Final thoughts on New York Blockchain Week and Consensus 2018 by Genaro Network Co-Founder and Strategic Lead Jason Inch

This article was originally published on Linkedin

The inaugural New York Blockchain Week took place May 11–17th. I was there. It was crazy and awesome at the same time. In this article, I’d like to share my perspective on Blockchain Week and its biggest event, Consensus 2018.

New York Blockchain Week

By way of introduction, as a co-founder and strategic lead of Genaro Network, one of my roles is to assimilate new ideas while attending, or speaking at, the many blockchain events around the world. I’ve attended dozens in the past two years and it’s been an amazing journey of learning, surprises, and relationships with the global phenomena of cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Thus far I have never experienced anything like Blockchain Week.

What is Blockchain Week?

For the last couple of years, the biggest blockchain-specific event globally has been Consensus, hosted by CoinDesk. Consensus has steadily attracted more and more attendees but it is not the only big event taking place in New York. The Ethereum development community hosts Ethereal around the same time. Other conferences such as Token Summit have hosted big events in New York as well. And a number of smaller events and big parties fill in the gaps. So somebody in the New York City Economic Development Corporation perhaps thought, Hey, do we want more cryptocurrency millionaires, new blockchain industry entrepreneurs, large corporations and institutional investors here, or don’t we? Of course, they do, and so New York Blockchain Week was born with official support from the city.

What were the outcomes of Blockchain Week?

By most accounts, the week was an outstanding success. It’s hard to get an accurate picture of total attendance because there were so many events with diverse attendees, but it was reported that more than 8000 people converged on Consensus 2018 alone. At about US$2000 per ticket, that was at least $16 million in ticket sales, filling up the Midtown Hilton Hotel’s conference facilities to the maximum. Other events brought significant economic benefit to the city: A single party on a yacht was reported to have cost $3 million. Then there were the hotel rooms, meals, and other spending by the visitors like me flying all the way from Asia to attend. The thousands of participants in the weeklong festivities must have been a serious windfall for tourism (not that Manhattan needs it, of course). So on that basis alone, Blockchain Week has set a high bar for future events.

But the bigger picture, of course, is the $300+ billion and growing (or shrinking depending on which day you look) blockchain industry. With New York’s financial sector finally starting to get involved, 2018 is likely to be a watershed year and New York firmly established itself as one of the global blockchain capitals.

The week was not without controversy as well, what with cryptocurrency millionaires (and yes, even billionaires), throwing extravagant bacchanals reminiscent of the heady days of the Dot Com era’s glory before the fall. Then there are all the potential industry disruptions that blockchain is enabling, especially in the financial industry, upsetting people from the monetary authorities and securities regulators of just about every major economy to the financial intermediaries and investment bankers who could be disintermediated. A pack of supposed financial professionals even took to the streets in front of the Hilton to voice their opposition to cryptocurrency and blockchain. Conference-goers were enjoying the joke but I wandered into a store near the venue and talked to a shop clerk who happened to have bought cryptocurrency before. He told me that he thought he’d seen everything in New York but that he never expected to see people on the streets protesting Bitcoin…

Consensus 2018

Now on to the biggest event of Blockchain Week: the three-day Consensus 2018.

Day one of the conference was the busiest, due to some of the big speakers including Federal Express founder Fred Smith, author Don Tapscott who co-wrote a book on blockchain with his son Alex, and politicos such as New City City government officials and the Premier of Bermuda. The keynotes took place in the morning and at the end of the day, with panels in between.

Day two was enterprise-focused, with major presentations by main sponsors such as Deloitte, IBM, and SAP in the morning session. The afternoon was panels again but also with a greater corporate contingent (though not entirely).

Day three wrapped things up with a series of announcements from various organizations such as the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, PolyMath, BlockStack, and others. This was followed by some fireside chats, with the most popular one of the day (and perhaps of the entire event, judging by the audience reaction) featuring Jack Dorsey of Twitter / Square fame being interviewed by Elizabeth Stark, who is well-known blockchain circles for her project Lightning Labs.

Some Quotes and Observations

After the welcome speeches and greetings from government officials, Don Tapscott kicked things off with a keynote and then fireside chat with FedEx’s Fred Smith and Robert Carter, where they made case for blockchain revolutionizing global trade’s $15 trillion supply chain.

Smith has continued to be a visionary by supporting adoption of blockchain. We heard that packages shipped via FedEx have an average of ten transactions each (e.g., moving from one hub to another, dangerous materials checks, insurance, and, in the case of international shipments, customs and freight-forwarding and so on). So 10 million packages, therefore, means 100 million transactions. This may not sound like a lot but given UPS and FedEx combined transported about one billion packages during the 2017 Christmas holiday season alone, it adds up. The total number of yearly transactions is significant in both number and cost, especially in the context of global trade. If more transportation companies, logistics providers, government officials, and insurance firms were all sharing the same data, and trusting it because it was on a verifiable blockchain visible to all participants, “Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize trade across borders,” said Smith.

Some other comments I thought were interesting came during the “Before Crypto / After Crypto” panel on day two, with Yoni Assia of eToro, Ted Livingston of Kik, and Slava Rubin of Indiegogo, moderated by David Wachsman. Yoni Assia, on the impact of blockchain, said, “Blockchain is a reinvention of money, and I don’t think people realize the implication of that.” Fitting giving that his eToro is a reinvention of stock analysis and investing. Ted Livingston of Kik, which created the KIN token, said that nobody is focused on how to use cryptocurrencies, meaning that there is a gap between the technological ‘wow-factor’ and the actual consumer adoption of the things. To me, this was one of the best reminders for the audience to hear.

On day three, we heard during the accounting and audit panel something along the lines of, once your company is “on tokens” you can even achieve real-time financial statements that are also auditable. I am not sure what to think about the usage on tokens, given the obvious connotations to being on drugs, but it stuck with me after the event. The point is valid, too, we have so much data in companies that are locked in Excel spreadsheets on somebody’s computer and only accounted for once every month, quarter, or year. Blockchain is definitely going to change all that, especially from the audit perspective. On that same accounting panel, I also learned that Intuit now includes three crypto-currency codes in its accounting software (though probably only in the US version in order to comply with the IRS deeming crypto-profits taxable like any other investment).

Overall there were a number of fascinating panels and insightful comments. If you weren’t there in person, you’ll soon be able to watch the recaps on the CoinDesk website (I’ll put some links in here once they become available).

What about the networking?

Of course one does not go to conferences in an industry that one is participating in for the presentations alone, you go there to meet-and-greet, find new opportunities, and catch up with old contacts. In this regard, Consensus has to be the best of the best, since almost everyone was there save for some conscientious objectors such as Vitalik Buterin who opposed the high-priced tickets for not being in the inclusive spirit of the blockchain world.

I was really happy to catch up with acquaintances such as Samson Mow, now at Blockstream and also part of Magical Crypto Friends, one of the best podcasts on blockchain. It features not only Samson but also Charlie Lee (Litecoin), Riccardo Spagio (Monero) and Twitter personality WhalePanda. They actually did a live broadcast and recording of their latest podcast episode at the end of day two that was standing room only.

There were also industry luminaries in attendance and I enjoyed the fireside chat with Zcash founder Zooko Wilcox and cryptographic legend Dr. Whitfield Diffie (half of the Diffie-Hellman key exchange concept that is one of the foundational ideas underpinning public-private key cryptography and therefore blockchain). Moderated by Coindesk’s Nolan Bauerle, the conversation between Zooko and “Whit” was an exchange of ideas that brought to mind a cross-generational discussion of the kind that happens only rarely or in one’s dreams, like if a young Neil deGrasse Tyson could have shared a stage with Carl Sagan. With respect to Mr. Wilcox (who is famous in his own right), after the panel, the audience flocked to Dr. Diffie who was, I think, bemused by the masses of people who wanted to take photos with him. At Consensus, he was probably the most sought-after of all the crypto-celebrities.

Overall there were so many panels and interesting people to meet at the event that you couldn’t possibly take it all in, in a good way. After each day I felt energized and ready for the evening parties and other blockchain events.

Things to improve

I’d like to close with a few humble suggestions of how to possibly make the Consensus conference, and Blockchain Week by extension, better.

Bigger Venue: Many people complained about overcrowding. The wait for registration on day one was up to two hours for some people (though my wait was only a half-hour earlier in the morning), and the lunch areas were insufficient, leaving many people searching for seats or just sitting on the floor. That said, 8000+ people is not a big number for an international conference. I’ve attended many that reached 25,000 or even 50,000 attendees over a two or three-day run. Granted these events occur in more established and larger industries but it is probably time for Consensus 2019 to move out of a hotel and into an exhibition center.

Fewer Sponsorships: I guess we shouldn’t begrudge the success of the organizers, if they could make a bundle from ticket sales and booths, why not sell virtually every other element of the event, too? From the seatbacks (good one, eToro) to the dancing mascot and recharge stations, everythingwas branded. I would question the benefit of being a ‘block’ sponsor (of which there were more than one hundred) or even a ‘two block’ sponsor (several dozens). For many a new project that is probably all they could afford but I can’t help wondering if that money would have been better spent on social media or something. Check out the number of trademarks on the logo walls, though you have to imagine them on a large panels in the lobby:

At least somebody is making money in blockchain…

Better “Job Fair”: The much-touted job fair on the afternoon of day three looked, to me, like a big disorganized networking event. While I wasn’t looking for a job or there to recruit, I wandered in and I couldn’t help but imagine a real job seeker entering that bewildering throng of people. What’s more, most of the blockchain companies that were on site throughout Consensus started packing up and didn’t even attend the job fair with booths (though they might have sent some beleaguered HR manager to join the melee). Hopefully next year this will become a more useful feature for both companies and job seekers.

Final Thoughts

Despite the high-priced ticket and associated expenses going to New York, the conference delivered good value even if it was, at times, a bit too corporate and commercial. There were non-corporate elements there, too, from the projects that rented out a meeting room (NEM, Blockstream) and featured their community in booths or by running their own mini-conferences, to the startups that joined the pitch competition.

Do check out the playback and articles on CoinDesk.com/consensus2018.

So long, Blockchain Week, see you in 2019!

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Related Articles:

Genaro’s Trip to Consensus 2018 and Token Summit III

Evolution of the blockchain: from Bitcoin to smart contracts and decentralized data storage

Tokenomics 101 — Understanding Token Sales and other New Models of Blockchain-based Financing for the New Economy

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Originally published at genaro.network.

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