The posh town of Davos, in Switzerland, has become synonymous with the World Economic Forum, the annual meet up of the world’s most powerful businessman and politicians. It’s been the place where deals have been brokered between warring nations (Israel and Palestine),economic blocks (Eurozone crisis of 2012) and some of the world’s wealthiest people have partied like there’s no tomorrow. So it seems like the perfect place for blockchain’s great and good to be rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty. Mark Turrell, a tech entrepreneur and founder of unDavos, a networking initiative for the conference’s 3,000-odd attendees, sent this dispatch documenting the industry that’s sprung up on the sidelines; the debauchery, but also the demise of crypto in the eyes of the world’s elite.
On my way back from the Piano Bar—Hotel Europe’s famed Davos haunt—at around four this morning, a friend said: “Hey, I’ve got a person who needs a bed." Sure, I said, and all of a sudden she had doubled, and then there were two.
Fast forward a few hours and this was the scene in my apartment: in the hall, a senior vice president of a major corporation was waiting for her turn in the shower. In the main room, there were four mattresses on the floor (altogether I’d bought fourteen as I knew people would be looking for places to sleep). Two girls were on one of the mattresses and everyone else was in the kitchen—chatting about last night’s TPG party [TPG is a UK engineering company].
I got to sleep at five and woke at seven. This is my third day living at this pace and it’s only Thursday. Thursday’s usually the big day, with major events happening.
Davos is a world of serendipity, where connections happen a thousand times an hour. I know someone who came to Davos hoping to do a deal with Unilever. On the last day, she managed to get an invite to the legendary Shabbat dinner [which always draws the world’s most influential stars in politics and business]. And who was she sitting next to? The chief-executive of Unilever. That’s what I would call ‘classic Davos.’ I’ve had many moments like this, too.
A masked Mark Turrell with Pia Poppenreiter, co-founder of dating app Ohlala. IMAGE: Mark Turrell
In 2008, I met a guy from Zimbabwe at Davos and he asked me to come up with a plan to stop Robert Mugabe stealing the 2008 election. I invented crowdsourced election monitoring—1,000 people with camera phones taking pictures of their local results—and that pretty much stopped a dictator stealing an election.
I’ve done Davos every year since 2008. Before unDavos, it was really boring. It was all suits. But the parties were pretty outrageous—people dancing like crazy at the Piano Bar—which is technically called the Tonic Bar, but everyone calls it the Piano Bar. Go figure.
What unDavos has done is to create a way for people like me, and heads of big crypto projects to get into this secret, elite world.
Crypto on ice
I helped organize the One World Blockchain Forum here last year and I was one of the speakers. I’d done some advisory work on crypto projects and became very interested in security tokens because I have a background in initial public offerings, so it seemed like a natural fit. Before 2018, these crypto people weren't anywhere to be seen. But when they arrived, boy they made an impact. Last year, they took over a quarter of the town. What’s happened now, though, is that crypto is almost not mentioned at all, or mentioned with an apology. Let me tell you why.
Last year at Davos, there was a thing called CryptoHQ. It was a shit show. At one point, they used the World Economic Forum logo in a promotion, and the WEF made them persona non grata.
You had stupid amounts of money being thrown around. Davos venues charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for parties and the crypto people partied hard, hard, hard. Many of them planned big parties this year but the ether in their bank accounts had disappeared or diminished. A lot of people who were planning big parties at Davos this year couldn’t afford it.
All the people who were pushy and ballsy, this year they’ve all disappeared. But what I do like about it is that it’s brought a younger generation to Davos. And they’ll be back next year or the year after that. Right now people are feeling pretty smug about laughing at them last year.
What talks we did have this year were about STOs, or security token offerings, but there's no consensus. Everybody’s got a different view. From my perspective, this means that STOs can’t take off this year—if 30 different experts come up with 30 different plans, we’re not there yet.
In Davos, you’re speaking to industry experts, and the blockchain world hasn’t quite got to this level of maturity. It’s still in this ‘I talk, I disrupt, I give you my pitch’ groove, and everyone goes: ‘That’s amazing! You’re tokenizing tokens to do a token sale—that’s phenomenal!’ But that's about as far as it goes. I saw a bunch of guys speaking to a shipping magnate about disrupting shipping and the magnate said, “I get the transparency but, of course, we’re not going to use you, because we don’t need you.”
That whole, “if it’s blockchain, it must be good”—that hype has not rubbed off on Davos. They tried. I would say they gave it their best damn shot last year.
Getting ready to fly home. IMAGE: Mark Turrell
I was on a panel session today about water. There was a woman from BioCarbon—a drone company based in Oxford, England, that autonomously plants trees and plants. Other panelists were working on rainmaking technology, mining and private equity. Within 45 minutes we’d cooked up a business plan to buy land in Kenya, make rain, and use the drones to make it fertile faster, working with local people.
I think crypto’s problem was it didn’t realize how closely it was tied to the world economy. In reality, it wasn’t this massively distributed system, it was largely controlled by oligarchs, just like the real world economy, and that means these assets are highly manipulable and you still have this regulatory blind spot that can be exploited.
Many of the companies that raised money in the boom years didn’t convert their crypto into fiat which means that their war chest of $40 million is now worth maybe four and they’ve already spent three on lawyers. It’ll take at least two years for crypto to recover from that—it’s a two-year hangover.
What’s interesting for me is that, here, you have the private bankers, the hedge funds and crypto funds sharing their views on the crypto market. There is huge hope for a flat crypto market for the next three months, in real-world terms that means it shouldn’t vary by really go up more than half a percent.
The reality is that a lot of people who, in 2011, were bitcoin holders have decided to cash out. The buyers were largely insurance companies and banks. So a lot of traditional investors took the opportunity to cash in, which, in the long term, should be a good thing.
One of the most fascinating debates was around "is bitcoin going to be digital gold; is it going to function as a currency?” The people with the market data have been saying “there is no correlation, it’s not gold. It doesn’t correlate with the gold market because it fluctuates too much.”
There’s a hope that if there is a global meltdown, people will embrace crypto, but many in Davos aren’t holding out much hope. Davos can raise awareness of a new thing dramatically. Now, it looks like the froth has left crypto and gone to cannabis. In Switzerland, it’s illegal, so you’re not going to see CEOs lighting a spliff just yet. But it means the fire has gone out on crypto, for now.