Virginia Tech and Southwest Virginia are well-positioned to guide – and gain from – blockchain technology’s promising future.

That was one key take-away emerging from the first-ever Blacksburg Blockchain Symposium, “Promise and Peril of Disrupting the Trust Business,” held April 20 at the Lyric Theatre in downtown Blacksburg.

Hosted by Virginia Tech’s Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience, the symposium convened more than a dozen top technology entrepreneurs, economists, academics, and policymakers in a discussion of blockchain’s broader implications for the economy, society, and policy.

Symposium director David Bieri, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and an associate professor of economics in the College of Science, welcomed approximately 150 guests to the day-long event by describing it as a way to “curate a conversation” on blockchain, “a key technological development that is set to fundamentally transform central elements of our economic life.” Some 100 participants joined the event remotely as it was being webcast.

“It’s perhaps only a mild exaggeration to suggest that in regard to its disruptive potential, the blockchain is on par with the invention of electricity, the telegraph, the internal combustion engine, and perhaps even the Internet,” said Bieri. “Never before in capitalism’s remarkable 250-odd-year run did technological progress so instantaneously and comprehensively promise to challenge old institutions that underpin the very system itself. From property rights to global value chains and, of course, money and credit, the blockchain is challenging how we think about trust and authority in the context of economic governance. Thus, there’s an interesting need to address the economic, social, and political implications of this technology.”

In four panels, experts explored the economic, social, and political implications of blockchain.

Blockchain panelists on stage
In four panels, experts explored the economic, social, and political implications of blockchain.

Perhaps most famously used for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, blockchain is a digital, decentralized, distributed transaction ledger with many commercial, financial, and public sector applications. It offers unprecedented transparency and security – using decentralized networks to store and process data and log every transaction in a public ledger.

In the keynote address, Charles Clancy, director of the Hume Center for National Security and Technology and professor in Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering, outlined some of blockchain’s most promising applications in cybersecurity – including its potential to transform the way people manage their digital identities.

“Right now we rely heavily on a trusted third party to assert our identity,” Clancy said in his keynote address. “Google and Facebook are the biggest sources of identity that we have. Everyone’s increasingly nervous about Facebook, for example, being the thing that defines our identity. If there are new ways to define digital identity, then I think there are interesting applications in blockchain to address that.”

The symposium also highlighted the prominent role of Virginia Tech and Blacksburg in the blockchain revolution. The region is home to well-known innovators, entrepreneurs, and academic experts from all corners of the tech space. 

Charles Clancy, Blockchain Symposium keynote

Charles Clancy
Charles Clancy, director of Virginia Tech's Hume Center for National Security and Technology, gave the opening keynote address.

Manu Sporny, a 2001 Virginia Tech computer science graduate and founder of five Blacksburg-based tech startups, said blockchain brings “power to the individual held only now by companies.”

“You’re leasing your identity. If you have a Twitter or Facebook account, it can be taken away from you; it can be shut down,” he said. “We’d like to transition to something called self-sovereign identity. And it turns out blockchain technologies are fundamental for this transformation.”

Sporny – founder and CEO of Digital Bazaar – first helped businesses claim their identities on the web a decade ago, with the invention of technology that allowed search engines to easily identify business phone numbers, locations, and operating hours.

“That technology was invented in Blacksburg. In fact, it was invented about two blocks away from here,” Sporny told the audience. “Technology homegrown here in Blacksburg is now globally used on over 250 million websites.”  

A key challenge emerging from the discussion is the growing reality that technology is moving faster than the ability of regulatory groups to understand and respond to it. 

David Bieri

David Bieri
Symposium director David Bieri, welcomed approximately 150 in-person and 100 online guests to a discussion on the promise and perils of blockchain, “a key technological development that is set to fundamentally transform central elements of our economic life.”

Dan Larimer, a 2003 Virginia Tech computer science alumnus, chief technology officer of block.one, and founder of the blockchain-based companies BitShares and Steemit, said regulatory uncertainty threatens U.S. blockchain innovation,  prompting tech companies to go overseas seeking more receptive markets.

“Blockchain is so fundamental to the financial industry that you don’t want to be left behind or the entire economy will suffer,” he said. “That would be like missing out on the Internet because we were trying to figure out how to regulate it.”

Alumnus Peter Menegay, director of research and services at SynaptiCAD, concurred, “Cryptocurrency and blockchain know no borders. … Regulation in this space needs to be done at the global level, not the regional level. … What concerns me the most is how does this technology affect our standard of living, how does this affect the real economy that people live in every day?”

Through events like the Blockchain Symposium, Virginia Tech and the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience hope to enhance interdisciplinary debate and research emphasizing the university’s Data Analytics and Decisions Sciences and Integrated Security destination areas, and Policy Strategic Growth Area. The group aims to publish the first Global Forum Policy Brief on blockchain regulation and use the symposium as an ongoing annual event to spur new technological and economic applications.

Visit bburg-blockchain.io/ to view the recorded webcast. Visit globalforum.vt.edu for more information on the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience.