Feature: How to get ahead in the crypto race

Gaining favour in the court of public opinion is the key to Scotland unlocking its potential as a “crypto ready” society, writes industry observer Mark Thomson.

The technology behind Bitcoin can transform trade, government and healthcare, says Thomson. Picture: Getty Images

The results of a national survey commissioned by the Financial Conduct Authority into public awareness and perceptions of crypto currencies last month concluded that 73 per cent of people in Britain were unable to accurately identify or describe a crypto currency. In Scotland the figure was 80 per cent, placing us second from the bottom in UK wide awareness.

The poll follows a report published in October by the Crypto Assets Task Force, set up to assess the risks and potential benefits of crypto assets and distributed ledger technologies (DLT) and stating the government’s intentions to be “the world’s most innovative economy”.

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The UK is not alone in this. In January, Dubai announced plans to be the world’s first crypto city by 2025. Bahrain, Switzerland and the Isle of Man have all expressed similar ambitions; and in September the prime minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, told the United Nations the country had “launched as the blockchain island, being the first jurisdiction worldwide to regulate this new technology that previously existed in a vacuum”.

The crypto race is on. But the enormous complexities of establishing the infrastructure for countries to be “crypto-ready” and the legislation needed to either adapt existing legislative frameworks or create new ones is a burdensome one.

It would not be an exaggeration to say this requires a paradigm shift in thinking at every level of society.

A report submitted to the House of Commons Treasury Committee in April last year and 103-page report to the European Parliament in July illustrate the challenges: “Crypto currencies and blockchain are a monstrous topic.”

These reports are reasoned and measured, written by academics, economists and scientists with a sound understanding of the technology and its applications. The length and depth of the reports is telling. The task of putting politicians and committees on a solid footing in the background, history and applications of crypto currency and blockchain technology is daunting, and this before they can even begin the legislative process itself.

It’s perhaps not surprising, given the enormous knowledge gap between those preparing the reports and those charged with legislating, that the general public is at sea when it comes to understanding the topic.

Now that the smoke is beginning to clear from the crypto bubble perhaps some of the more important implications of this technology can be considered. And they are important, not just for the UK but for Scotland, where we face the uncertainties of Brexit and an ongoing debate on independence in addition to what every country in the world is currently facing: how to streamline and future proof our economies and societies for the seismic changes occurring in technology.

It’s important that we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted by the noise and hype surrounding crypto currency. Scotland has one of the most vibrant and fastest growing tech hubs in the UK. And while DLT has featured in the fintech sector for a while, there are other equally valuable applications for this technology in development which could have important implications for trade, government, healthcare and even the democratic process. The Distributed Ledger Technologies in Public Services report by The Scottish Government is evidence of firm national commitment to DLT and a competitive vision for the future.

Infrastructure and legislation are necessary for fruitful partnerships between the public and private sector and crucial to us being able to compete on a crowded world stage, but the success of these things will depend in no small measure upon public awareness and support, leading to meaningful and informed debates on the economic and social implications for us all.

Just as the artificial intelligence debate is complicated by public perceptions shaped by science fiction and dystopian nightmares, so the crypto space is in danger of being defined by scams designed to dupe a gullible public. It’s worth remembering that Bitcoin, the original crypto currency, was never intended as a “get rich quick scheme” or, more politely, “investment asset”, but a way of making peer to peer financial transactions without the involvement of an intermediary.

And while the scammers continue to scam, as ever they shall, the vital social aspect to this technology remains alive and well, if a little subdued by the noise from elsewhere. When the crypto bubble was at its height in December 2017 and currencies were soaring to unprecedented heights, Ethereum platform developer Vitalik Buterin posted a challenge to blockchain developers on Twitter: “How many unbanked people have we banked? How much censorship-resistant commerce for the common people have we enabled?… Not enough.” Food for thought.