Not All Crypto Nations Are Created Equal
The past year have seen global competition among so-called blockchain hubs heat up considerably.
Top crypto exchange Binance made a move to Malta. Gibraltar has a stock exchange that offers crypto trading. Lichtenstein has its own dedicated blockchain law.
All of this just in Central/Western Europe - not to mention Wyoming, Singapore, Ireland (dubbed “Crypto Coast”) and other budding hubs in Asia and North America. Given the explosion of places vying to build a “home for blockchain,” it might seem like Switzerland has fallen off the pace and is losing out, especially to its neighbours in Europe.
True enough, the stubbornness of Swiss banks who have been reluctant to serve crypto companies with bank accounts has not been helpful; neither has the fallout from Tezos’s troubles. And if you were to judge simply by the volume of ICOs conducted in the country, you could find more reason to believe it. The ICO report recently published by PwC and the Crypto Valley Association shows Switzerland slipping down the rankings of top ICO magnets - despite the continued success of some of Crypto Valley’s older and more established players.
But there is one simple reason that places like Malta, Gibraltar and Lichtenstein are still at a disadvantage, despite their hard charge to become the go-to place for blockchain.
Educational infrastructure and systems are not sexy topics, nor do they figure into the first line of discussion when it comes to peering into the decentralised future. But it is an essential element that cannot and should not be ignored.
Case in point - the growth of Silicon Valley was aided and abetted by the close proximity of Stanford University, not to mention a host of other top schools in the state of California. Yes, the US tech scene has seen a fair number of stars emerge from the ranks of college dropouts, but few if any of the tech giants of today would have scaled very well without a steady stream of qualified and educated employees.
Naysayers might point out that blockchain companies, perhaps more than most, are decentralized and don’t care about college-educated developers. Relying on cookie-cutter, diploma-bearing programmers to build your business would seem to go against the very ethos of the anti-systemic, cypherpunk crypto philosophy.
But the simple fact remains that bringing blockchain mainstream requires, among other things, a critical mass of men and women to build things. And those men and women have to learn how to do that - somehow, someway.
A vast majority of the work driving the crypto world today didn’t grow up in a university lab, but rather among a community of sharp minds. But that isn’t to say that they don’t owe a debt to the work of researchers and cryptographers from institutes of higher education.
Perhaps even beyond the simple mathematics of the increased demand for a crypto workforce, this is a major argument for recognizing the value of university innovation labs: working and developing in a college environment does not bring nearly as much pressure as what comes within traditional startups.
University teams don’t necessarily have to bring a product to market. They don’t have VCs breathing down their necks. They can work and experiment in good conditions and even pivot to explore new possibilities as they emerge.
The same cannot be said even of corporate innovation teams.
So what does this mean for blockchain nations? The ones without access to a strong future workforce will not survive long term.
The ace up the Swiss sleeve, then, is a world-class educational system that has already begun to educate blockchain engineers and incubate startups of their own. There is the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) with renowned cryptographer Arjen Lenstra. ETH Zurich has produced several spin-offs including ShiftDevices (Digital BitBox hardware wallets), ChainSecurity (automated smart contract auditing and security), Validity Labs (blockchain development services).
Lucerne’s University of Applied Sciences (HSLU), a founding member of the Crypto Valley Association, recently hosted the world’s first IEEE-accredited conference on blockchain technology. It also helped develop the blockchain-based e-voting solution that was trialed in Zug earlier this month.
Against this backdrop, the future for other aspiring blockchain nations takes on a different perspective. Places like Malta, Gibraltar or Lichtenstein cannot keep up. Talent may be attracted to these various locations with the initial re-location of a company, but growing to scale is a different story.
That’s where education can help fill the gap - and where Switzerland can prosper.
There is another aspect as well. Educating about blockchain means not only grooming future engineers. It also means opening the eyes of those who still don’t understand the technology - and therefore oppose it.
Here the Swiss attitude of respect and pride in their university system plays an important role. In other words, the thinking goes: if it can be taught at university, it must be okay. In this respect, the link between education, government and public opinion is very close and may prove to be the differentiator between Switzerland and places with an equally impressive university system, but less respect for it. (Think United States…)
With a move towards institutional acceptance of crypto assets and a handful of companies aiming to receive FINMA certification as full-fledged crypto banks, a new crop of university-educated believers in the potential of digital money and cryptographic-enabled systems may help create the fusion between Switzerland’s old and new world of banking.
It is, perhaps, no surprise that (now former) Swiss Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann, the same who first called for a “Crypto Nation” back in January of last year is not only Minister of Economy, but also Education.
After all, the two go hand in hand.