Blockchain@UBC’s 4th Annual Summer Institute: An Online Success Story

From finance, climate change, social media, healthcare, Indigenous communities, public procurement, healthcare, and athlete management to the COVID-19 pandemic, blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies (DLT) are presenting novel ways to address important societal and business challenges. This year, graduate students had the opportunity to gain comprehensive training in these technologies in the Summer Institute offered by the School of Information, UBC Sauder’s W. Maurice Young Centre for Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Research, and Blockchain@UBC, a research cluster supported by the Institute for Computing, Information, and Cognitive Systems (ICICS).

The Annual Blockchain@UBC Summer Institute is an intensive program designed to provide students from any discipline with advanced and specialized training in blockchain/DLT system design. This year, the COVID-19 crisis obliged the convenors to hold the 4th Annual Summer Institute online, in a modified format, from May 11-22. But it also presented some unique opportunities.

3-Credit Course Created
Students were brought together into a single cohort this year, to enable a cohesive online graduate course to be planned and delivered at relatively short notice. This differed from previous Summer Institutes, which incorporated two different workshop streams: one with a more general/business focus and another with a more technical focus. By melding the two, it became possible to offer the course as a 3-credit School of Information graduate-level course, ARST 575N/LIBR 559U.

The other redesigned element was that the course was restricted to UBC students, which did not, however, limit the diversity of the student cohort. UBC students specializing in Library and Archival Science, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Public Policy and Global Affairs, Psychology, Public Health, Occupational Therapy, and the Sauder MBA program came together to engage in the collaborative online learning environment. In total, 30 graduate students participated.

The 2020 offering was led by Dr. Chris Rowell of the Sauder School of Business. To provide a fruitful environment for students to engage with and learn from one another in an online context, and to harness the diversity of perspectives and expertise, the course focused on holistic blockchain/DLT system design. As a foundational technology, blockchain/DLT operates and creates value across organizations and individuals with various (and often conflicting) goals and objectives. Accordingly, blockchain/DLT is a multifaceted area of study and requires a diversity in perspectives to spur innovation and find creative solutions. By ensuring that a plurality of voices is heard, the resulting solutions can create value while minimizing harm.

Case-based Workshops
The plurality of voices among this year’s student cohort was brought to bear on case-based workshops focusing on the design of blockchain and DLT systems. During two weeks of workshops led by Dr. Rowell, students analyzed how blockchain/DLT can address pain points and create fundamentally new ways of creating and capturing value within and across multiple different domains. 10 distinguished guests from industry and academia virtually combined their domain expertise with holistic blockchain/DLT system design, using a framework developed by Blockchain@UBC research cluster co-leads Dr. Victoria Lemieux (iSchool) and Dr. Chen Feng (School of Engineering). During the second week, students also gained insights into the technical underpinnings of select blockchain protocols from experts in industry and from the BC government.

The diversity of the student body was mirrored in the range of blockchain/DLT capabilities that students absorbed in the two weeks of training workshops. They discovered the ability of blockchain/DLT to:

  • Empower individual users to own and control the data they produce in social media applications, while preserving individual privacy
  • Enable decentralized online lending and exchange marketplaces that do not rely on central intermediaries
  • Empower Indigenous communities to govern their information and coordinate organization independently of external institutions
  • Address various processes around the climate crisis, including the accurate tracking of emissions, and decentralized carbon trading marketplaces that avoid double counting
  • Bring transparency and accountability to public procurement processes
  • Empower individuals and cut through data siloes to dramatically streamline data access and sharing in the healthcare sector
  • Enable the secure recording and streamlined execution o fprofessional athlete contracts, bring transparency and accountability to injury management systems, and even provide ways for athletes to own and control their personal health and performance data.
  • Enable verified digital credentials for individuals and organizations that preserve individual privacy
  • Host decentralized applications and marketplaces, such as digital collectibles.

Blockathon for Social Good
The course concluded with Blockchain@UBC’s 4th Annual “Blockathon for Social Good,” a hackathon-type design challenge in which teams designed blockchain-based use cases to address issues related to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Over the final two days of the course (May 21-22), groups designed creative and comprehensive blockchain-based solutions to various issues presented by COVID-19.These included solutions to accurately and securely track the procurement and distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) both within Canada/BC and internationally; decentralized marketplaces for under-utilized assets such as backyard and garden spaces; addressing the related “infodemic” around the proliferation of misinformation, bringing transparency, security, and efficiency to Covid-19 testing procedures; and COVID-19 immunity certification solutions for individuals and workplaces while ensuring that individuals have full control over their medical data. Groups were supported in the design process by DLT experts from academia and industry, and presented their solution to a panel of four judges that work at the intersection of DLT, healthcare, and identity management.

Blockchain@UBC would like to acknowledge the generosity of the UBC entities that provided funding and administrative support for the Summer Institute, and the industry and government partners who supported the training workshops and Blockathon:

Funding Partner
The W. Maurice Young Centre for Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Research focuses on understanding innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems, including what makes both a local ecosystem and global research ecosystem flourish with high quality innovation activity. It brings together thought leaders, policymakers and rising talent to develop research capacity and resources on innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems.

Workshop Partners

Blockathon Partners

Student Testimonials
“Throughout the last decade, there has been a particular buzz surrounding blockchain; however, I was skeptical of the “crypto craze” and did not understand the hype. But, Blockchain@UBC’s two-week Summer Institute opened my eyes. The Summer Institute taught me about the foundations of distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) and how blockchain is redefining the role of a trusted third party. By integrating workshops run by industry experts, I’ve gained a holistic understanding of how blockchain is enabling novel innovations and solutions in diverse areas including the sports industry, healthcare, and public procurement. Thank you to Dr. Rowell, Dr. Lemieux, my classmates and all of the industry experts who made my experience in the course exceptional!”

     Precilia Kong, Master of Public Health

“At the outset of the course, I knew almost nothing about blockchain technology. Less than two weeks later I helped design and present a blockchain system in my first hackathon! The whole Blockchain Summer Institute experience has been amazing, and I want to thank my Blockathon team, as well as our amazing instructor Chris Rowell and all the blockchain innovators that dropped in to share their work for making this happen during the pandemic.”

     Zakir Suleman, Master of Library and Information Studies

“I got to experience the virtual Blockchain@UBC Summer Institute as a student with a strong existing background in decentralized technology, but I still learned a lot in this intensive course. In particular, I found the hands-on collaborative approach to analyzing use cases to be valuable, challenging, and reflective of real-world working environments I’ve experienced in the cryptocurrency industry. Overall, Chris kept us engaged with high-level material, and took great advantage of the modular features of the Collaborate Ultra platform (including breakout rooms and incorporating the group chat window as a feedback loop to check in on attention/energy levels).”

     Chelsea Palmer, Master of Library and Information Studies

“This course was carried out seamlessly online with rich learning materials and intriguing guest speakers from different facets of the blockchain domain. Learning about their work and entrepreneurial projects kindled my enthusiasm for Distributed Ledger Technology, and helped me to capture how I can leverage my blockchain knowledge for my career interests. I appreciate how the course was taught and structured by Dr. Rowell, and I would be happy to take it again.”

     Daniel C. Park, Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs