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Block Chain Summit Responds to Backlash Over Private Island Bash

(@pete_rizzo_) | Published on May 4, 2015 at 20:55 BST
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Necker Island

Boasting an exotic location and the apparent blessing of billionaire Richard Branson, the Block Chain Summit has emerged as one of the most discussed events in the digital currency community in recent months.

To be held from 25th to 28th May on Branson's private Necker Island, little has been known about the conference apart from its available guest list, a factor that has led to speculation as to what the event would seek to achieve since it was first revealed by CoinDesk.

In a new interview, however, Valery Vavilov, CEO of leading event sponsor BitFury and venture capitalist Bill Tai shed new light on the gathering, opening up about its planned schedule and responding to criticism that it is perpetuating negative industry stereotypes.

Tai, who has previously invested in BitFury, sought to dismiss these criticisms, suggesting that the Block Chain Summit first and foremost will seek to attract attention to how decentralized ledger systems might positively impact the world.

Positioning this as a contrast to past conferences, Tai told CoinDesk:

"This is not a conference that's about the pure technology and it's not a gathering to try to disrupt governments and banks and mess with people's currency systems. We want to get great minds on how to use blockchain technology to do good."

Vavilov reported that BitFury was involved as an organizer due to what it saw as its ability to influence the more widespread distribution of the technology. BitFury is one of the largest processors for transactions on bitcoin's distributed ledger.

Necker Island, according to Tai, represents the perfect venue for such discussions, providing a more relaxed setting that can set the stage for this generation of technology innovators to collaborate and form early bonds.

"We want to create an environment where people can form friendships and work on projects together that can actually have real influence and global impact," he said.

Gender imbalance

Tai indicated that he was pleased with the attention the event has so far received on social media, even from more negative articles that have framed it as too exclusive due to its lack of women participants.

However, he characterized the reaction as an example of the positive impact that the medium can have by galvanizing public sentiment on important issues.

"I love the attention on it," Tai said. "What I think the attention does is allow women to self identify as women that should be here, because they're speaking up."

The Block Chain Summit is aiming to contact an additional seven or eight women, according to Tai, who said the BitGive Foundation's Connie Gallippi is involved in recommending potential candidates. Still, logistics are forming a potential barrier to this effort.

Tai noted that Necker Island had previously been booked close to capacity, and that as such, last-minute accommodations for new guests are being put into place.

"We would be delighted to have great women that can contribute to this discussion, so we're creating another location where some people can stay adjacent to the island if the island is full and come on to the island for discussions," Tai said.

BitPesa CEO Elizabeth Rossiello has since been confirmed as an attendee, according to the event's official website.

Branson's role

Perhaps the most noteworthy name on the event's guest list is Richard Branson, the Necker Island owner who previously invested in bitcoin payment processor BitPay. While another lightning rod for interest, Tai indicated Branson's involvement will be limited.

Tai reported having a long-standing relationship with the Virgin Group founder, having met Branson while kiteboarding in the early 2000s following the initial public offering of Internet hosting provider iAsiaWorks.

"I ended up running into some interesting characters that also kiteboard, including Richard Branson, and we ended up throwing a bunch of entrepreneur summits together," Tai said, framing the Block Chain Summit as a continuation of this past work.

"Obviously it's his island home so he'll be there and he's part of the activities, but he's not going to be running them," Tai continued. "He's going to be participating in them to the extent that he can."

Tai also cautioned that readers perhaps shouldn't read too much into Branson's hosting of the conference, adding that he is "not an expert" on the technology despite his public support and interest.

Itinerary details

Apart from previously announced talks by Wall Street Journal writer Michael Casey and Institute for Liberty and Democracy president Hernando De Soto, Tai reported that much about the event will be informal or is still being finalized.

He inferred the event will be more of a workshop than a conference, with organizers breaking guests into groups which will then brainstorm solutions to pressing global problems while engaging in an activity of their choosing.

"We ask what major problems in the world can we solve with a blockchain, what are the challenges to accomplishing that and what are the solutions. Then, we go off and do those while we're doing fun cool things like kiteboarding, playing tennis or whatever people are interested in," Tai explained.

Each group will then be responsible for presenting their findings at a closing party, he added.

Tai suggested talks would also be given by the team behind ID3's Open Mustard Seed platform, a project that is seeking to apply blockchain solutions to digital identity challenges. Members of MIT's recently announced Digital Currency Initiative, he added, might also make an appearance, though details are being finalized.

Ultimately, organizers suggested that more information from the conference would be limited, though this was dependent on what transpired at the event.

"If we can't think of anything to change the world for the good, I don't know that we'll talk about it," Tai quipped. "There won't be anything to say."

Image via Virgin Group

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