Consensus 2018 Report


The buzz at Consensus, the blockchain industry’s conference of the year, held at the Midtown Hilton in New York, was in evidence long before you even got to the hotel. Even JFK’s notoriously stern Passport Control officials were put at ease upon hearing that the purpose of my trip was a blockchain conference. “So you’re a bitcoin guy?” Well I suppose I am…

Perhaps the event is a microcosm of the industry itself. If the number of attendees hasn’t quite risen parabolically since the inaugural 400-person edition in 2015, the 8,500 in attendance this year certainly reflects the frenzied mass-market appeal that blockchain and cryptocurrency has come to command.

This new wave of latest recruits – and there’s no escaping the fact that this is the category in which I find myself – still have to prove themselves in the school-yard which has been the traditional domain of the original Bitcoiners. If institutions and non-native blockchain corporates are to be welcomed into the gang, more evidence of their ability to contribute to the broader adoption of the technology will be needed.

“I’m not interested in Bitcoin but there is huge potential in the underlying blockchain technology” is the maxim that the traditionalists are challenging. Have we yet to see a better use case of blockchain technology than Nakamoto’s original digital currency? 

This all played out semi-dramatically in an exchange between Joe Lubin, the founder of the Ethereum startup studio Consensys, and  Jimmy Song, a Bitcoin maximalist and partner at Blockchain Capital on Day 1 during a conversation about decentralized app store ‘Clovyr’. Song cited an “insurmountable disconnect between centralized enterprises and decentralized applications” and dismissed companies that are sprinkling “magical blockchain dust” in the name of innovation. Lubin returned the challenge with a bet of “any amount of bitcoin” that five years in the future, the blockchain space will include some number of applications – perhaps five – that have earned a yet-to-be-defined number of users.

What was clear from the heated on-stage debate is that the world is watching in anticipation of real traction in the space.

Other highlights in an action-packed 3 days included:-

  • FedEx CEO Fred Smith revealing his company’s initiative to leverage blockchain because of its ability to add trust and create new chains of custody in the $50 Trillion  shipping and logistics industry.
  • Deloitte offering a snippet from their forthcoming executive survey which found that 74 percent of large companies across seven countries see a “compelling business case” for blockchain technology.
  • Shapeshift Founder, Erik Voorhees, raising serious concerns about overly-bureaucratic regulations  that are stifling innovation in New York (although the same could be said of big cities across the western world which are losing projects to more liberal innovation hubs like Singapore and Switzerland).
  • And in a standing-room-only crescendo to the event, the ever-popular founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, expressing his hope that bitcoin would become the internet’s native currency.

Away from the headline acts, there was the opportunity to touch base with some of the well-known players in the cryptosphere to check-in on how they were progressing with their tech. Of the myriad stalls and pitches, I’d like to highlight two of the more creative ones… I’m not sure if it is a coincidence that both are alcohol-related!

Firstly, Vechain were on hand to demonstrate how their product addresses the issue of counterfeiting in the global wine trade. By scanning a QR code on the label, their Dapp can identify the provenance of each bottle providing a solution with obvious benefits to both consumers and manufacturers alike.

And with the perfect spot outside the main ballroom, the Civic stall was rarely quiet. The premise of their “Zero-knowledge” identity management  app was that a customer shouldn’t have to disclose their name and address as part of  proving their age when entering a club or buying a beer. A fridge full of free Budweiser was ample incentive for the conference attendees to put this solution to the test!

One of the simplest analogies that can be applied to the blockchain industry is that the race has not really started, we’re all just building our cars. Bitcoin is approaching its 10th anniversary as the undisputed front-runner and it’s going to take more than just “magical blockchain dust” for the non-financial use cases to gain the sort of meaningful traction that will inspire broader industry adoption.