Necker Island Blockchain Summit Kicks Off With Doses Of Idealism And Realism

JUL 27, 2017 @ 10:58 AM

LAURA SHIN

NECKER ISLAND, British Virgin Islands -- Many blockchain and crypto asset-focused conferences have an obvious financial focus.

But the most idealistic and socially conscious of them, the Blockchain Summit hosted by the Bitcoin mining and blockchain services company Bitfury Group and venture capitalist Bill Tai, commenced Tuesday on Sir Richard Branson's private island Necker, with a different bent.

Before even arriving on the island, some attendees on the same flight dived right into discussions of how to use crypto tokens to create social good such as reducing air pollution.

That has matched the tone for the conference so far.

As the 50 attendees from all continents except Antarctica introduced themselves, only a few were the typical blockchain and crypto headliners: Civic founder Vinny Lingham, Sandra Ro, the former head of digitization at CME Group, and Michael Casey, senior advisor at MIT Media Lab and the coauthor of The Age of Cryptocurrency (check out my podcasts with LinghamRo and  Casey).

Instead, many were big names in areas such as conservation, philanthropy, government, non-blockchain entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations and more: Robin Carnahan, former Missouri secretary of state, Saadia Madsbjerg, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Roya Mahboob, an Afghan entrepreneur who has been named by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

And even the names typically associated with the money side of crypto assets had a socially conscious focus. For instance, during introductions, Don Wilson, founder of DRW Holdings, whose subsidiary Cumberland Mining is perhaps the largest over-the-counter cryptocurrency trading desk, said he was in the preliminary stages of exploring an idea to use cryptocurrencies and blockchain to reduce gun violence in the south and west sides of Chicago.

This was mostly the focus, even as real world events such as the SEC's report that some tokens may have to register as securities and the arrest of a Russian who allegedly laundered $4 billion in bitcoin, infiltrated casual conversation.

In the first day's session, several groups announced a conservation effort that was using blockchain technology to record data in some of the few remaining thriving marine ecosystems called hope spots. During a video call-in, renowned marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle who founded Mission Blue, which designates hope spots, said, "If we stop killing the creatures who make coral reefs what they are — it’s not just the corals. It’s the fish, lobsters, the little guys and the visitors like the sharks, groupers, snappers, that are required like an old growth forest. It’s not just about the trees. A heathy coral reef is not just about corals, it’s about all the creatures who live there. New York City is not just about the buildings. It’s about who lives there that makes a city thrive."

During a panel on identity, blockchain identity entrepreneurs Mariana Dahan, founder of World Identity Network and the first coordinator of the World Bank's identity initiative, debated whether governments were important or unimportant in putting people's identities on blockchains, with Dahan, whose startup World Identity Network is targeting the 1-2 billion people who lack identity documents, arguing yes.

However, Lingham did not see them as crucial for his market. "For us, between now and the end of the year, we want to run it so hard and so fast that we get our critical mass built up that it makes no sense at all to talk to governments," he said, referring to his identity startup, Civic. "We’ve had so many governments contact us. We’ll do a call, but at the end of the day, we just redirect them to our documentation, and and they’re like, what? the way the world works day, if you want to integrate third-party APIs or SDKs, you just go to the developer section of the website, pull the documents and integrate it. Governments haven’t got it on yet. They still want the whole handholding, the sell process, what do you charge for it, etc."

But others are not only not shunning but hoping to bring both blockchain and Bitcoin to government. Brian Forde, the former director of the MIT Digital Currency Initiative and current candidate for U.S. House of Representatives described his desire to be a "Digital Democrat" -- and mentioned that his campaign has already begun accepting donations in bitcoin.

During a panel on using blockchain technology in music, singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, who said the idea of blockchain and music is "inevitable" said, she felt a first step was what she called "creative passports, the ability for artists to be the connective issue for the music industry. Because there are many fragmented areas where your data is stored or your identities are whether you’re a writer, or producer or clarinetist. There’s nowhere in the world where people now what you’ve done, theres no database of all the artists, which means that for anyone who wants to do business with you, it’s really hard."

Currently, she said, they would have to the big, profit-oriented organizations like Sony "who make it hard for their artists to earn money, because ... the labels take the money up front. If we can empower artists to generate metadata of song they’ve written and been involved with and can generate their skill set as a beacon of information and we can create this network, we can build technology and services that artists are going to need for the future."

The panelists differed over whether micropayments for music would be significant for artists or not, with Erick Miller, founder and CEO of CoinCircle, asserting microtransactions would be an important part of their income stream. But Heap wasn't so sure, since she makes more money from things like commissions for theater and film. She noted that "VR and AR films that need content that don’t have a way to access the people who can make it."

Discussion between sessions pinged between real world events and big dreams, with chitchat centering around the report from the Securities and Exchange Commission that some tokens can be securities or around aspirations to solve the world's environmental problems with tokens.

In opening night remarks, Branson said, "You’ll find at every single corner you turn, you’ll find something magic — it might be a lemur, a gigantic iguana, a giant tortoise, a flamingo. This is where a lot of great ideas are born." The island, born of an iconic businessman with a love for the environment, seemed like the right environment for just this spectrum of ideas.

Thursday, July 27, 2017 1pm EST: This article has been updated to clarify that in the debate around whether governments are integral players in enabling blockchain-based identities, Dahan was arguing that they are.