How to explain ‘new’ things like bitcoin …

Let’s assume for a moment around year 1860 you are horse rider working for the Pony Express. You and your colleagues are doing, on a daily basis, a fantastic job delivering messages between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts ( it takes approximately 10 days). During a ride you start to see placement of wires on poles. You try to understand and to explain to your partner of this. What would you say? “ they are building a continental fence high up in the air” or at some point you understand some aspects of what this new thing does. At the moment of realisation would you still be convinced that only people on horses working for solid companies can reliably deliver messages over such a long distance. Eventually working in this paradigm will no longer be valid as you notice the decrease in demand for horses and riders.

Now let’s switch back to crypto currencies with Bitcoin as the prominent example and have a look at some of the arguments discussed on various media these days. It is very difficult to explain cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, with a simple comparison to something else.

“Bitcoin has no value” – this is somehow the wrong discussion. Most currencies don’t have one – fiat currencies have declared value by authorities and maintain it as long as people trust the system. The latin word ‘fiat’ simply means “it shall be’ – an authority declares something to be a currency. Bitcoin was created in the last financial crisis. The genesis block contains the message “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks”. It is an attempt to create a decentral form of money where no central authorities have an influence. So the key question is not the ‘value’ – it is about how trust is built. What’s better – the declaration of an authority or the community?

“Bitcoin is a currency” – sounds reasonable as we all deal with one or more currencies each day and as Bitcoin started to become an aspect in our daily life. But what is a currency? It turns out that currency definitions like the one on Investopedia are not so helpful.

“Currency is a generally accepted form of money, including coins and paper notes, which is issued by a government and circulated within an economy. Used as a medium of exchange for goods and services, currency is the basis for trade. ”

If this definition is true, then Bitcoin is not a currency as it is not issued by a governmental authority. Also, the definition of money is linked to a government. Hence Bitcoin is also not money, if the definitions are considered to be valid.

“Bitcoin is not a medium of exchange” – as transaction costs and volatility are high and making small transactions unattractive to mine. Although Bitcoin is currently not an option for small amounts but could well be used for large ones.

“Bitcoin is made of thin air” – on the basis that there is no underlying physical resource. But what does this mean? Bitcoin is itself a resource on a strict mathematical base. It is not created out of thin air – its creation is the result of a well-defined and completely transparent algorithm which we all can verify and decide to trust or not to trust. Comparing this to ‘fiat currencies’  do you know how ‘fiat currencies’ are created? Do you know who decides to increase the amount of currency or to adjust the value of one against another currency? Is this done in a transparent way?

“Bitcoin is fraud” – what is the basis and evidence of such statement?. Looking at the original whitepaper of Satoshi Nakamoto this is simply wrong. Sure, there are fraudulent use cases, but this is also the case with all other currencies or assets. It turns out that Bitcoin is not really a good medium to be used e.g. in ransomware. All transactions in Bitcoin are publicly observable – we do not know the individual owning an address but that does not hinder to monitor target addresses and intervene at exchanges when they are used. In other words – using Bitcoin always leaves traces while using e.g. cash does not.

“Bitcoin needs regulation” – sounds also great as rules are essential to create trust. A system which is weak needs a lot of surrounding rules and interventions while there are systems which contain the rules transparently in their core. Bitcoin itself is regulated by the maths embedded in the system itself but not by the traditional financial services regulators or national banks. What authorities can and should do, is to think about the exchange of Bitcoin against the fiat currency they oversee and the implications.

“Bitcoin is the mother of pyramids” – sounds also somehow true as the ones who bought Bitcoins early now profit from those who come late. But what is a Pyramid Scheme?

“A pyramid scheme (commonly known as pyramid scams) is a business model that recruits members via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme, rather than supplying investments or sale of products or services. As recruiting multiplies, recruiting becomes quickly impossible, and most members are unable to profit; as such, pyramid schemes are unsustainable and often illegal.”

At least I’m not aware somebody recruits members in a multiplier scheme. And anybody can decide at any time to get buy or sell Bitcoins. Hence the comparison seems also to be misleading.

“Bitcoin is a bubble” – looking at the price evolution is 2017 suggests that this could be a bubble. But what is a bubble?

“A bubble is an economic cycle characterized by rapid escalation of asset prices followed by a contraction. It is created by a surge in asset prices unwarranted by the fundamentals of the asset and driven by exuberant market behavior. When no more investors are willing to buy at the elevated price, a massive selloff occurs, causing the bubble to deflate.”

Well, it is most likely some sort of a bubble – there will be price corrections and at some point in time Bitcoins will be super-seeded by a technology eliminating its constraints in terms of fairness, transaction rate and energy consumption.

“Bitcoin uses enormous amounts of energy” – this seems to be one of the concerns people love to make comparisons and also promote the idea that more transactions results in more energy consumption. Yes, it uses a lot of energy but this energy is what makes the network safe in the current proof of work- mining. An attacker would need to invest a substantial amount of these resources to destabilize the bitcoin network. The amount of energy used does however not correlate with the number transactions processed.

“Bitcoin is the new gold” – this seems to sound right when thinking about mining Bitcoins. There are the miners who produce gold and the limited supply makes gold valuable. The amount of natural gold on the planet is limited like the total amount of Bitcoins. But astro mining will change this for gold not too far in the future – experts talk about 20 years from now. Bitcoin’s mathematical foundation stays.

These points are properly summed up in Steve Wozniak’s statement “Bitcoin is mathematical. I am a mathematician. There are only 21 million. It is more legitimate than other systems”.

The following is a pretty good description:

  • It says that it is a limited resource currently slowly increasing day by day peaking at 21 million. So far, all resources which are limited and of interest, increased in value. While Bitcoin was rather unknown even 2 years ago it is now a hot topic in all media with people making harsh statements primarily defending their own interests.
  • Steve also calls it a system – there is neither a government nor a company with management nor an individual running Bitcoin. The system is very cleverly built – it is an amalgamation of many disciplines and was so far self-balancing gravitating towards a stable state where all the participants jointly benefit.

Maybe we add the following characteristics

  • The system is transparent – everybody can observe all transactions.
  • The system is democratic – everybody can use it or become a miner.
  • The system is self-balancing – no government or company decides its direction
  • The system is energy inefficient – a result of the proof of work mining approach
  • The system is not completely fair –  miners can prefer juicy transactions
  • The system is open – all technology is freely available

A hyperconnected digital economy needs inherently digital media of exchange. Bitcoin is most likely the first step into such a direction. It’s ten years history demonstrates that such a system is possible and triggered a whole new set of echnology innovations. Crypto currencies represent a fundamental upgrade to the economic systems of the world. Once they have matured and are integrated into the mesh economy, the world will look very, very different.

Links:

Ubiquitous Computing

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The term is not at all a new trend or technology. Previously known as pervasive computing where due to technological advancement and cost feasibility the trend of embedding computational capabilities into everyday objects. This makes them effective in communication as they are network interconnected and performing activities of the end users without a centralised system.

Ubiquitous computing integrates via different devices, industries, environments, applications (e.g. wearable devices, appliances, fleet management, sensors). The goal of it is to make devices “smart” in the form of creating a sensor network capable of collecting, processing and sending data via the context and activity that it is under.

We had seen first phases of such capability involving wireless communication and networking technologies, mobile devices, and RFID tags. With the exponential advancement in internet capabilities, usage of voice recognition and artificial intelligence, the growth and adoption of embedding ubiquitous computing significantly increases now often associated and known to be the internet of things (IOT)

Gartner predicts approximately 8 billion connected objects to be use by the end of 2017 and it appears to be growing. In order to cope with the growth of IOT a heavy incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) fueled autonomy will be required. An AI-driven era of IOT becomes the key building block to herald an increasingly seamless experience and hyperconnectivity as users and their digital counterparts concurrently transpose from one medium/device to another, between multiple environments, the physical and digital ecosystem.

Self Sovereign Identity – Approaches

We think that Self Sovereign Digital Identity is one of the key elements in the shift towards a distributed decentralized financial system (see also FINthinker’s Predictions for 2018). Below are examples of organizations which engage on this topic each with a different approach:

There are more … comments  with links welcome.

Never fail to fail

Nobody wants to fail. We all want to be sucessful. Many organizations adopt a performance culture and do not tolerate failure – hence everything must become a success. This leads to several challenges:
  • ambitious goals and objectives suddenly become baby steps
  • toxic intelligence is applied to match KPI’s while the problems remains untouched
  • the goals are adjusted close to delivery time
  • new things are only tried when it’s clear that they work out
  • marketing plays used to turn failure into success
Pseudo success quickly becomes a part of the organizational cultural and triggers a spiral of secondary problems including:
  • an increasing complacency
  • wasted investments become the justification for future ones
  • loss of innovation power and creativity
  • demotivating of those trying to solve the root problems
The key issue is however that an organization which falls into this trap of pseudo success starts to operate in a self made pseudo success bubble. Each additional pseudo success starts to build on an already weak foundation making it harder to recognize failure and return back on track.
Please note that this is not a call to end nor a reason to quickly give up, but it is one to accept and learn from failures. Accepting failure is the basis for a fail forward strategy which is the only way to success. Be happy when you and the organization have found an approach which does not work.
At the point when failure is clear it’s the best to accept, learn from it and move on. Be creative –  try different things or the same thing in a different way. Just never fail to fail.

Banking Today

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The word bank immediately depicts the picture of queuing in branches, limited quality products, and legacy processes ( e.g. time to process transfer or payments, etc…). The list goes on and on whether it is overdraft charges, processing/ service fees, overseas call centre. Although in the past, prior to the digital revolution, communication and processing were performed physically and was an important valued service appreciated by its consumers (Change is inevitable, Importance of a brand’s digital behaviour). However in the digital age, this will change with the introduction of financial capabilities not through new capabilities from existing incumbent banks but by new players outside the financial sector.

What will these players offer? Will they offer radically different products, new approach(s) to customer service and radically different ways of integrating to the customer’s ecosystem offering customers genuine and value added financial services? Or will these new ventures, like many of our existing banks, simply pay lip-service to such ideas?

What would we expect these new ventures to provide? To say the least the following:

  1. Fewer but relevant and value-based products base on the customer’s preferences. Keep it simple, make it fun, empower the customer.
  2. Financial services anywhere anytime (Omni-digital). Ubiquitous and available when we need any forms of financial services through the customer’s ecosystem. Services that interstate with their connected life.
  3. Personalized services and recognition. Knowing the customer personally. Listening to the customer
  4. QR code a standard for payments where payments happens instantly with limited to no infrastructure required
  5. Work the way customers work. Be where they are, be there all hours, respond now.
  6. Be the kind of financial services that I want to work with: be involved.
  7. Rate and fee sensitive/ free
  8. Be the overall financial caretaker. True advisory relationship.

What are your expected capabilities?

Giving direction …

The world continously evolves and changing exponentially (see Change is inevitable ….). Not long ago the pace in companies was much slower. Propagation of information took time and the production of goods was typically labor intensive. The main challenge was organizing processes and workforce efficiently towards maximal outcome. These mechanisms which used to work well in the industrial age increasingly fail to produce beneficial effect in the information age.

Today’s environment routine work is automated and commoditised whereas engagement and creativity have become major assets of organizations. Great organizations have a shared goal, a state they want to reach. This reason d’etre has become more important than ever before. The vision is the mechanism to create a pull into one direction. A practical guide for creating plans, setting goals and objectives, making decisions, and coordinating and evaluating the work on any project, large or small. It is the source for motivation within the organization.

A vision captures clear and inspirational long-term desired change(s) resulting from an organization or program’s work. The vision is important – it expresses why the organization is required and provides guidance and direction to all who engage.

  • Alzheimer’s Association: A world without Alzheimer’s

It is obvious that the people engage here want to contribute to a world free of Alzheimer. They can do this however as they want as the vision does not say what has to be done. Everybody can contribute with his skills and abilities. People will have different perceptions on the importance of this organization,  but nobody will be against this vision.

You may now say that this is just a simple and straight forward special case. Indeed – it should all start with a ‘why?’ which leads to people sharing the idea forming an organization. The vision is what makes this organization special and different from others.

Below is a list of vision statements of some other organizations

  • We create the technology to connect the world
  • We believe in what people make possible
  • Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  • To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online

You engage and be part of only if you agree with the vision . Shaping a vision is not easy – it requires creativity, setting standards and enforcing clear decisions. People may like it, dislike it or find it irrelevant.

Many incumbent companies in the financial sector started with a clear vision. Some of these goals were reached and the companies just continued to do what they are doing. They just repeat what they have done in a better and more efficient way. Without having a vision it becomes difficult to be innovative and cost efficiency starts to become the main goal.

As a little exercise look at the web pages from incumbent organizations in the financial services industry and try to find their vision statement. It’s interesting that only a subset of the companies have one.

  • XYZ’s vision is to be recognized as a leading manufacturer of protective materials for high reliability applications throughout the world.
  • XYZ’s main commitment is to provide its customers with the best solutions possible
These two examples sound really trivial and the vision can be used for most types of organizations. Or is there a company who does not want to be reliable or provide the best solutions? This lack of purpose is dangerous – as there are many organizations with the same aim there is no evident reason, why this specific one is really required.

This lack of a vision is also dangerous as the new organizations all have vision – typically not talking about themselves but about the state they want to reach.

  • We believe everyone should be able to enjoy a healthy financial life.
  • We’re building this bank for you. We’ll learn and adapt to you, celebrating your individuality in every way.
  • By solving your problems, treating you fairly and being totally transparent, we believe that we can make banking better.

Compare the examples – which one is more appealing? Where would you like to engage as an employee or become a client? The incumbents benefit from their history as people are quite slow in changing their habits. But “time to change” is not the factor we should rely on in this “game” as when change happens it will be instantaneous.

Many incumbents relax on the fact that they are today systemic relevant – but the system could change and the relevance vanish with it. It feels much better to have a clear vision of the future than to rely on the past.

So it’s time for many incumbent organizations in financial services to hit refresh …