I’ve attended eight out of nine Consensus events since 2015, when the first one was held at the Times Center in New York. (The nascent CoinDesk events team got 500 people to attend and managed to sign Citibank as title sponsor, quite a coup at a time when cryptocurrencies were still a mostly fringe topic.)
Since then, and including the past three years in which I’ve been the host of Consensus, the annual gathering has functioned as an all-inclusive bellwether for the state of the industry. The chaotic, jam-packed Consensus of 2018, for example, captured the frenetic bull market of the initial coin offering (ICO) era while the following year was more subdued, reflecting a bear market in which the focus turned to developers work on non-fungible tokens (NFT), layer 2 blockchains and decentralized finance (DeFi) prototypes that would later drive the next bull market 18 months later.
Looking back on all of them, I would say that no Consensus has felt as weighty as the one we will kick off next Wednesday at the Austin (Texas) Convention Center.
As with 2019, trading losses, along with slimmed-down marketing and travel budgets, will ensure a somewhat smaller turnout than last year, which drew a record 20,000 attendees from more than 130 countries. (This year’s final tally won’t be known for a few days, but we know Consensus 2023 will still register as the second-largest in-person turnout in the conference’s history.)
What makes this one so important is not attendance per se, it’s the topics that will be discussed. Right now, there’s a confluence of seemingly disjointed forces that, combined, put crypto – with all its ups, downs, weighty issues and silly sideshows – into an important place in the global discourse around the future of money and digital citizenship.
Sure, the FTX debacle and crypto winter have soured mainstream opinion around this industry and, it seems, contributed to another major talking point of this conference: the U.S. “war on crypto.” But alongside that unprecedented regulatory crackdown, there’s also the background promise and anxiety stoked by the rapid encroachment of artificial intelligence into the broader digital economy.
Meanwhile, there’s the quiet but progressive engagement of traditional finance (TradFi) with digital asset technology – come hear Franklin Templeton CEO Jenny Johnson talk about what her 74-year-old firm is doing with music royalties – and that, whether we like it or not, governments continue to build central bank digital currencies (which is creating some strange bedfellows between conservative and progressive opponents of them.)
A lot rides on what happens in the policy and technical development front over the next few months and years. So, it’s important that such a wide array of people will gather in Austin to discuss such matters – developers from all the biggest protocols, regulators and politicians from inside and outside the U.S., academics, investment professionals, retail investors, venture capitalists, institutional investors, creators, marketing professionals and everyone in between.
This year, we’re taking advantage of the Consensus audience’s cross-sectional representation to bring stakeholders from different perspectives together to hash out their differences and try to collectively resolve some of crypto’s thorniest challenges, the results of which will be part of our inaugural Consensus @ Consensus report.
But while I’m excited for the in-depth, forward-looking conversations in those workshops and, more publicly, on eight different stages, programming this event has brought home the challenges in dealing with a technology that fosters such a wide range of opinions and emotions. People from a number of government agencies, financial institutions and mainstream consulting firms withdrew their previously agreed-upon speaking assignments in response to pressure from their internal public relations officers. This reluctance, it seems, reflects concerns about the image associated with this technology. (Note: A certain chairman of a certain securities regulatory commission turned down his third invitation in three years to speak at Consensus.)
What bothers me about this is that if one side of the debate is absent, they cede ground to the extremists on the other side. Not turning up is the best way for those who want a more regulated industry to allow the “crypto bros” to dominate the conversation. A more intensified echo chamber is hardly what we need. Now is the time for people to come together and address their differences, to advance the global conversation around this technology. It’s not the time to hide under a rock.
The good news is that, thanks to the engagement from regulators and businesses in non-U.S. jurisdictions, Consensus 2023 definitely will not feel like an echo chamber. In a number of sessions we’ll be highlighting the regulatory approaches and industry developments in Japan, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the U.K. Bermuda, the Bahamas, South Korea, Switzerland and other countries, as well as from the International Monetary Fund. The outside world is engaging with crypto, even if the U.S. government establishment is showing it the hand. (As an aside, while we’re delighted to welcome back Senator Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Rep. Patrick McHenry to the stage, it would have been nice to balance them with Democrats.)
At this pivotal moment, when regulation could drive innovation around one of the most important technologies of the century either into the shadows or toward people, companies and governments who can harness it and engineer systemic change, it is important that people are free to speak their mind. We need open, reasoned debate, not shrill fearmongering or demonizing. That’s what we plan to do in Austin. I hope to see you there.