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Traditionally, we rely on centralized entities like banks to fulfill our basic financial needs. We trust them to protect our savings, provide us with loans and facilitate day-to-day payments. It’s hard to imagine a world without them, but that’s exactly what DeFi promises.
This vision — of banking without the banks — is made possible by smart contracts, which are computer programs stored on the blockchain that automatically run when certain conditions are met.
By leveraging smart contracts and blockchain infrastructure, DeFi has a number of advantages over traditional financial institutions. It’s:
global and permissionless: users are no longer limited to local banking services, but can instead access DeFi apps from anywhere in the world
trustless: since smart contracts automatically execute, human intervention isn’t required, meaning you don’t need to rely on, or trust, third parties
always-on: DeFi is available 24/7, and isn’t limited by opening hours
transparent: the code of DeFi apps, as well as data on their usage, is publicly auditable
You might still wonder why any of that matters when the financial services you use daily are for the most part, fine. It’s important to understand that there are many different participants within the global financial system, each with unique contexts and needs. Some may be similar to you, while others face entirely different circumstances
Why is DeFi valuable?
To help you understand the value of DeFi, we’ll explore how DeFi applications benefit users including:
- unbanked individuals
- financially savvy individuals
- individuals, businesses, or nonprofits transacting globally
1) Unbanked individuals
Many of us take for granted the fact that we have bank accounts and can access basic financial services. Unfortunately, approximately 1.7 billion people are unbanked, due to factors such as geographical limitations, distrust in financial institutions, or the inability to meet minimum requirements. In fact, there may be little to no economic incentives for banks to cater to these potential customers.
However, the World Economic Forum estimates that 1.1 billion have access to a mobile phone. This presents a large opportunity for DeFi to connect the unbanked to decentralized financial services. Unlike traditional institutions, DeFi is able to scale financial services products to anyone around the world with minimal costs. For example, DeFi applications like AAVE or Compound would allow the unbanked to earn interest on their savings or even borrow money.
2) Financially savvy individuals
On the other end of the spectrum are individuals who are savvy enough to be saving and investing, and who might even have a mortgage or investment properties. They’re already in a great position, but DeFi could make things even better.
As with any other industry, a major benefit of automation is lower costs. Think about how much it costs your bank to employ their staff, use office buildings or operate physical branches. Since smart contracts can cut out intermediaries like banks, this means DeFi applications are more cost-efficient. These savings are passed onto individuals who use DeFi applications, through higher interest rates on savings — again, using applications like AAVE or Compound. For example, for every additional 1%, you earn on a balance of $10,000 is an extra $100 saved per year.
What’s more exciting is that the open and transparent nature of smart contract code means code and DeFi applications are composable. In other words, they’re like digital LEGO blocks which can be combined in unique ways. For example, Yearn is a DeFi application which automatically reinvests your savings to optimize your earnings. If AAVE has better rates than Compound, it’ll direct your funds there. In contrast, if you wanted to do the same with your traditional savings, you’d be manually setting up new accounts and transferring money between those accounts.
3) Individuals, businesses, or non-profits transacting globally
In our increasingly globalized and digital economy, individuals and businesses both have growing needs to make and accept payments in foreign currencies. For example, when individuals are shopping online for international goods, or when businesses pay salaries to global staff. The problem today isn’t that we can’t facilitate international payments — but it is expensive and often slow.
Blockchains naturally alleviate this problem since crypto tokens can be transferred globally and instantly. However, while the value of most crypto assets fluctuates wildly, it’d make the most sense to transact and store wealth in stable currencies. DeFi’s answer to this is stablecoins like USD Coin (USDC), Tether (USDT), and Dai, which are designed to maintain a stable price. You can think of these stablecoins as a digital-only form of cash, which lets you leverage the benefits of crypto infrastructure.
Using stablecoins, users can pay anyone around the world, at any time, without paying high fees or waiting for banks to open. On the other side of the transaction, businesses can receive payments instantly without high international transaction fees. Similarly, nonprofits can use applications like Endaoment to fundraise from global donors quickly. More importantly, the open data of blockchains means the movement of funds by nonprofits is more transparent and can be more closely scrutinized.
What are the risks of DeFi?
Despite these benefits, there are risks you need to be aware of when using DeFi applications. This includes:
1. Smart contract risk: since smart contracts are created from computer code, they can be prone to hacks. In 2022 alone, hackers have stolen over $3 billion of assets, with DeFi being the primary target; and
2. A lack of consumer protection: if you lose your funds due to a hack or a scam while using DeFi, no one is obliged to help or reimburse you because as we know, DeFi removes intermediaries who would typically provide that support
On the plus side, the openness of blockchain code means that with every vulnerability that’s exploited and fixed, the DeFi industry becomes safer overall. Everyone can learn from everyone else’s mistakes and experiences, which is unlike the siloed nature of traditional financial institutions.
Currently, there’s still friction around the experience of using DeFi, but as with any new technology, user experience problems will be solved. Companies like Coinbase, Argent, and Minke are already working to abstract away that complexity into slick mobile apps. In time, there’s a chance DeFi will fundamentally change how we all engage with financial services. As blockchains achieve greater scalability, it’s possible we’ll see a blockchain-based payment network operating at the scale of Visa and MasterCard. For the benefits that DeFi can, and already brings, it’s a no-brainer to try to make it work.
“A blog by Atlas DEX and Codora ApS”
What are Smart Contracts? | How they power the DeFi Ecosystem
So what exactly are smart contracts?
Smart contracts are code or computer programs stored on blockchains which automatically run when certain conditions are met. Despite the name, they’re not really “smart” — they can only do exactly as they’re programmed.
You can think of smart contracts as digital agreements. However, they have unique properties which distinguish them from ordinary contracts or agreements. For example, they’re:
trustless — once conditions that have been agreed upon are met, smart contracts will automatically execute. They don’t require human intervention, which means you don’t need to rely on or trust third parties to fulfil the agreement
immutable — mart contract code can’t be changed or manipulated once it’s been published to the blockchain, and
transparent — the code and details of the agreement are publicly accessible
When paired with user-friendly interfaces, smart contracts can be used to create decentralized applications (dApps). Here’s an overview of some of the dApps available on Ethereum.
Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform which allows creators to fundraise for creative projects. It uses an all-or-nothing model, meaning creators only receive funding if their fundraising goal is met by a certain deadline. If you were to support a project, you would have to trust Kickstarter to hold your funds until that deadline, and then either return it to you, or distribute it to the creator.
However, with smart contracts, you don’t need to trust third parties like Kickstarter. For example, PartyBid is a dApp which enables crowdfunded purchases of digital assets, using a similar all-or-nothing model. Its smart contract holds the funds and depending on the outcome, it’s programmed to either let users claim tokens representing their ownership of the successfully purchased asset or re-claim their funds.
Another area where trust can be eliminated is in peer-to-peer marketplaces. Think about the experience of buying or selling electronic event tickets using platforms like Facebook Marketplace. As a buyer, if you make payment first, will you receive a legitimate ticket? Has it been sold to anyone else? Or as a seller, if you send the ticket first, will you receive payment? Without knowing the other party, we have to rely on signals like the quality of their personal profile.
Smart contracts remove that uncertainty. For example, OpenSea is a dApp which enables the buying and selling of digital assets. Instead of needing to vet the other party to your transaction, OpenSea’s smart contracts will automatically facilitate the correct exchange of digital assets and funds for you.
Banks are another example of an intermediary which can be cut out using smart contracts. Very simply, banks collect deposits and use those deposits to fund loans. When you ask your bank for a loan to buy property, they’ll do extensive checks to make sure you can repay it based on your personal circumstances. As part of the agreement, the bank will hold your property as collateral so that they can sell it if you fail to repay the loan.
As an alternative, decentralized financial (DeFi) applications such as AAVE have made it possible to get loans without talking to anyone. All you need to do is deposit funds as collateral into the AAVE smart contract and then choose what, and how much, you want to borrow. Unless you’re engaging in financial crimes, AAVE doesn’t even care who you are or where you’re from, and unlike your bank, it’s accessible 24/7. With smart contracts, there’s an opportunity to enable access to cheaper, trustworthy and more transparent financial services for anyone across the globe.
The future of smart contracts
Clearly, not everything needs or can be programmed into a smart contract. However, where the rules of an agreement can be clearly defined and set in stone, smart contracts can be incredibly beneficial and efficient.
What makes them even more exciting is that smart contract code is open and transparent. This turns them into digital LEGO blocks which are composable, meaning they can be freely combined in different ways. For example, Atlas DEX leverages other smart contracts to aggregate the best prices for token swaps and enable swaps to occur between blockchains.
Together, the flexibility and composability of smart contracts is enabling faster development of blockchain-based applications. While it’s impossible to know what will eventually be created, we can be sure that innovation is happening at a much faster pace!
Blockchain explained in 7 minutes
Maybe you’ve wondered at some point, “What even is blockchain?”
So what are blockchains?
A blockchain is a decentralized ledger — a digital record of transactions amongst a network of people. Think of a shared diary amongst a group of people, where what happens between them is recorded each day. Once an event has been recorded and accepted by everyone in the group, it becomes difficult to change as more items are recorded.
Blockchain allows for an unlimited number of anonymous parties to store information privately and securely, using software algorithms instead of a central authority. As the name suggests — Blocks are what store groups of data e.g. transactions. A series of blocks together form a Chain, which is distributed amongst the network.
So is blockchain the same as crypto?
There’s a common misconception that blockchains are a cryptocurrency — however the blockchain is the technology that supports it. Cryptocurrency is created and stored electronically in blockchains, using encryption techniques to control the creation of monetary value, and verification of the transfer of funds. For instance, some cryptocurrencies you may have heard of such as Bitcoin, Ethereum or Dogecoin, all run on their own separate blockchains.
Let’s go through step by step how a transaction is facilitated and recorded on the blockchain:
- A member of the network submits a transaction.
- The requested transaction is shared with the peer-to-peer network of computers (known as nodes).
- Validation of the transaction occurs through the network of nodes, using known algorithms, to confirm the status of the transaction.
- A verified transaction can involve the use of cryptocurrency, records, smart contracts, and other information.
- The transaction is verified and combined with other transactions to form a Block using hashing.
- The Block is added to the existing blockchain in a way that is unable to be altered or tampered with.
So what’s so revolutionary about blockchain?
There are several key benefits of blockchain, which make the technology and the products built on it unique to other types of digital databases. For example, blockchain is:
- tokenised — the value of an asset is tokenised and stored on the blockchain. With no physical form and existing only on the network, it is difficult to create counterfeit goods, funds or double-processing of transactions.
- decentralised — blockchain enables a peer-to-peer network that is not controlled by a central bank or authority, enabling greater security and privacy. Information sharing is not controlled by one key person or organisation.
- immutable and unalterable — transactions and records cannot be reversed, or tampered with.
This is vastly different to traditional finance and as such, provides a few core benefits. For example, there’s improved:
- privacy and identity verification — identity is typically a key target for fraud in traditional finance, and blockchain technology ensures identifying a participant of the network is traceable and verifiable at rapid speed. Rules and permissions implemented on the blockchain can manage participants in the network and their role.
- security — a malicious attack on a bank would require targeting a centralised network or server. However, with blockchain technology, each node in a peer-to-peer network acts like its own server. It’s much more difficult to compromise a network as it can verify transactions against other nodes. As such, information about your identity, funds and transactions cannot be easily obtained.
So will blockchain revolutionise my life?
You may have come across stories like Bitcoin consuming more energy than Norway or that some governments are so sceptical of cryptocurrency that they’ve made it illegal. So why do we keep using and investing in tech that causes so much controversy?
There are industries and use cases where it’s beneficial to use decentralised networks, for example:
Transparency in supply chains
Industries such as fashion, luxury goods, and pharmaceuticals have had years of issues with tracking products, creating transparency and building trust in authentic products. Research and applications of blockchain have helped with verifying authenticity, provenance and traceability. This includes reducing the amount of information flow between multiple parties when dealing with inventory, financials, and information, which could also reduce the need for lengthy human auditing. These can translate to commercial and sustainable benefits, for example knowing you’ve purchased the real deal in the luxury goods sector, or traceability of pharmaceuticals to remove counterfeit drugs, which cause a million deaths a year.
Casting your vote digitally
You may have at some point Googled ‘when will we know the result of the US election’ and waited with bated breath as votes were counted and recounted. There’s been a recent push to move voting to digital systems, particularly using blockchain and facial recognition systems. It’s still early days, with many wary of the technical risks and vulnerabilities of on-chain voting, and the challenge of explaining to the general public what blockchain is (it’s taken us a few hundred words just to cover the basics!).
Creating social good
More use cases are emerging where not-for-profit organisations are using blockchain technology to ensure funds can be donated and used in more transparent ways. There have also been more examples of people supporting causes using cryptocurrencies — The Giving Block is one start-up gaining momentum.
Blockchain has the potential to create radical change for commercial, sustainable, and social good.. Whilst it requires considerable commitment of resources, innovation and transformation, blockchain has proven to be a powerful tool in many industries. Maybe we’ll all be ‘on-chain’ one day and getting married with NFT rings, but until then keep learning through more Codora blogs.
A blog by Codora and Atlas DEX.
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