If you’re a regular reader of BREAKERMAG, chances are you know a thing or two about blockchain. But believe it or not, lots of people—smart, educated individuals, even—don’t. What’s a blockchain-curious businessperson with little or no programming experience to do? Enter Don Tapscott, executive chairman of the Blockchain Research Institute think tank and the coauthor, with his son Alex, of Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies Is Changing the World. Today, in partnership with Coursera and the INSEAD business school, he’s launching an intensive online education course called “Blockchain Revolution for the Enterprise.”
“We want people not just to have some skills when they graduate,” Tapscott says of the video-based course, which will take about five months (at $79 per month) to complete, “but we want them to be able to think and to see the big picture and to understand that we’re moving into a time of very profound change, which this technology will be at the heart of.” We recently spoke to Tapscott about what to expect from the course and what it’s like to have John Oliver riff on one of your fast-food analogies.
Say I’m some middle-management guy who knows nothing at all about blockchain. What’s your elevator pitch for this course?
This is [like] 1995, and you should take a big course on the internet. Because this is the second era of the internet. For 40 years we’ve had the internet of information. And now we’re getting the internet of value—from money, stocks, securities, intellectual property, the data in our identities, carbon credits, contracts, land titles, deeds, cultural assets like art and music. And votes. A vote is an asset, something of value that belongs to somebody. The internet of information changed every industry, but in a relatively minor way compared to the way that blockchain will transform industries. So everybody needs to understand this and figure out what it means for their company and for them personally.
By the end of the course, what do you think a student will have learned?
We have a whole number of very specific learning objectives. And I have to tell you, it’s a new experience for me working on something this elaborate. There are four full courses, and we’ve had up to 10 people working on this over an eight-month period. We spent a week in a studio recording 160 videos. We’ve had people writing quizzes so learners can test themselves, and the hard part, I have discovered, is to write good wrong answers. It’s easy to know the right answer if you’re the creator of the question, but what are some good wrong answers?
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In the end, we hope that the learner will be equipped not just to understand this blockchain revolution, but to be able to apply what they’ve learned to their own business and their own situation regardless of industry and regardless of the size of the company. The final course is a practicum, where we walk you through how to do an opportunity analysis in your company. And to pass the course you need to come up with a use case and make a business case for it in your industry. All of these use cases will be collected in something we’re calling the Blockchain Case Commons. And assuming that ultimately many thousands, or millions, of people will be using this course, we’re going to have quite the database about how blockchain can change every industry.
Let’s face it, people are afraid of blockchain. How are you going to make it enjoyable and easy for them to make their way into this?
Over many years, I’ve been trying to make new developments in technology understandable and approachable. And this began—I’m really dating myself here—40 years ago, when I was working at [Canadian telecom R&D company] Bell-Northern Research and I wrote a couple of books in the 1980s that nobody read. And then I started to figure out how to make stuff really work for regular people. And I wrote the book Paradigm Shift in ’92. And then I wrote The Digital Economy, which was, they say, the first bestseller about the web in business. Also, I’ve given thousands of speeches and built a whole number of businesses on exactly what this course is trying to achieve.
"Everyone thinks that the only thing in the toolkit is a hammer—a currency. But turns out that there are screwdrivers and pliers and wrenches and saws and all kinds of other things."
Part of the big problem is dispelling many of the myths and misconceptions that exist around blockchain. The first thing that comes out of anybody’s mouth is the word “cryptocurrencies,” but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the underlying blockchain technology that makes things work, and it’s the real opportunity here. Everyone thinks that the only thing in the toolkit is a hammer—a currency. But turns out that there are screwdrivers and pliers and wrenches and saws and all kinds of other things.
You and your son Alex co-founded the Blockchain Research Institute in 2017. What’s been the institute’s most significant accomplishment thus far?
We’ve completed over 50 strategic projects looking at how blockchain changes business: What are the opportunities, and what are the big challenges? And we’re launching a second round of the program where we have another 50 projects underway. And this is one of the coolest things about this course—until now, you had to pay $200,000 to get access to this research, but it’s part of the course. Many of these projects and their deliverables and reports are being made available to the learners. You get millions of dollars’ worth of research that previously has not been available.
You mentioned votes earlier. I know that you’re Canadian, but is there anybody in the current U.S. presidential field who’s impressed you from a tech-policy standpoint?
I honestly haven’t really studied it, but if I were running for president of the United States in 1995, I might say, “There’s this thing called the internet that has a lot of possibilities for prosperity and economic development. It will change the way that we communicate and might lead to improvements in government. And I want you all to know about that, because I get this.” Surely someone or some candidates will emerge today and say a similar thing [about blockchain]. A big chunk of the population would think, “Wow, there’s a candidate that understands a really big sea change in society that could be at the heart of building an innovation economy and solving many of our big, intractable problems.” A candidate needs to think about what all this means and what has to be done.
In his now famous segment on blockchain and cryptocurrency, John Oliver riffed on an interview you did in which you said that hacking a blockchain “would be like turning a Chicken McNugget back into a chicken.” What was that like to be part of a John Oliver joke?
I love it. I use that clip in many of my speeches today because it’s so funny. He actually didn’t make fun of the analogy; he had fun with the analogy. I mean, a blockchain is a highly processed thing. It’s kind of like a Chicken McNugget, and to hack it would be like turning a Chicken McNugget into a chicken. And Oliver said, “Hold it, that’s a horrible thought. Imagine that chicken if it came back. That would be one messed-up chicken. It would be suffering from PTSD, and it would be writing haunting poetry about the experience: ‘The things I saw/Bacaw, bacaw.’ It’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen on television, and I was happy to be the inspiration for it.
Photo courtesy of Don Tapscott.