Who’s Curating the Show?

The art market highlights the problems with a decentralized world. It may ultimately mean that there is no one entity that dominates the scene, but principles of trust and community will result in awesome art creations.

There’s an allure to a decentralized world where the big tech companies no longer hold the power, where middlemen are shuffled off to oblivion, and where creators speak directly to their loyal communities. Utopian dreams are healthy parts of any economy. But they rarely turn out to be very realistic. Nowhere is the disconnect between the staid world of traditional power and the new world of tech savvy players starker than in the art world.

Digital art has been around for a long time, but because it could be freely copied and distributed with little oversight over ownership and rights, it was a tough way for starving artists to eke out a living. With the introduction of NFTs, and smart contracts that represent ownership, the art world figured it stumbled on the missing key, a way to use the medium to let artists sell their wares on the blockchain using cryptocurrency. The promise?  Reach more audiences, encode rights and special offerings inside the NFT, and have irrefutable proof of ownership.  (As a matter of fact, some artists are coding ongoing royalty payments into their works so that they get a piece of the action each time their art is bought, sold, or traded.

sail-o-bots #566 is selling now on OpenSea for approximately $4,500. It’s a limited series where each creation is unique but still causes many to question “what is art” in the metaverse.

For a moment it looked like a renaissance. Cryptopunks and NFTs like it launched in 2017, but the penultimate NFT years were 2020 and 2021. Depending on whose research you believe, the NFT marketplace quickly caught up and nearly outpaced the growth of the traditional art market. According to a report published by non-fungible.com, NFT sales made up 16% of the Global Art Market by value in 2021 and early 2022. $2.8 billion was spent on crypto art in 2021, compared to $14.6 billion on traditional art.  Business Insider suggests even more bullish data with the market for NFT art surging to $41 billion in 2021, nearly outpacing the conventional art market.

Art Basel  2021: Tipping Point or Denounment

Beeple (aka Mike Winklemann) sold a piece of digital artwork through Christie’s auction house for $69 million dollars. This catapulted him into the rarified air of artists like David Hockney in terms of the value of his work. Unlike Hockney’s work, the Beeples sale, auction, artwork, and currency (crypto) were all entirely virtual, a first for the art community. Since that auspicious moment, five artists have made over $2.5 million selling digital art.

Art Basel 2021 transformed the world of high-end digital art into serious business.  Techno bros showing off their NFT-laden mobile phones, standing shoulder to shoulder with high-end art collectors, showing their Cryptopunks and Bored Apes (generated algorithmically) as seriously as the most painstaking paintbrush painting. According to the 2022 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, written by the cultural economist and founder of Arts Economics, Dr. Clare McAndrew, “a market that was traditionally slow to adopt digital strategies saw online sales account for fully a fifth of sales.”  The dyke opened. Crypto art investments spewed forth.

All-In

New art marketplaces like OpenSea and Rarible emerged, seemingly overnight to serve as a gathering place for art NFT.  At the same time venerable art houses like Sotheby’s and Christies, both born in the 1700’s went full hog, creating NFT galleries, and playing with the “phygital” NFTs that sold both virtual and IRL art, and more.

Lack of Curation

The NFT party isn’t over, but it’s certainly got quite the hangover.

By anyone’s count, the activity is coming close to flat-lining.  Bloomberg reports that this month’s sales have plunged below the $1 billion mark and that the JPG NFT Index is down by about 70% since its April launch.

There are several good reasons behind the NFT stall. Crypto values have plunged and the NFT market is based on crypto.  News of scams, frauds and litigation are nearly daily occurrences.  Celebrities from Lady Gaga to the Kardashians to Tom Brady overvalued their worth, and anyone who could use MS Paint was suddenly an artist.  Plus, there’s that niggling question of how art is displayed. If you can only show your art on your phone or your social media it’s not a particularly satisfying experience.

This NFT by Mad Dog Jones was sold for $41 million dollars to an anonymous buyer.

Who’s the Tastemaker?

But the biggest obstacle is the lack of curation. When you’ve got a VanGogh next to a Weird Whale, all listed in an indecipherable mashup without any storytelling that gives the artwork a context you have a bloody mess. When OpenSea and Rarible (there are many others, too) make the Apple App Store seems well-curated, you have a problem.

The Curation Cure

With the mess of scams, complicated fees, a confounding mixture of algorithmically generated art, cryptocurrency fluctuations, and a lack of “display” realty, the digital art industry needs to mature, which means it’s going to copy some of the most successful techniques of the past

Jonathan Delachaux is the creative director for ArtMeta. “Artists”, he says, “don’t know how to make NFTs. Private collectors don’t know how to tokenize or sell their coveted fine art.  Galleries, collectors, and secondary market participants want to get a foot into a growing $25 billion market and digital communities. Collectors and investors want to buy relevant art through a trusted source, using cryptocurrencies as payment.”  Deschaux saw an opening to separate highly curated fine art from that you typically might find on a collector’s wall from OpenSea or Rarible collections.

ArtMeta is an entire metaverse world for artists to showcase their works and interact with gallerists and collectors worldwide.

Chris Cummings, CEO of Iconic Moments is passionate about cultural preservation. “So much of our collective heritage is stuck inside of vaults somewhere,” he says. “What’s the point of preserving something if no one gets to experience it?” he asks.  Cummings is now working with 150 museums in 14 counties to explore how they can use Web 3.0 to bring the skeletons out of the closet.

Chris Cumming’s Iconic Moments works with museums, libraries and corporations to get their cultural heritage out from the vaults and into the eyes of the public.

“Libraries, museums, and big corporations all have rich histories that they want to share”, says Cummings.  Iconic Moments provides a “global passport to culture”  and the metaverse provides the perfect vehicle.  An attendees’ journey begins with the Iconic Mint Pass — an NFT membership that includes guaranteed access to NFT drops, tickets to special cultural events, and other collaborations. “99% of NFT projects are unsuccessful because they don’t engage their community”, he says. “The 45 million NFTs available on places like OpenSea will get lost without curation.”

Those two examples just scratch the surface. In Decentraland in late August the Frida Kahlo Family and Eziel opened the Red House to make Kahlo’s work accessible to a new generation of digital natives.  Art NFTS are also being imbued with special coded superpowers so that the artist can, for example, receive royalties anytime their work is sold, in perpetuity.

Decentralization may ultimately mean that there is no one entity that dominates the art scene, but traditional, often centralized, principles of trust and community will result in awesome art creations.

 

 

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Who’s Curating the Show?

The art market highlights the problems with a decentralized world. It may ultimately mean that there is no one entity that dominates the scene, but principles of trust and community will result in awesome art...

Apple Store, Microsoft Store, Crypto Store?

The art market highlights the problems with a decentralized world. It may ultimately mean that there is no one entity that dominates the scene, but principles of trust and community will result in awesome art...

The Metaverse, Porn, and the Future

The art market highlights the problems with a decentralized world. It may ultimately mean that there is no one entity that dominates the scene, but principles of trust and community will result in awesome art...

What Is Impact Investing?

The art market highlights the problems with a decentralized world. It may ultimately mean that there is no one entity that dominates the scene, but principles of trust and community will result in awesome art...

What’s Next for Climate Tech Investing?

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Apple Store, Microsoft Store, Crypto Store?

Solana Spaces was conceived to help demystify crypto and create a sort of ever-changing hangout for fans who are expected to keep exploring the store’s latest additions. 

On the second floor of the chichi-glam Hudson Yards Shopping Mall in NYC, there’s a new store that sells nothing but a few bro-friendly hoodies and a small number of merch tchotchkes. Images of Degen Ape Academy NFTs adorn the walls, but they are not for sale.

Instead, the goal of Solana Spaces, as the store is called, is to introduce the mall’s upscale, international shoppers to Solana, one of the newer, more climate-friendly cryptocurrencies.  Store ambassadors, like Angel (seen with me below), aim to teach you how to open a Solana Crypto wallet and walk you through a sampling of blockchain-based apps. There’s even a visualizer wall that displays real-time purchases, using Solana of course.

While it sells merch, the real purpose of the store is to spread the gospel of cryptocurrency. Image: Solana

Everything about the store is bespoke. Much like an Apple store, the vibe is clean, uncluttered, and brightly lit. Solana Spaces was conceived to help demystify crypto, but also to create a sort of ever-changing hangout for SOL-heads (Solana’s currency is called SOL) who are expected to keep exploring the store’s latest additions.

But even with an Angel on my side, getting onboarded onto any blockchain cryptocurrency is not for the faint of heart.  First, you must set up your own secret phrase  (in this case 12 words). And you can never lose it, because if you do you will never recover your wallet and its contents.

My already existing crypto wallets, Metamask and Bitski, won’t work with Solana, so I dutifully installed wallet number three into my life. It’s called Phantom.  And once I started using it, each time I tried a new Solana-based experience or app I had to scroll down and accept a disclaimer that seemed biblical in length. I accepted terms and conditions I’m not certain I understood. Still, I was glad Solana had my best interests at heart.

Angel, the Solana Amabassador’s job was to hold my hand through the onboarding process. Image: Robin Raskin

At the store’s opening this past week, I worked to win USDC by completing three “journeys” through different Solana Dapps (decentralized apps). I played STEPN, the most popular Solana app, a game that rewards exercise, as you walk or run. I explored Magic Eden, an NFT marketplace, and Metaplex, the protocol for building NFTs on Solana. As a bonus, I got a look at the Solana Saga, the company’s new Web 3.0 smartphone that does what other smartphones do but is also a digital wallet and Dapp holder.

For completing my mission, I was awarded 2 USDC, the equivalent of $2 US dollars. (I suggest in the future the store’s ambassadors install some phone chargers in the store, though, since my battery ran down completely after downloading a wallet and a few apps.) Customers in the store will continue to earn USDC as they go through their own onboarding.

As fascinating as the store is, so is the CEO behind the company that runs it, Vibhu Norby. In pre-pandemic times,  Norby ran b8ta, a company that operated a different retail store in that very same spot at Hudson Yards. It showcased quirky new technologies you wouldn’t find in a Best Buy or other tech store. Tech partners who rented space there got useful data — everything from leads to user feedback on where the product needed improvement. There were b8ta stores all over the world. That company did not survive the pandemic for a number of reasons, but Norby continues to be fascinated by experiential retail.

“Retail is hard to “get”, Norby told me. “There’s an energy that’s different when you interact in person with your customers.”  An engineer and programmer by training, Norby says he didn’t want to lose all of the experience he’d gained in retail, but had become fascinated with crypto’s potential.  Solana Spaces is the first permanent crypto store he knows of, he says, adding that “the whole experience was created from scratch with no template for anything like it.”  Like b8ta, Norby says Solana Spaces will work with sponsored partners to offset costs. “But this store is different,” he adds, because “we can also can track how people continue their Solana journey once they leave the store,” When I spoke to Norby after his first day in business he reported curiosity was high and that many families (especially ones with crypto-hip members) were exploring the store together.

Solana, according to Coindesk, is by no means the most popular crypto.  It was invented as an Ethereum killer, but is still trailing that blockchain by most metrics. It has fewer node operators, fewer holders, and a smaller market cap.

Physical retail in general is experiencing something of a moment. Online retail was a big winner during the “stay-at-home” phase of the COVID-19 era. But many stocks of companies for that era, like Peloton or Chegg, are now being unwound in a big way, reports Axios.

Venture capital investment in retail tech generally more than doubled from $46.7 billion in 2020 to $108.6 billion the following year, according to CB Insights. Can a retail store make it if it sells almost nothing but is an ever-changing experience center for the crypto-curious?

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Who’s Curating the Show?

Solana Spaces was conceived to help demystify crypto and create a sort of ever-changing hangout for fans who are expected to keep exploring the store's latest additions. 

Apple Store, Microsoft Store, Crypto Store?

Solana Spaces was conceived to help demystify crypto and create a sort of ever-changing hangout for fans who are expected to keep exploring the store's latest additions. 

The Metaverse, Porn, and the Future

Solana Spaces was conceived to help demystify crypto and create a sort of ever-changing hangout for fans who are expected to keep exploring the store's latest additions. 

What Is Impact Investing?

Solana Spaces was conceived to help demystify crypto and create a sort of ever-changing hangout for fans who are expected to keep exploring the store's latest additions. 

The Metaverse, Porn, and the Future

The fallback definition of porn has been “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”. The definition of the metaverse may be “I’m in it, but I don’t know it.”

One of the most famous phrases in a Supreme Court opinion is: “I know it when I see it.” Those words were in Justice Potter Stewart’s concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, a 1964 case involving the showing of a supposedly risqué movie by Louis Malle at an Ohio theatre.  The Justice’s rationale for ruling the film was not pornographic was that, while he could not define pornography, he knew what it was. “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that,” he wrote.

“I know it when I see it” has become a colloquialism for moments when you want to make an observation, but the parameters to neatly categorize are not clear. It has become a comedian’s punchline, a meme before there were memes. Now, we can apply Justice Stewart’s words to the metaverse!

I’m In It and I Don’t Know It

In June, UTA and VOX Media released a study about the metaverse that showed 68% of consumers, and 88% of those between 13 and 25, already engage with metaverse platforms. That was even though 48% of people said they weren’t even familiar with the term “metaverse.”  Justice Potter’s words for metaverse times might be: “I wouldn’t know it when I see it, because I’m in it but I don’t know it.”

Like porn, the metaverse will likely not be a “there or not” sort of thing.  We’ve come to think of porn as residing on a continuum. The metaverse exists on a similar continuum. Like a spigot of immersivity, you’ll be dripped into it, often not realizing you’re there.  A little Roblox concert here, a tad of NFT art here, a new overlay in Pokémon, more immersive 3D maps, a VR class … the metaverse will creep into the picture without some great reveal. Regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg may think, the metaverse won’t have a launch date, in the way that PR-focused companies giving themselves a new name do.

Divided by the Metaverse

We may also be as divided about what the metaverse is as we are by the definition of porn. The Pew Research Organization does great work identifying emerging tech trends and tracking public sentiment. In its past research, there’s often been a resulting point of view – a takeaway to its research.  But in a recent study that queried a wide range of supposed experts on their expectations for what the metaverse might be like by 2040, there was surprisingly little consensus.  In fact, after interviewing more than 600 internet-savvy people from numerous fields, Pew found a great divide in opinion.

“About half of the respondents supported the idea that the metaverse will be a fully-immersive aspect of daily life for many by 2040. Many who expect augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR) to advance, predict that those advances will come from a natural evolution of the current innovations that are underway,” reads the report.

That means that there’s another half who felt otherwise. Some said the buzz about extended reality (XR) is mostly what one called “typical tech hype.” A share of respondents said, according to the report, “they expect this cluster of technologies is likely to make a few expected but fairly minor ripples in the stream of overall tech development.”

At the moment it happens, aptly, that the porn industry is heavily involved in creating the metaverse. The porn industry has pioneered tech revolutions before: CDs, DVDs, online bulletin boards (BBSs), chat rooms, and video chat, to name a few. Tech journalists often joke that if you want to see the future of tech, just watch the porn industry.

The question is, will we know the metaverse when we see it? Or will each one of us define it for ourselves?

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Who’s Curating the Show?

The fallback definition of porn has been “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”. The definition of the metaverse may be “I’m in it, but I don’t know it.”

Apple Store, Microsoft Store, Crypto Store?

The fallback definition of porn has been “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”. The definition of the metaverse may be “I’m in it, but I don’t know it.”

The Metaverse, Porn, and the Future

The fallback definition of porn has been “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”. The definition of the metaverse may be “I’m in it, but I don’t know it.”

What Is Impact Investing?

The fallback definition of porn has been “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”. The definition of the metaverse may be “I’m in it, but I don’t know it.”

What Is Impact Investing?

As private foundations aim for 100 percent of their endowment assets and grant funds to serve the greater good, we examine four distinct approaches they can take for impact investing, ranging from fiscally conservative to financially risky.

Many foundations that are established to solve society’s most pernicious problems have investments as their lifeblood. Their assets need to be invested in profitable businesses in order to sustain operations and grow. So, what happens when a foundation’s mission is directly contradicted by its own investments? What if the problems a foundation was created to solve are exacerbated or caused by the behavior of businesses found in its own investment portfolio?

It can sometimes seem as though a foundation’s assets and its grantmaking programs are in direct opposition to each other or, at the very least, are failing to work together to accomplish a charitable mission. Since many foundations invest 95 percent of their assets while distributing about 5 percent for charitable purposes, it’s conceivable that the damage done by the investments exceeds the good accomplished by the distributions.

Over the last decade, more foundations have been attempting to address this issue and get all of their horses pulling in the same direction. These foundations want their investments to enhance their philanthropic efforts or at least not run counter to them. If their 5 percent for their minimum charitable distribution requirements are regarded as the “do good” portion of their foundations, the goal for the other 95 percent might at least be to “do no harm.” Hence, their adoption of impact investing.

Growth of the impact investing sector has exploded in the last 10 years. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) reports that $2.3 trillion was invested for impact in 2020, which is equivalent to 2 percent of global assets under management. And a Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) study reveals a 42.4 percent increase in the sector from 2019 to 2020. Impact investing is a broad tent as well; many different individuals, businesses and organizations claim a seat under its canopy, each employing different tools and approaches.

As private foundations aim for 100 percent of their endowment assets and grant funds to serve the greater good, we examine four distinct approaches they can take for impact investing, ranging from fiscally conservative to financially risky:

  • Community Investing
  • Socially Responsible Investing
  • Program-Related Investing
  • Mission-Related (or Social Venture Capital) Investing

Community Investing

One of the easiest ways to dip a toe into impact investing waters is by simply moving your money from a traditional bank to a community development financial institution (CDFI) such as a community bank or community credit union. These financial institutions are common throughout the United States, and you’ve probably heard of them without realizing that they have a social mission tied to their financial products.

CDFIs are government regulated and government insured, just like other financial institutions. They offer checking and savings accounts, money market accounts, certificates of deposit and all the other usual services you’d expect from a traditional bank. They provide market-rate (or very close to market-rate) interest to depositors and from a consumer’s perspective, are comparable to commercial banking institutions, albeit with a less extensive network of ATMs.

The real difference between traditional banks and community banks is what they do with the money on deposit. Rather than lend it to large corporations outside the local vicinity, community banks invest it locally through loans for affordable housing projects, home mortgages in low-income areas and new businesses. Many low-income neighborhoods have benefited from CDFIs that use their deposits to build that same community, rather than siphoning funds out for the benefit of outside parties. The Calvert Foundation, for example, directed Calvert Community Investment (CCI) notes to help rebuild communities in the Gulf Coast region devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These same notes offer investors a range of terms, including interest rates that vary up to 2 percent payable at maturity.

Community investing can be a relatively low-risk cash management strategy, an easy way for a foundation or philanthropic individual to put more financial assets in the service of a charitable mission. To look for a CDFI in your community, go to www.cdfifund.gov for a listing of CDFIs by city and state.

Socially Responsible Investing

The concept of socially responsible investing (SRI) has been around for more than 30 years. It began with a simple idea: don’t hold the stock of companies that actively work against your values. So an environmental grantmaker might screen “big oil” out of its portfolio and a health grantmaker might avoid “big tobacco.” Other common screens filter out companies that have interests in gambling, alcohol, pornography, dealings with repressive governments or defense contractors. Because this approach focuses on what an investor does not want to hold in his/her portfolio, tools that help them filter their investments have been dubbed “negative screens.”

Critics point out that while employing negative screens to eliminate “sin stocks” may help an investor sleep better, they don’t necessarily accomplish much else. The companies that are screened out are usually very large and very profitable, and a few conscientious investors selling their stock or just declining to buy it will not affect their share price. And by screening out a whole host of potentially profitable sectors, an investor employing negative screens may be limiting their ability to earn returns on par with the market as a whole. As most investment advisors benchmark performance against broad market measures, portfolios employing negative screens are widely thought to underperform.

In recent years, investors and their advisors have taken a new approach to socially responsible investing, one that involves “positive screens.” Instead of shutting out objectionable companies, a positive screen actively seeks companies demonstrating the kind of corporate social responsibility that philanthropic investors would like to encourage. The primary positive screens are around environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices, collectively known as “ESG screening.” Rather than focus on what you don’t want companies to do, ESG screening selects companies based on the positive things they are doing.

Some recent studies challenge the widely held belief that one needs to accept lower returns in exchange for socially responsible investing (SRI). ESG-screened companies disprove the myth that SRI isn’t profitable. Some previous research has found no statistically significant difference between the performance of traditional funds and SRI funds. In fact, as The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment reported, a 2012 meta-analysis, by DB Climate Change Advisors, of more than 100 academic studies found that incorporating environmental, social and governance data in investment analysis is “correlated with superior risk-adjusted returns at a securities level.”

Beyond being good philanthropy, ESG screening is increasingly accepted as just good business. ESG investing has become more mainstream over the past decade, fueled by rising investor interest and recognition that social and environmental impacts are creating material financial risks for companies and investors. In other words, polluting the environment to make a quick buck today is what investors might call a “short-term play.” That is, it’s not going to be an effective strategy over the long haul as governments, consumers and investors increasingly penalize companies with poor ESG practices through loss of business, lawsuits, bad publicity and costly clean-up.

Done well, investing in ESG-screened funds can be a natural part of a private foundation’s investment strategy that carries no more risk than traditional investing in the stock market.

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Why is Venture Capital Acting Like Vanquished Capital?

Yes, this is an uncertain moment, but didn’t these putatively visionary venture capitalists invest in their portfolio companies for the long haul?

The Wall Street Journal captures this cautionary, calamitous climate with this headline:

“Silicon Valley Investors Give Startups Survival Advice for Downturn.”

Thanks, buddy.

It’s the financial equivalent of the Uvalde cops handing those tragically undefended kids survival guides for a mass shooting.

Yes, this is an uncertain moment, what with the collapse of tech stocks (and crypto) in the public markets; inflation and rate increases; war in Ukraine and supply chain disruptions; and the grim particulates of despair in the air.

Maybe I missed something, but didn’t these putatively visionary venture capitalists – at Sequoia and elsewhere – invest in their portfolio companies for the long haul? Didn’t they believe they had the leadership, innovation, and market fit to transcend roller-coaster moments – no matter how cardiac-jolting they might be?

And wasn’t that exactly what they told their limited partners, given that the rule of thumb is that exits require seven-to-ten years of strategic investment and growth, defined by prudent impatience.

Last time I looked, venture capitalists are not supposed to be Gorilla-glued to the Dow Jones, but rather focused on the future, creating the land where their bets are supposed to pay off.

What we’re seeing is a stunning abrogation of that responsibility. Venture investors were the ones who kept the liquor cabinet unlocked and poured the booze at the teenage parties.  And now they are playing the Captain Renault role – they are shocked, shocked that there are nutso valuations in venture land.

The fact is that in none of the ominous decks I’ve seen – packed with largely simplistic advice like cut costs and husband resources – do they concede their activist role in fueling what they now characterize as an irresponsible funding orgy.

They need to own it. They don’t. By contrast, they blame the markets.

Recently, Y Combinator told its portfolio companies “Understand that the poor public market performance of tech companies significantly impacts VC investing.” Translation: in the short-term absence of start-ups being able to take advantage of the helium-fueled equity markets – the greater fool theory – you’re on your own.

By no means is YC alone; venture firms are heading out of Dodge with the migratory unanimity of starlings in a murmuration.

CNBC rightly notes that this moment is “a stark contrast to 2021 when investors were rushing into pre-IPO companies at sky-high valuations, deal-making was happening at a frenzied pace and buzzy software start-ups were commanding multiples of 100 times revenue.

VCs are supposed to be among the smartest people to roam the planet with Tesla autopilot.  But they were the ones who pushed for growth at any cost, comfortable that their closeness with bankers would continue to create the pipeline IPOs at the reckless levels CBC noted.

In fact, their dire pronunciamentos are acting as self-fulfilling prophecies or performative utterances. Generative spirals are being created.

Venture partners can’t rewind the clock, those who were the most undisciplined should be transparent about their culpability in yet another epidemic of tulipomania.

But there is also a great deal they can do to help their companies win.

Self-Interest Alert: They should be encouraging their companies with the best prospects to revisit their marketing; mediocre marketing might have been enough in the era of bottomless liquidity pools and rocket-ship growth. It’s far from enough now. (I will follow up this piece with one dedicated to the need for hotter marketing in cooler times.)

To be clear, I am not saying that every start-up deserves to succeed, and in fact, the current climate will serve a much-needed, blunt Darwinian role.

The reality of a finite amount of capital demands that it be allocated to those start-ups with the best business models, leadership, and likelihood of success over the venture time horizon.

If that’s the encoded message in the scorching decks that venture funds are sending to their dry-kindling CEOs – that they will be the victims of controlled-burn fires – it isn’t being well-communicated.

VCs should be aggressively investing in those companies that are well-positioned to succeed in the future. This is a chance to gain market share and mindshare.

As for the rest, there is no reason for drain-circling startups to spend down to the last penny. Better to Kevorkian them – a verb I plan to use more often, starting now – and send some money back to their investors.

It’s well-known that at least 75% of start-up investments fail.

Why wait for the inevitable?

 

This article originally appeared in Adam Hanft’s Substack newsletter Unmute.

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The Greening of Crypto: Proof of Stake and Beyond

Crypto is feeling intense pain right now. But the ecosystem must address a thorny problem as it comes of age: energy consumption.

The crypto industry is feeling intense pain. Issues of legitimacy and trust thwart its every move. And the plummeting crypto market cap–just under $1 trillion, down from almost $3 trillion–along with escalating legal and regulatory challenges might suggest an unraveling. But if, as the industry insists, this is a recoverable blip in the maturation cycle, the crypto ecosystem must address another thorny problem as it comes of age. And that’s energy consumption.

All currencies (including the U.S. dollar) require some energy to be expended in its production. But cryptocurrencies and NFTs have come under fierce scrutiny for the extraordinary amount they require. According to the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, which monitors cryptocurrency mining efforts worldwide, Bitcoin currently consumes electricity at an annualized rate of 127 terawatt-hours (TWh). That exceeds the entire annual electricity consumption of Norway or Greece.  Other numbers, like these reported in Protocol, show that Ethereum production alone emits as much carbon as the countries of Serbia and Montenegro.  And PosterGrind shows that the Ethereum platform (upon which most NFTs are based), is estimated to consume 48.14 kilowatt-hours of energy per transaction. That’s about as much energy as a single US household uses in a day and a half. So think of that next time you’re enjoying a Bored Ape, or whatever. Additionally, it’s well documented that the higher the price of Bitcoin, the more energy it consumes. That’s because more so-called “miners” are competing to fulfill the need for cryptographic security.

The Energy Costs of Proof of Work and Proof of Stake

Everything that happens on a blockchain is based on some sort of consensus mechanism — a collective community agreement that a transaction has been properly processed as a “block” on that blockchain.  And we all know that achieving consensus, in real life or digitally, has never been a very efficient process.

Proof of Work (PoW) and Proof of Stake (PoS) are the two main ways of cryptocurrencies achieve consensus today. Each has its pros and cons, environmentally and otherwise. Bitcoin takes the rap for being the most energy-glugging coin to “mint,” as the process is called, because of its reliance on PoW. Ethereum is also currently based on PoW, though it is expected to switch to PoS in coming months.

The goal of these mechanisms is to create cryptographic security, which is why they are called cryptocurrencies. PoW involves a race among miners to determine who can solve an algorithmic challenge the fastest. Each time there’s a request to mint a token, it is doled out across the entire miner network. Whoever breaks the algorithmic code, which may involve making trillions of numerical guesses (and chewing up vast amounts of power in the process), wins the bid to mint that block on the Bitcoin blockchain. The system is spectacularly decentralized (anyone with computing power can participate), fair in doling out work, and quite secure. But it is incredibly energy inefficient–even deliberately so. The problem is so bad that Europe last winter considered banning PoW altogether. Kosovo did in fact ban it and the NY Legislature proposed a bill that’s pending approval to halt carbon intensive mining in the state.

Proof of Stake (PoS) is a newer, kinder-to-the-environment way to mint, but it’s less fair. It’s run more like a lottery, but everyone does not have an equal chance to participate. Every time the network needs a new block, an algorithm grants the opportunity to a specific “staker,” meaning someone who already holds that particular cryptocurrency. The more of the staked currency someone holds, the better their chance of winning this lottery (sort of like how you get more voting power if you own a larger apartment in a New York City co-op). The miners are thus incented to hold significant stakes in the currency they mine. Many miners pool their coin on a validated server to better their chances of earning the right to create new blocks on the chain. Binance and PolkaDot are some of the major currencies using PoS.

Most experts will tell you that PoS is safe from attack, but probably not as cryptographically safe as PoW. The advantage of PoS is that it does not require expensive hardware or lots of mining processing power. Stakers are vested in the overall health of their ecosystem. Transactions are faster and relatively less expensive. And it’s a huge saver of energy.

Today, most NFTs (digital assets, including digital art, fashion, and real estate) rely on the Ethereum ecosystem for minting and transactions. But as Ethereum migrates to PoS and other NFT marketplaces start to work with PoS systems, the hope is that creating NFTs will stop being such an energy-monster.

Some currencies use their own consensus methods, including Solana’s proof of history, XRP Ledger’s Ripple Protocol Consensus Algorithm (RCPA), and so-called Proof of Authority mechanisms such as the Energy Web Chain. These offer different ways to achieve security with less electricity consumption. There is real commitment in much of the crypto community to become more climate-friendly. A significant number of crypto companies have joined the Crypto Climate Accord (CCA), whose mission is to decarbonize the global crypto industry.  And we’re seeing lots of new experiments, both by using different mathematical approaches and by using renewable energy, to bring more sustainability to the dirty business of crypto mining.

Tiny pockets of progress are evident. In northern Sweden, the Canadian firm Hive Blockchain is relying on local hydropower at its Ethereum facility. KryptoVault in Norway runs off 95% hydropower and 5% wind. Jack Dorsey is building a bitcoin mining facility in Texas that feeds off of solar and Tesla-battery stored power. But to complicate things further, a growing controversy surrounds using sustainable energy sources for PoS mining, on the grounds that clean energy should be used for other purposes that reduce conventional power generation.

Searching for Green

As an attendee at the large, recent crypto-conference Consensus 2022,  I made it a mission to seek out companies committed to moving crypto into greener pastures. I was struck by a few standouts that are making greening their platforms not only a priority but also a product differentiator.

Flowcarbon raised $70 million to develop a protocol that tokenizes carbon credits and stores them on a blockchain, with the aim of driving investment in projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Flowcarbon is working with KlimaDAO, a leader of which spoke in a session on Crypto’s Climate Challenge at the Techonomy Climate conference in March.

Protocol Labs’ initiative includes tools that measure the “greenness” of its systems. “It is no longer acceptable for crypto companies to simply tout that they are reducing climate emissions. They must take quantifiable action”, said Marc Johnson of Filecoin Green at Protocol Labs, in an interview. Filecoin Green supplies tools to make energy usage on the Filecoin blockchain totally transparent. (Filecoin has a market cap of about $1.2 billion.) FileCoin Green explains here its master plan.

Hedera’s Brady Gentile explained how that coin’s network uses a smart contract consensus mechanism of its own called Hashgraph. (Hedera’s market cap: $1.5 billion.) It is a distributed ledger but not a blockchain. Because of its unique protocols to achieve network consensus on transactions, it is more energy-efficient, faster, and costs less. And because it’s a “leaderless” system there is no mining or bidding for mining. Tokens are instead pre-mined by the company, making it exceptionally eco-friendly.

Leaders at Algorand (market cap $2.4 billion), designed from the outset as carbon-neutral and based on a PoS blockchain, told me that it’s dedicated to minimally impacting the environment. It developed a new form of smart contract that aims to tackle the problem of carbon emissions. “A smart contract takes the parameters of the blockchain – how many relays are involved, how many nodes are involved, how many transactions, etc. – and comes up with the offset power that needs to be paid for, and then uses transaction fees to pay for that”, said

Vice President of Engineering Research Naveed Ihsanullah in this report by Coindesk.

Emerge’s CEO, Lucia Gallardo, is an energetic, environmentally committed Honduran whose mission is to use the blockchain for social action. She moved her servers to mint her regenerative climate-oriented NFTs to Montlucon, a small town in France where the heat generated by the servers powers hot water in the town. Gallardo says that it has delivered more than 41,000 hot showers to date, avoiding the emission of several dozen tons of CO2. Emerge’s newest project, The AEternals, is an NFT collection where more than half of the proceeds go to the Rainforest Partnership.  AEternals is a collection of 10,000 interactive and metamorphic NFTs, inspired by specific parcels of the Amazon rainforest. The NFTs mix art and gamification. Owners can interact with their land plot via their NFTs, and environmental data will trigger changes in the art. Think Tamagotchi meets environmental stewardship in a Web 3.0 world.

It’s said that winter, even crypto winters, are a time for hunkering down and building. Despite today’s “things fall apart” moment for the crypto industry, we’re also seeing a doubling down on crypto infrastructures, renewable-energy driven data centers, and more efficient mining and plumbing. Next year at Consensus I expect to find even more environmentally committed exhibitors and speakers.

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It’s Time to Scale Up Regenerative Farming

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. Let’s find ways to fund them to make the global food system and economy more sustainable.

A half-decade ago, Nick DiDomenico’s parents bought a small property north of Boulder, Colorado. They handed a dilapidated house and 14 acres over to him to help fulfill his dream of becoming an organic farmer. Nick gave the farm an appealing name, Elk Run. But in fact the prairie land was horribly degraded. Its topsoil had been eroded by wind and rain, and the property was essentially a parched wasteland. Advisors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised Nick that the land was unsuitable for growing crops.

Six years later, DiDomenico and a small group of allies—with help from funders—have done the seemingly impossible: They transformed a wasteland into a veritable Garden of Eden. DiDomenico, his partner, Melissa Pulaski, and a handful of others are raising pigs, sheep, chickens, and rabbits and producing organic vegetables and grains. The non-profit organization that DiDomenico and Pulaski established, Drylands Agroecology Research, explores regenerative agriculture techniques and provides consulting and land reclamation services for other property owners along Colorado’s Front Range.

“The overarching goal is to create many more safe havens for healthy food and healthy lifestyles,” DiDomenico says. “We want to help people all over the region produce food locally and we want to promote good commercial ventures that strengthen our communities. We want to get away from the extractive economy.”

Their project illustrates a phenomenon that is underway across the United States and across the globe. People in small groups are reimagining and rebuilding the economy one experimental step at a time. Many of them share the belief that capitalism as it is being practiced today is unsustainable. It’s destroying the environment and contributing mightily to global warming. And capitalism is causing a breakdown in society because of the inequities it engenders. So, it’s time to pivot and adopt new approaches that will help make the planet and society more sustainable.

This phenomenon got its start with the social-enterprise movement in the early 2000s, but it seems to have accelerated since the COVID crisis woke people up and convinced them that now is the time to make bold changes in how we live.

I have been exploring the evolution of this phenomenon since the rise of COVID. It was then that I became involved in an initiative called Pivot Projects, a global, all-volunteer collaboration aimed at using collective intelligence, systems thinking, and AI-assisted research to help society and communities become more sustainable and resilient. I started off as a journalist embedded in Pivot Projects and later became a full participant. Late last year, Columbia University Press published my book about the group’s journey: The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action.

One of the 20+ workstreams within Pivot Projects took on the subject of building a sustainable and just economic system—an alternative to the present system, which is based on greed, maximizing profits, and exploiting workers and resources. Rather than thinking about a revolution, which hardly seemed likely, the group took aim at defining and encouraging a new way forward. Out of that quest came a concept called the Cellular Economy.

The “cells” are small groups of people dedicated to pioneering new approaches to serving people’s needs. They’re democratic, humanistic, science-based, diverse, collaborative, community-oriented, and experimental. Some are mission-driven businesses. Others are social enterprises or community organizations. “We need a fundamental shift in the very foundation of capitalism as it is practiced today,” says Damian Costello, an expert in disruptive innovation who coordinates Pivot Projects’ economics workstream. “The Cellular Economy model describes what we need to do to make this brighter, safer future a reality.”

Right now, most of these initiatives operate in isolation. The economics workstream participants believe that to fulfill their potential, the cells will have to form into networks that enable them to more readily share resources and knowledge. Nick and his colleagues have already begun reaching out to other farmers and landowners in and around Boulder whose visions and missions are aligned with theirs. He refers to this as a “mycelial network.” That’s a reference to the role that fungal mycelia play in maintaining healthy forests. The mycelia tap into tree roots, connecting individual plants together to transfer water, nitrogen, and other nutrients to where they are needed most. Essentially, these networks enable trees to collaborate with each other and live in harmony. It’s a good metaphor.

The knowledge about regenerative agriculture that DAR is sharing with others comes partly from research but mainly from experimentation on the farm. The Elk Run land is sloped, and, in the old days, water from infrequent rain and snow episodes tended to slide off it without being absorbed. Nick and his team cut ditches across the slopes to capture and store water. They planted trees in the ditches to create shade, produce fruit, and provide habitat for insects and birds. The pigs serve as roto-tillers for the degraded soil—breaking it up with their hooves and snouts and peppering it with manure. Then come the sheep and chickens and more manure. Over time, the soil is enriched to the point where it can support vegetable and grain crops.

Today, this approach produces 90% of the food that the small group needs to survive. In the future, Elk Run plans on selling produce to others. But the bigger goal is to help other landowners improve their land and produce healthy food at scale. Within 10 years, DiDomenico and friends hope to be managing 1000 acres or more using regenerative methods, to establish 10 regional hubs based on their model, and to have planted 100,000 trees. “As a Front Range community, we can build incredible resilience,” he says.

Regenerative agriculture emerged in the late 20th century as an alternative to industrial farming, with its focus on chemical inputs, monocultures, and processed food. The practice has come on strong in the past decade as farmers became more sensitive to environmental concerns and climate change. The focus is on strengthening the vitality of farm soil, increasing biodiversity, and improving the water cycle.

The COVID crisis has been a wakeup call. “People all over the world tell us they want clean air, more decentralized affordable energy, water and waste systems, and a regenerative economic model in which people live closer to nature,” says Peter Head, a leader in the sustainability field and co-founder of Pivot Projects. “Regenerative farming is a key part of recovery.”

Pivot Projects has launched regenerative agriculture projects aimed at aiding small farmers in partnership with local groups in Nepal and central Africa, in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Advances in technology are now available for farmers in remote areas, including solar for electricity and Starlink LEOS for telecommunications, but funding remains a challenge. Microfinance systems are of limited use for scaling up production, and small farmers have little access to larger grants and loans, says Colin Harrison, a former IBM executive and co-founder of Pivot Projects. The good news is that the African team has been awarded an initial $25,000 grant by the UN Food Systems organization to cover the costs of strategy development.

Back in the USA, DAR and other cellular outfits face funding challenges of their own. DAR has been fueled mainly by GoFundMe campaigns and small grants from foundations and individuals, but that’s not enough for it to scale up quickly and have a sizable impact. New funding sources and innovations are needed. We need impact investors to step up and do their part.

I asked Ian Abbott-Donnelly, one of my colleagues in Pivot Projects, to do some research into the matter using an AI-powered research tool made by SparkBeyond.

Quickly, he spotted some good news. Regenerative farming dramatically reduces the cost of inputs for farmers, reducing the amount of money they need to plant and sustain crops—and thus decreasing the need for financing and indebtedness. Details are available in this report from the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Ian unearthed an extensive analysis of the potential for funding sustainable agriculture enterprises and projects in this article published by the National Institutes of Health.

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. My challenge to impact investors is this: Find ways to fund them. Help make the global food system and the global economy more sustainable.

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Beyond the Crash–Finding Patterns in a World of Uncertainty

Things are grim. And one of the grimmest parts of this moment is how uncertain everyone seems to be about what comes next.

Sadly we must say again, things are grim. And one of the grimmest parts of this moment is how uncertain everyone seems to be about what comes next.

That includes Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, in his remarks this week after raising interest rates more than it had since 1994. The move aimed ostensibly to curb sudden rapid inflation. But in his press conference he sounded like he was saying: “We don’t really know what will happen if we raise rates .75%, but we’re doing it anyway because we can’t think of what else to do.” Not reassuring.

As markets plummet, investors and Wall Street seem convinced of at least one thing–the future is hazy, and that’s scary. Right now we face a surprisingly large number of painful variables in the world situation. Nobody, it seems, can really factor them all out and say convincingly what comes next. Therefore it is far easier to assume that the net impact of the bad stuff going on now is even worse stuff to come. That’s why consumers are retrenching, many fear for democracy around the world–including in the U.S.–and why analysts are starting to realize it can’t be ruled out that Putin might take over Ukraine after all. There is a serious global malaise.

Two articles I’ve read this week underscore the gravity of this moment. Technologist and alarmed pundit Dave Troy brought a number of semi-apocalyptic threads together here. Don’t read it if you don’t want to think about $10 gasoline and the possibility of widespread American civil unrest. (But if you can deal with that, as you really must, watch this well-produced New York Times video about how the Proud Boys deliberately, and so effectively, incited and led much of the insurrection on January 6.) The other essay which brings much depressing clarity to the moment is our friend Andrew Keen’s latest.

Here’s how Keen begins his lament:

“Yes, those are dark clouds swirling on the horizon. The news this week has been dominated by a perfect storm of imminent political violence, a severe inflationary crisis, a neverending war in Ukraine, the meltdown of the “innovative” economics of cryptocurrency, and the general bankruptcy of many of our most cherished institutions and ideas. These clouds are systemic. The bad news, I’m afraid, is mostly connected.”

Yes everything is connected, and that’s usually the hardest thing to see. Too few of our leaders step back far enough, or if they do, admit what they see. Keen writes about the dangers posed by Steve Bannon, who sadly is pretty good at stepping back and seeing larger patterns, but for the benefit of those who would bring down the system and replace it with autocracy.

Techonomy exists in order to help our community connect dots. Our aim is to bring together disparate people and ideas in hopes that the connections between them become illuminated by proximity, or by brilliant commentary from speakers. This kind of work will be much in evidence November 13-15 in Sonoma, California.

I was overwhelmed with a sense of connectedness on my recent trip to Rwanda, to help moderate the International Telecommunication Union’s World Telecommunication Development Conference. Everything I was involved with there had to do with strategies to finally connect the 2.9 billion people in the world who are not on the internet.

Why is it so critical to connect the disconnected? What’s the bigger pattern?

If the world is to retain even a modicum of stability, it must urgently address climate change. Extreme weather is getting more disastrous and disruptive all over the planet. As weather worsens, it will become increasingly difficult for people to remain in certain hot and wet–or extremely dry–regions. The people who live in such places are generally among the world’s poorest. They are also the ones most likely to remain disconnected from digital information and modern technology.

Connection enables development. Nearly every minute, you who are reading this are in one way or another mediating or altering your life with some kind of digital tool. For us it is inconceivable to imagine living without the internet. Yet 2.9 billion people are forced to, and a billion or so more have only sporadic or insufficient connectedness.

If you’re connected, you can know what to expect from the weather. You can get a better job and make more money, to afford an air conditioner, perhaps. And you can better participate in elections and civic life to help ensure your leaders are taking care of you.

If you remain disconnected, you are very likely to give up and go somewhere else. Many of those people are likely to become migrants. But when refugees arrive en masse in other countries, social discord almost always follows. Xenophobia proves fertile soil for autocrats. And autocrats, sadly, don’t give a damn about climate change or anything except their own further power. So action on our most existential crisis gets further delayed or abandoned.

That’s a pattern I’m worried about right now. High oil prices caused by Putin’s war and the resulting inflation and government paralysis around the world exacerbates the pattern.

And lest we and I forget the most basic pattern—we are all connected as human beings. It’s a moral imperative to give everyone the same tools and opportunities.

Let us know what you think.

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