Why a global futurist holds CTSI
An interview with Rohit Talwar on navigating to the next horizon
When big, visionary minds believe in the Cartesi project, it’s worth an interview. Global futurist and award-winning keynote speaker Rohit Talwar is co-author of many books such as Designing Your Future, The Future of Business, A Very Human Future, Aftershocks and Opportunities I. He’s also been a CTSI holder since May 2021. I had the pleasure to talk to him about CTSI, the new blockchain-based economy, and of course, his new book Aftershocks and Opportunities 2: Navigating the Next Horizon. We took the time for it. No cutting corners when talking about the future ahead. Prepare for a visionary long read!
In your book, you describe the Evolution of the Crypto Economy and how the cryptocurrency ecosystem is evolving very rapidly. This growth reflects the expanding range of possible uses of blockchains and cryptocurrencies — from stores of value and digital collectibles to applications with specific DeFi functionality. With so many players and coins in the ecosystem today, why did you choose to buy and hold CTSI?
I own a variety of relatively small stakes in projects I really believe in. The Cartesi project is doing exactly what needs to happen if we want to deliver a massive computational scale up in a secure manner with low transaction costs. The key to scaling up is the exponential expansion of the developer universe: bringing in the tech people who want to develop smart contract blockchain applications but don’t want to code in the core language Solidity. If we want to build the crypto economy at speed, then developers need to use the languages they already know, enabling them to become productive quickly. Rollups alone are not enough.
I think Cartesi is a great example of applications that will be a vital part of the future crypto ecosystem. Let me use an analogy: In the days of the gold rush, which we can compare to crypto, in a way, it was not enough for the miners to buy tools like pickaxes and sieves to dig for gold. They also needed food, bedrooms, and entertainment. While the gold miners came and went, these service providers were a constant. As a service that will be in constant demand, I see Cartesi as the ‘food and lodging’ for the blockchain ecosystem: an OS that welcomes mainstream tech developers to scale up and provide the speed and bandwidth, while bringing their own tools and knowledge. If developers know they will have a home and food in these crazy gold rush days, they will come, work, stay longer and help drive mass participation. Cartesi is, in a sense, a gateway to make blockchain sustainable in the long run. The OS to create the ecosystem that is needed, to reach that next horizon.
To reach that new horizon, we need to create the “network effect” in blockchain — where a product becomes more valuable as more people use it, with the potential for exponential growth as adoption rates accelerate.
Yes, the key to the adoption of cryptocurrencies — as with any major technology such as the internet — is the concept of “network effects” — -as defined by “Metcalfe’s Law” which says that a network’s value is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in the network. The adoption rate for cryptocurrencies is now roughly similar to where the Internet was in 1997. Many believe that the transition, from around 300 million users today, to one billion could be even faster than the 7.5 years it took the Internet to reach that milestone. Indeed, with the range of initiatives underway to make crypto participation easier, and its growing prominence in the public domain, there is a small chance that we could cross the billion-user threshold in 2022.
Following Bitcoin’s launch in 2009, we’ve seen growing awareness of the underlying blockchain technology — a concept that’s much older, having been introduced by researchers Stuart Haber and W Scott Stornetta in 1991. Until the launch of Bitcoin, blockchain was predominantly a great concept and wasn’t really commercialized. The first real proof of value was Bitcoin. In the early days of Bitcoin, many people talked about how it would just fuel and spike the dark economy, but soon, people started to think: hey, this development might be helpful to us. For one, to enable economic participation for even the poorest in society, and second as a technological solution to cut out the middleman and have more direct lines of exchange.
For many, the shift to mass-market adoption and widespread use of blockchain-based applications is the most exciting possibility, as it offers the potential to lift even the poorest of citizens out of poverty, transforming lives, and creating new prospects across the planet.
Let’s do a reality check on that last point later since you’re touching on some interesting thoughts in your book about this. But first, what is propelling blockchain adoption in your eyes and what’s holding it back?
Alongside the financial motivations for crypto adoption, there are clear business, technology, and market needs propelling blockchain adoption: 1. Cryptographically secure data; 2. Trust that we’re not going to change your data — we need and want data and transaction records to be immutable; and 3. Transparency. The market is asking for this, and blockchain provides it. Despite arguments to the contrary, currently, you cannot truly offer such functionality in a centralized system. Developers around the globe are constantly being challenged or invited to deliver on these three requirements, and increasingly blockchain is their answer. But, inertia is what’s holding it back, we need mass participation to fulfill these three market needs.
Businesses and governments are moving applications to blockchains at a very slow pace, although consumer adoption of blockchain-based applications is rising rapidly. We’re still far away from mass adoption at the moment. However, interest and action are growing rapidly. For example, the United Arab Emirates has embarked on a strategy to move the bulk of government activity to a blockchain platform.
Mass adoption is critical. Let me give an example. In the UK, Gorillas promises to deliver groceries, at retail prices, to your door by bike in 10 minutes through a user-friendly app. Gorillas (and other similar services) could not have grown so fast and gotten mass adoption if not for several factors: of course, the tech has to be innovative, reliable, and efficient — but that’s not enough. The mobile app needs a slick interface to make the user experience clean and simple. The electric bike is also a vital resource to enable rapid point-to-point travel with minimal traffic delays. Another interesting factor that helped was the pandemic which increased our reluctance to go to the grocery store and accelerated our adoption of virtual shopping. This shift also increased the existing trend of declining retail presence in many cities, with the result that there are empty double-fronted stores everywhere. For this 10-minute delivery promise, you cannot use traditional supermarkets to fulfill the orders; it takes too long to pick and pack. You have to have your own space, and that was all of a sudden available at a low cost.
All these factors combined enabled mass adoption of fast delivery of groceries services.
The challenge in crypto is how to achieve such mass adoption at speed. Digital literacy and the complexity of participation in many crypto activities are major barriers. In blockchain, most people don’t understand smart contracts. They don’t have a crypto wallet. They don’t want to dive deep to understand the blockchain space or join a DAO. It’s all too complicated and seen by many as something ‘for techno-geeks and insiders’. That barrier is the calling sign for the big guns to arrive: an opportunity for these near-monopolies in tech to flex their muscles and leverage their billion-plus user bases. My sense is that, despite the desire for the community to ‘go it alone,’ in driving network growth, it is going to take the involvement of these consumer-facing giants to open the door to mass adoption.
To understand how things might play out, it is interesting to look at the nature and role of monopolies. In technology markets, there are four key types of monopoly at play. The first and weakest in monopoly terms is innovation — the participants are the most widespread, with millions of creators designing and developing solutions. However, to succeed, they need the support of the other three, and that’s why 95–99% of tech ventures fail whatever the market. There are literally thousands of potential Bitcoin and Ethereum competitors that have disappeared without a trace. Social media is full of sad ‘if only’ tales from the creators of ‘game-changing’ alternatives to Amazon, Google, Uber, and Facebook — platforms whose names we no longer remember.
The second monopoly is around network growth and support. The consumer-facing tech behemoths have leveraged network effects to the maximum, securing user bases of one to three billion and rising. Their gateway role and familiar user interfaces could be critical to driving mass adoption and accelerating market adoption. Just look at what Facebook’s rebranding to ‘Meta’ has done to levels of metaverse interest, engagement, and investment.
The third monopoly is finance. This is still tightly controlled in the main — although token offerings in the unregulated crypto market have made it easier to access funding. However, it is still the case that the traditional providers of finance remain vital to the rapid development and scaling up of new ventures in the blockchain space.
The fourth monopoly is regulation. This is still largely in the hands of governments, global institutions, or the entities they deputize to perform this role. Regulators across the planet are almost genetically opposed to unregulated financial markets in general and to the rapid pace of evolution of the crypto economy. In practice, what we see is a very tight collaboration between the market, finance, and regulatory monopolies. They understand each other, have both documented and unspoken rules of engagement, and are well versed in the dance steps required to stay relevant and on the dance floor without kicking or treading too heavily on the toes of others. This comfort with the familiar tends to work against the outsiders trying to elbow their way in and innovate their way to a sustainable scale.
A combination of deliberate and inadvertent policies and actions of the market, finance, and regulatory monopolies tends to squeeze out the smaller players — with some takeovers and many outright failures. Those few innovators — such as Amazon and Google — that succeed in shaking and breaking the market to create space for themselves often to go on to become the next generation of monopoly players.
And they will open the door to centralization, which goes against what blockchain stands for.
I know that for many, blockchain is seen as a platform for economic and social revolution — with the potential also to facilitate new models of governance. To start and sustain a social revolution, the messaging has to be clear and simple. In the blockchain and crypto spheres, we are far from the kind of simple language that will attract the non-tech literate to participate in the revolution. We first need primary messaging that appeals to the widest possible market. Big tech is good at that; they’ve been through a lot of learning, and a number of cycles and shifts to reach the levels of mass adoption they have today.
Think about the ease of access to the platforms we take for granted today — whether we are eight or eighty. For instance, to use mobile phones, access a streaming service, or participate on a social media platform, yes, you need some tech literacy but it’s relatively low and interfaces are becoming ever simpler and more intuitive. The simpler it is to use it, the faster the adoption. With blockchain, if you want it to be accessible to the masses, many applications will need to work with the big tech companies to access their smart marketing, massive partner ecosystems, and ever-growing user networks. People find it simple to access their propositions. If big tech decides to fully embrace blockchain, the road to mass adoption is open. We may not like it, but for now, it may be expedient.
Is that fully decentralized? No. The masses don’t care about revolutionary goals; they’re not driven by decentralized ideology, or how clever your smart contracts are. To be honest, they don’t give a toss — most just want better financial returns and access to cool functionality. Of course, over time they may become converts to blockchain and decentralization once they see the value. If you want blockchain to become mainstream, you must accept that the revolution doesn’t play out the way you envisioned it. So to get to mass adoption, you may well have to give up a bit of decentralization, but in return, you give the people easier access — so simple and easy to use that my older sister gets involved and tells her friends about it.
Big tech will most likely create and own the interfaces to the blockchain applications. Today, they might not know or fully understand all the blockchain tech, but they do know how to leverage all the tech in the middle between their customers and your applications. They understand how crucial easy access is, and how to build and evolve simple, smart, and intuitive interfaces. That’s what blockchain needs.
In my job, I grapple with decentralization as well. To spread our decentralized message, we use centralized social media: Twitter, Facebook, Discord, etc. That’s why I’m now curating the best, decentralized media; we have to walk the talk.
You can’t perpetuate and expand a revolution from under the duvet or the family dining table. You know it, and you realize it, but I can assure you that many in the space have yet to accept it. Of course, you want to show that you’re walking the talk of the decentralized social revolution. However, this means leaving the comfort of your own bedroom, your home, and the centralized support of mom and dad’s ecosystem — where you pretty much understand how things work. Breaking away and buying into the revolution and supporting those decentralized social media channels is the equivalent of leaving home for the first time. You have to learn how things work in the new world. That takes energy and effort; you need to start from scratch, learn how to get heard, leverage the tools, and scale up your network there.
For the longer term, the act of embracing decentralized social media is important. However, for many, currently, it’s easier to just rely on the centralized mom and dad solutions to get the blockchain revolution started. Here, the hope is that gradually people migrate to decentralized social platforms. In the beginning, this is okay. You cannot start a revolution unless someone in the old order helps you and gets your story out there to help you onboard others to your particular blockchain solution. At some point, though, you need to get out of your parent’s basement.
To grow your business and the community, ultimately you and all the other decentralized blockchain applications will need to encourage your followers to use the decentralized equivalents to Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, Discord, YouTube, and Facebook. It’s doable: the centralized systems have grown like that from millions of users to billions. Giving the decentralized media a chance means you take action to increase the size of the overall blockchain pie and grow the decentralized ecosystem’s reach.
With big centralized players in blockchain as ‘mom & dad’, there will not be an overall ecosystem but more a patchwork of centralized ecosystems that, at best, work together every now and then.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing in the short to medium term, as long as it brings more people to blockchain. Developments in the current centralized world will help this process. A number of large global brands are starting to play in this space and have ambitious plans. For example, it is rumored that Disney has started to look at how they can tokenize every transaction in their ecosystem. The idea is that you would use the same Disney tokens to visit a theme park, buy merchandise at the park and at global outlets, and to purchase Disney products from other stores.
Over time, Disney’s global community might also be able to buy insurance, travel, groceries, and even their homes using Disney tokens — the bigger the network and the greater its purchasing power — the more attractive it becomes to these providers. Loyalty rewards could also be paid in tokens. As the cost of tokens rises in line with the prices of the underlying items being purchased, the value of tokens held could appreciate. Customers could be encouraged to advance purchase tokens to secure the price of future stays and hedge against inflation. At some future point, I can then decide whether to sell my tokens and take the profit or use them to buy Disney offerings. When such brand ecosystems start to take off, it could bring hundreds of millions of people worldwide to crypto.
The potential to scale up crypto adoption was one of the reasons why people were so excited when Facebook announced they were creating Libra / Diem. Since that’s now effectively off the table, their rebranding to Meta in pursuit of Metaverse dominance could help to bring the next billion users to crypto — although the solution might be centralized or a tightly controlled decentralized offering.
All of the tech titans like Amazon and Google are also building blockchain and crypto capabilities and looking at the commercial possibilities in this new economy. They are asking how it might affect the way we work, transact, interact, and play. How might it boost the overall economy, and what new domains and opportunities are opening up as we expand our possibility horizons? One of the big attractions for these sophisticated and highly capable technology players is that all of these first, second, and third-order ideas can be realized more rapidly and in a lower-cost way since we’ll be fully automating more and more of the activity.
In the longer term, through the growth of decentralized applications, ecosystems, and tokenization models, the structure of society could change quite dramatically, moving us away from centralized power, governance, and decision making. There will increasingly be interoperability of blockchains and platforms. It will be easier to move personas and assets between metaverses, all with their own internal economy. More and more people will do their trading inside the crypto economy. Get paid in crypto, and buy food, accommodation, insurance, and travel in crypto.
A proliferation of new ideas will also create previously unimaginable possibilities and opportunities across society. For instance, we can already join an insurance DAO like Teambrella, create our own insurance pool, and if no one in the pool has a claim, our initial premium might grow in value, so we could even make money on our insurance purchase. The financing of a new car for a business could also be transformed. The business can tokenize the vehicle, bringing in past and present employees, their families, and others as part owners. The car becomes a profit center, with the firm paying rent for its use and selling the data generated by the vehicle. The revenues and resale proceeds would then be shared amongst the token holders. We will see a massive range of such innovative ideas happening in these integrated ecosystems.
Will it all be decentralized? Again, I think not. In the example of the insurance DAO, some people may prefer it if a central provider does it for them. With savings, despite the massive potential annual percentage yields of 100% or more on offer through DeFi platforms, many people may be happy to lose 90% of the gains in return for a centralized bank doing all of the work and managing all the risks. Again, if you want people to join, you need to make it simple to come in. Even the mobile phone providers with their massive user networks could become potential partners for blockchain applications. People don’t care about the principles; they want to create and make money. We need to care about them and make it simple and speak their own native language. With blockchain, why is English the predominant language? That rules out a lot of people worldwide.
I agree and that’s why we have so many Ambassadors leading local communities in their own language. Let’s revert to the shift to mass market adoption and how it offers the potential to lift people out of poverty and transform lives and prospects across the planet. There are some exciting examples of people who make more money in Axie Infinity than in their daily jobs. Is that something we will see more often in the future, or do we need to do a reality check on this?
I think it’s good to do a reality check. Globally we have around 300 million-plus users, with over 73 million on Coinbase, which is great. But I can pretty much guarantee you that almost none of them is a farmer in a remote area in Egypt, or someone living in the slums of Mumbai. With blockchain, we’re still serving the more privileged. Blockchain has the potential to reach the farmer in Egypt, but we’re far away from that because we’re not designing and communicating with them in mind.
Yes, people are making money within Axie, which is great and is a good example of the earning opportunity in this new economy. Globally, many of the fastest-growing occupations in the coming years will be in the crypto space e.g. development for new ventures, existing corporates, and governments, or metaverse related activities — e.g. skin designers, play to earn contractors, virtual landscapers, building designers/developers, and the staff for corporate metaverse presences. An increasing number of physical world jobs in social media, marketing, product development, service, digital, and technology will have a metaverse element to them.
The crypto market will also evolve as its user numbers and market capitalization increase. This will lead to ever-growing interest from financial services institutions offering crypto investment and related services and from the wider corporate sector accepting crypto and holding it on their balance sheets. When this happens, will the market have the same volatility going forward with larger businesses participating? Firstly, I think people and businesses will hold on to their crypto assets longer in the hope of longer-term gains. The market itself will normalize, the arrival of these big investors could well dampen the ups and downs and smooth out the peaks over time.
Hopefully, we will see a virtuous circle with all of these larger players coming in, more regulation, easier onboarding and purchasing, and fewer fraudulent scams all helping to encourage individuals to participate. Let’s use an example of an average bike repair person. To encourage her to embrace crypto, we need to help her understand money, savings, and crypto and provide a regular flow of information that helps deepen her understanding and reduce her fears and uncertainties. We need to provide easily accessible content about assets such as coins, tokens. NFTs, and stablecoins. We also need to explain how to buy crypto, hold it, stake it, sell it, and to only invest what she can afford to lose. She cannot lose the food budget for the next month. We need to teach strategies to help her to start small and grow her holding by taking and trading the profits. Ultimately, the dream is that one day she might be making enough to have a choice of whether to live off her crypto earnings or continue being a bicycle repairer.
As a blockchain company with a token, you need to show this woman that you’re robust. She wants to know: can this company I put my money in survive in a bear market? I personally think 80–90% of current token-based ventures will disappear without a trace, wiped out in the normality of the market. So her concern is legit.
Let’s be realistic, though. Not everyone wants to be that financially and digitally literate or that involved in the management of their own finances — the levels of uncertainty can be too much for many who prefer a calmer existence! Many may still want to repair bicycles, sell insurance, put out fires, serve coffee, design cars, and teach our children. Whether simply investing or working in the crypto economy, there’s a level of commitment required.
When we think about working in crypto or metaverses, to be able to play to earn and create to earn, you need basic digital literacy. On top of that, to create skins or artifacts in a game, you need to have design skills. Or you need money to buy a plot in Decentraland. Since you may think that is now too pricey, you have to find the next new thing that is coming along and know how to buy into it early. To do so, you need to check social media channels like Telegram regularly to find out what’s next and you need to act quickly, preferably some months before the wider market. Playing to earn is even harder; you need gaming skills. Plus, you need to understand what you need to do to earn: What does it take to be good enough to make a living? Do you need to pull more people into the game and lead them to see the ads in the game? If I’m barely literate, how can I even begin to understand what I need to do?
Not all people are able or are motivated the same way. While I can see many new economic opportunities for people in the future with blockchain technology, there are many barriers to accessing them, and it will not magically solve all our problems at once. We have to recognize that we are not the first innovators on the planet and won’t be the last. History tells us that we don’t always have to have the best tech, but we do need to communicate what we have, be realistic about its benefits and limitations, and make it as easy to use as mass-market technologies such as our phone, our door key, or our toilet.
About Rohit Talwar
Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, award-winning keynote speaker, author, and CEO of Fast Future. His primary expertise lies in helping clients understand and shape the emerging future. He has a particular focus on how we can advance business, society, and individual lives by harnessing the power of new thinking, innovation, and disruptive developments such as blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, and human enhancement. He currently spends the bulk of his time helping clients around the world to understand and develop strategies for blockchain and the crypto economy.
Rohit is the co-author of Designing Your Future; The Future of Business; Beyond Genuine Stupidity — Ensuring AI Serves Humanity; The Future Reinvented — Reimagining Life, Society, and Business; A Very Human Future — Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World; The Opportunity at the Edge — Change, Challenge, and Transformation on the Path to 2025, and Aftershocks and Opportunities — Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future. His latest book is Aftershocks and Opportunities 2: Navigating the Next Horizon.
About Cartesi: Home to what’s next
Cartesi is the first OS on the blockchain, and their Layer-2 solution integrates Linux and standard programming environments to blockchain. This allows developers to code scalable smart contracts with rich software tools, libraries, and services they are used to.
Cartesi bridges the gap between mainstream software and blockchain, welcoming millions of new startups and their developers to blockchain by bringing Linux to blockchain applications. Cartesi combines a groundbreaking virtual machine, optimistic rollups, and side-chains to revolutionize the way developers create blockchain applications.
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Photos courtesy of Brett Jordan, Brian Mcgowan, Kai Wenzel and Dima Solomin.