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.
The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), renowned as a place where business executives, government officials, entrepreneurs and NGO leaders convene to create positive change, is days away.
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?
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 and Sustainable World.”
Some of the broad questions to be asked: What does “stakeholder capitalism” mean? Is it tracking progress towards the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? How does technology fit in?
“With the world at such critical crossroads, this year we must develop a ‘Davos Manifesto 2020’ to reimagine the purpose and scorecards for companies and governments,” said Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman 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 the established elites?
Crypto Davos, four+ years in the making
Crypto pioneers set up shop with Davos side events four or five years ago. These were modest gatherings to discuss the future of cryptocurrencies. Very few elites knew what this was, or paid it much attention.
Just as bitcoin and ethereum began as organic grassroots initiatives, Crypto Davos grew mainly by group chats and word of mouth. However, by 2018, Crypto Davos reached peak excess, coinciding with the boom of ICOs. This was followed by muted numbers in 2019 with the bust, and now, in 2020, a mix of Crypto Davos stalwarts are returning alongside mainstream corporations 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 is dissipating over time.)
What happens at WEF’s official gathering is important, but most who have attended Davos previously know that “the Promenade” is a beehive of activity around cryptocurrencies, blockchain, AI, cybersecurity and other emerging technologies. Many crypto people who attend Davos never step foot inside the main event and do not hold a coveted “white badge.” Instead, they hang out on the Promenade and participate in a myriad of panels, networking events and meetings, mixed with late-night partying and bonding.
The Promenade blockchain events are in high demand and considered cutting edge, thereby attracting some high-profile leaders who might seem out of place under normal, stodgier circumstances. Seeing rock stars, actors, CEOs, billionaires, social-impact entrepreneurs and developers together is not unusual at Crypto Davos.
Where else do you see both Jamie Dimon and Jamie Oliver walking down the same block within meters of each other? Or Michael Douglas walking into an MIT-hosted lunch on AI and blockchain? (Seriously, that happened back in 2017.)
So why did a bunch of crypto people start coming to Davos in the first place? Switzerland’s crypto-friendly environment partially explains the attraction.
But the secret sauce of Davos is not just about discussing important ideas.
Once you make it to this normally sleepy town, you are jumbled together with 30,000 influential people on a few blocks of a “main street.” It makes for an intense and rewarding four days of networking and deal-making, which sets the tone for the rest of the year.
Crypto Davos, despite its outsider status, has influenced and changed the course of mainstream Davos.
Just look at 2020’s big thematic on “stakeholders in a cohesive and sustainable world,” which covers everything from economics to climate 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 at Davos have internal blockchain projects and/or are members of digital asset groups. Five years ago, the CEOs of these same corporations probably did not know blockchain existed.
Crypto Davos has profoundly influenced the interest and growth of digital assets and blockchain technology among some of the most elite institutions, governments and world leaders.
Not bad for a bunch of outsiders.
To the cynics and anti-establishment crowd, we debate every year why we pay exorbitant rates to put together an event at Davos. The high costs, occasionally not-so-subtle hostility from the mainstream, increasingly strict town council rules and the general logistics nightmare are enough to deter most.
However, we return, because our supporters love attending. Why? Because we have met some of the most awe-inspiring people at Davos, from rocket scientists to world leaders to humanitarians.
With a combination of bright, motivated people, ideas turn into action here: from investments to business deals to project launches. No matter how great the tech, we are humans who make connections by meeting each other, spending time with each other and, ultimately, collaborating with each other.
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 collaborate across geographies and disciplines.
Long live Crypto Davos (at least until the next better version comes along).