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Storming the Gates: How ‘Crypto Davos’ Became a Thing

Sandra Ro
Coindesk

This is part of a series of op-eds previewing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. CoinDesk will be on the ground in Davos from Jan. 20–24 chronicling all things crypto at the annual gathering of the world’s economic and political elite. Follow along by subscribing to our pop-up newsletter, CoinDesk Confidential: Davos.

Sandra Ro is the CEOof the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC), which is organizing thefour-day BlockchainCentral Davos event.

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), renownedas a place where business executives, government officials, entrepreneurs andNGO leaders convene to create positive change, is days away.

Related: Over 40 Central Banks Are Considering Blockchain Applications: Davos Report

In recent years the WEF Meeting has come under fire as a place where wealthy elites gather to discuss solutions to problems they helped create and perpetuate – problems many blockchain startups are working to solve. But the reality of Davos lies somewhere between these two extremes.

So why engage? Why do we keep going back?

WEF 2020

2020 is special: It’s the 50th anniversary of the WEF, a non-profit foundation created in 1971 to engage society’s foremost political, business and cultural leaders to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

This year’s WEF theme is “Stakeholders for a Cohesive andSustainable World.”

Related: Davos Elites Still Don’t Get Blockchain

Some of the broad questions to be asked: What does “stakeholdercapitalism” mean? Is it tracking progress towards the Paris Agreement and the UnitedNations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? How does technology fit in?

“With the world at such critical crossroads, this year wemust develop a ‘Davos Manifesto 2020’ to reimagine the purpose and scorecardsfor companies and governments,” said Klaus Schwab, founder and executivechairman of the WEF.

If the world is at a crossroads, what is the role of cryptocurrencies,digital assets and blockchain? And who gets to shape and influence this future?

In short, should “Crypto Davos” collaborate with theestablished elites?

Crypto Davos, four+ years in the making

Crypto pioneers set up shop with Davos side events four orfive years ago. These were modest gatherings to discuss the future ofcryptocurrencies. Very few elites knew what this was, or paid it much attention.  

Just as bitcoin and ethereum began as organic grassrootsinitiatives, Crypto Davos grew mainly by group chats and word of mouth.However, by 2018, Crypto Davos reached peak excess, coinciding with the boom ofICOs. This was followed by muted numbers in 2019 with the bust, and now, in2020, a mix of Crypto Davos stalwarts are returning alongside mainstreamcorporations that are ahead of the curve in embracing blockchain and,sometimes, cryptocurrency. (Unfortunately, the mantra of “blockchain good,crypto bad” lingers in certain corporate and government circles, though it isdissipating over time.)

What happens at WEF’s official gathering is important, butmost who have attended Davos previously know that “the Promenade” is a beehiveof activity around cryptocurrencies, blockchain, AI, cybersecurity and otheremerging technologies. Many crypto people who attend Davos never step footinside the main event and do not hold a coveted “white badge.” Instead, theyhang out on the Promenade and participate in a myriad of panels, networkingevents and meetings, mixed with late-night partying and bonding.

The Promenade blockchain events are in high demand andconsidered cutting edge, thereby attracting some high-profile leaders who mightseem out of place under normal, stodgier circumstances. Seeing rock stars,actors, CEOs, billionaires, social-impact entrepreneurs and developers togetheris not unusual at Crypto Davos.

Where else do you see both Jamie Dimon and Jamie Oliverwalking down the same block within meters of each other? Or Michael Douglaswalking into an MIT-hosted lunch on AI and blockchain? (Seriously, thathappened back in 2017.)

So why did a bunch of crypto people start coming to Davos inthe first place? Switzerland’s crypto-friendly environment partially explainsthe attraction.

But the secret sauce of Davos is not just about discussingimportant ideas.

Once you make it to this normally sleepy town, you arejumbled together with 30,000 influential people on a few blocks of a “mainstreet.” It makes for an intense and rewarding four days of networking anddeal-making, which sets the tone for the rest of the year.

Crossover appeal

Crypto Davos, despite its outsider status, has influenced andchanged the course of mainstream Davos.

Just look at 2020’s big thematic on “stakeholders in acohesive and sustainable world,” which covers everything from economics toclimate change to technology, and includes topics like digital identity,digital asset regulation and central bank digital currencies (CBDCs).

In 2020, many, if not most, corporations participating atDavos have internal blockchain projects and/or are members of digital assetgroups. Five years ago, the CEOs of these same corporations probably did notknow blockchain existed.

Crypto Davos has profoundly influenced the interest andgrowth of digital assets and blockchain technology among some of the most eliteinstitutions, governments and world leaders.

Not bad for a bunch of outsiders.

Selling out?

To the cynics and anti-establishment crowd, we debate everyyear why we pay exorbitant rates to put together an event at Davos. The high costs,occasionally not-so-subtle hostility from the mainstream, increasingly stricttown council rules and the general logistics nightmare are enough to determost.

However, we return, because our supporters love attending.Why? Because we have met some of the most awe-inspiring people at Davos, fromrocket scientists to world leaders to humanitarians.

With a combination of bright, motivated people, ideas turninto action here: from investments to business deals to project launches. Nomatter how great the tech, we are humans who make connections by meeting eachother, spending time with each other and, ultimately, collaborating with eachother.  

The key for Crypto Davos is to keep influencing and building bridges with the establishment to yield the societal change we want. Blockchain works best when it’s collaborative. The same holds true at Davos: Crypto Davos can improve and scale with the resources of large institutions; Establishment Davos can reimagine business models and government services to create a more equitable and functional society.

This grand experiment works best if people collaborateacross geographies and disciplines.

Long live Crypto Davos (at least until the next better version comes along).

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