAVIER of Wipro.

Distributed ledger technology has, so far, been largely discussed only in the context of the financial services industry, specifically in the area of payments. Blockchain technology was popularised by its application in the wildly-popular new crypto-currency Bitcoin, for example.

But blockchain has many wondrous applications in a variety of other industries as well; where visionary firms are starting to understand its power to transform their operations.

Essentially, blockchain allows for the creation of timestamped digital assets, and digital records, which are impossible to tamper with, delete, or edit, commonly referred to as immutable.

So, for a vastly different scenario than moving currencies – imagine a diamond producer leveraging holographic identity technology, where a record of all transactions could be connected to this holograph, and entered into a blockchain. Consumers could see the public record of all prior transactions, and get assurance that the diamond was sourced ethically.

Following the same principles, a blockchain could be used by fine art distributors to confirm the validity of its pieces, or by lawyers to validate the accuracy of photo and video evidence, or by governments when issuing title deeds to homeowners.

The possibilities are endless. There are already companies, start-ups, offering products that cover these specific use cases.

Transparency and efficiency

As a distributed ledger, blockchain technology presents companies with an opportunity to fundamentally re-architect many of its internal processes, and the ways in which they interact with partners, suppliers, distributors, and others in the varied ecosystem.

Whether the use-case is smart-contracts, cryptocurrencies, proof-of-assets, or anything else that blockchains enable, companies are able to interact in a more collaborative, but highly-secure, trusted, manner.

But many CEOs remain reticent to seriously look at adopting blockchain technologies into the company’s business strategies. And it’s true that this area of technology seems to be moving at a rapid pace – zooming into mainstream conversations on the back of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies. To some, blockchain looks volatile, uncertain, risky.

However, blockchain technology can be applied to businesses in South Africa, to improvise record management and transactional efficiency in a wide range of different processes and value chains.

So just how quickly could blockchains take off in SA, considering the very many possibilities for the technology? At this year’s Gartner Symposium/ITxpo Africa, held in late-September in Cape Town, conference delegates showed overwhelming interest in its use.

From keynotes to sideline discussions, the enthusiasm for blockchain technology was palpable, making analysts more bullish on the prospects for blockchain in the short-term. Very possibly, the technology could grip the imaginations of business in a similar way to the Cloud revolution, for instance.

Getting started

The best starting point is to research blockchain deeply and widely, understanding potential use-cases for your industry; and then looking at which internal processes and external transactions could potentially be improved. Which areas would benefit from greater transparency, greater collaboration?

Every company is different. Some rely more heavily on digital assets and services than others, others have embraced connected sensors and devices (the “Internet of Things”) more warmly than others, and some naturally have a more innovative leaning.

But in our experience there are exciting blockchain-related opportunities in even the most traditional organisations.

Following this discovery phase, it is critical to partner with an objective blockchain specialist that can help to craft the strategy. Firms that try to ‘rate their own work’ in this field often miss opportunities, or create blockchain plans that fail to respond to the most urgent business priorities. As we find ourselves in the top of the hype-cycle for blockchain, we still find ourselves in search of the app that brings maximum ROI.

It is recommended that businesses look for three key competencies in a blockchain partner:

•             Thought-leading advisory and consulting services with the ability to design, implement and support blockchain initiatives, along with rich domain expertise in use cases across various industry verticals

•             A deep pool of partners, start-ups and innovators with whom solutions can be created and tailored to the organisation’s unique needs

•             The execution capability to actually run blockchain PoCs and evolve them into fully-fledged solutions – integrating the technology into existing operations.

With blockchain, the traditional principles governing ‘systems of record’ are fundamentally reversed, and many business leaders are still somewhat confused about how this highly-sophisticated shared ledger technology actually works.

But while it’s essential to read deeply and understand blockchain principles, for one’s end-client, we can refer to the analogy of the internet to explain why we don’t have to wait for clients wrap their heads around the technology.

Most of us do not understand the technicalities of the TCP/IP protocol, but that doesn’t hinder us from surfing the web and exchanging emails. In the same way, clients will come to trust blockchain, in the same way they trust the Internet.

Those organisations starting now on a blockchain journey will have a first-mover advantage over slower-moving peers, getting a jump start on the competition and repositioning themselves for a future where blockchains govern all sorts of interactions and transactions in the future. Scale use of blockchain is still a 3-5-year journey – starting now will lessen the urgency some are experiencing now.

* Mary Ann Francis, Executive Advisor and Practice Partner for Global Treasury, Payments and blockchain at Wipro Limited, and Gilles Gravier, Director and Senior Advisor for Open Source and blockchain at Wipro Limited

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UN calls for electronics overhaul to beat e-waste

Seven UN entities have come together at the World Economic Forum to tackle the escalating scourge of electronic waste.

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Seven UN entities have come together, supported by the World Economic Forum, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to call for an overhaul of the current electronics system, with the aim of supporting international efforts to address e-waste challenges. 

The report calls for a systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year with a value greater than the GDP of most countries. 

Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) are discarded — the weight of more than all commercial airliners ever made. In terms of material value, this is worth 62.5 billion dollars– more than the GDP of most countries.  

Less than 20% of this is recycled formally. Informally, millions of people worldwide (over 600,000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment. 

The report, “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot,” launched in Davos 24 January, says technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), support gradual “dematerialization” of the electronics industry.  

Meanwhile, to capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and create global circular value chains, the report also points to the use of new technology to create service business models, better product tracking and manufacturer or retailer take-back programs.  

The report notes that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential for future production.  

And if the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide. 

The joint report calls for collaboration with multinationals, SMEs, entrepreneurs, academia, trade unions, civil society and associations to create a circular economy for electronics where waste is designed out, the environmental impact is reduced and decent work is created for millions. 

The new report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes: 

  • International Labour Organization (ILO); 
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU); 
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment); 
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); 
  • United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR); 
  • United Nations University (UNU), and 
  • Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions (BRS). 

The Coalition is supported by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Economic Forum and coordinated by the Secretariat of the Environment Management Group (EMG).  

Considerable work is being done on the ground. For example, in order to grasp the opportunity of the circular economy, today the Nigerian Government, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment announce a 2 million dollar investment to kick off the formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria. The new investment will leverage over 13 million dollars in additional financing from the private sector.   

According to the International Labour Organization, in Nigeria up 100,000 people work in the informal e-waste sector. This investment will help to create a system which formalizes these workers, giving them safe and decent employment while capturing the latent value in Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste. 

UNIDO collaborates with a large number of organizations on e-waste projects, including UNU, ILO, ITU, and WHO, as well as various other partners, such as Dell and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). In the Latin American and Caribbean region, a UNIDO e-waste project, co-funded by GEF, seeks to support sustainable economic and social growth in 13 countries. From upgrading e-waste recycling facilities, to helping to establish national e-waste management strategies, the initiative adopts a circular economy approach, whilst enhancing regional cooperation. 

Another Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) report launched today by the World Economic Forum, with support from Accenture Strategy, outlines a future in which Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies provide a tool to achieve a circular economy efficiently and effectively, and where all physical materials are accompanied by a digital dataset (like a passport or fingerprint for materials), creating an ‘internet of materials.’ PACE is a collaboration mechanism and project accelerator hosted by the World Economic Forum which brings together 50 leaders from business, government and international organizations to collaborate in moving towards the circular economy. 

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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