Exclusive Interview with City of Tomorrow Manager on Blockchain

Robby Schwertner manages Austria’s national City of Tomorrow research program. His role has him venturing into financial support for research into blockchain photovoltaic use cases. He is also a popular LinkedIn influencer on the blockchain, a topic he considers his second hat.

We speak to him about his thoughts on the industry.

How did you first learn about cryptocurrency?

4 years ago, it was a topic on social media, especially Twitter. It also came up when we had to design new research programs at City of Tomorrow, a research program I manage focused on digitization in planning, construction, management, and greening of buildings and city districts, and sustainable city planning.

What are your thoughts on digital currencies like bitcoin?

Bitcoin is the least intelligent application for blockchain technology for the moment. Given that 7 transactions per second are only possible on their system, it’s still super slow compared to Visa, which handles 2000 transactions per second. However, bitcoin became very famous over the last years and has helped bring more attention to blockchain technology.

To explain blockchain to people is difficult for me. We still have to learn a lot of vocabulary. Blockchain, Ethereum, ICO, DLT, DAO, NEO, SH-256, hashes… it still needs a lot of effort to explain to my parents what I am doing at the moment with blockchain.

How important, do you believe, is blockchain technology to future developments cross-industry?

Very important.

It could probably disrupt many industries. Banks, real estate companies, and energy utilities are seriously threatened by young cheeky startups. Some people working in the sectors threatened, know about it and are enthusiastic about blockchain technology. It´s just that CEOs do not fully understand the impact and power of blockchain technology.

Through City of Tomorrow, you work with many cutting-edge technologies like virtual and augmented reality, drones, and blockchain. Where do you see the future taking us?

Physicist Nils Bohr once said, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. I may add: and especially about blockchain.

What I see is that we will have to live with many surprises. Blockchain will take its time to be implemented on a scale where we can see that it works. At the moment it’s still at laboratory scale. And we know from other technologies: what works in the laboratory sometimes still has a long way to go to be accepted by the market, accepted by the people.

I see that augmented and virtual reality is slowly taking off, and even now applied to the conservative construction industry. However, the applications are still very limited, the quality is lacking and there are only a small number of user cases, like Daqri with their smart helmet.

Artificial Intelligence and self-learning systems could really be of help and at the same time the greatest threat to humanity. Here we have to learn a lot. And also regulate.

Blockchain technology will be implemented in the city of the future for land registration, confirmation of ownership, health services, and food safety, to name only some.

What are some of your biggest concerns around blockchain?

Actually, I have no concerns. But maybe I am much too in love with this technology and don´t see the disadvantages yet. I just see chances, opportunities, and dreams coming true!

What trends are you witnessing in Europe?

Good old lady Europe shows that she has some really capable people who can bring forward wonderful use cases for blockchain and dig deeper into its secrets.

There are slowly – too slow, but we are in Europe – being developed national funding programs for research funding of blockchain technology projects. Incubators are opening, offering accelerators to startups and entrepreneurs. The City of Zug in Switzerland has started their crypto valley and Austria started a Blockchain in the hub, which both show how the scene is developing.

Which industries, in your opinion, will be easiest and hardest to disrupt through the blockchain?

Easiest: Banking.

Hardest: ICT industry.

Why: Banking has, per definition, given the highest amount of trust to their customers. And blockchain technology is all about trust. You don’t have to trust a bank to transfer the money to your kids. You trust the technology. In our case, blockchain technology. The ICT industry will be the hardest to disrupt because this industry will maybe even have new jobs to offer.

While we’re seeing promising blockchain startups across a variety of industries, the technology is still in its infancy and some believe that it will take years for it to mature enough to become viable commercial alternatives. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree. It will take time.

Time to understand what are the best systems we can work on, like ethereum is. It still has many weaknesses.

Time to find out what problems can be solved best with the technology. Is it the complicated applications used by small groups or peers? Is it the large-scale applications involving every citizen on this planet (and his future avatar/digital twins)?

Time to see where the market appreciates the technology.

Time to overcome concerns and critics after the crash of some of the cryptocurrencies and after people lost money through failed ICOs.

What are your thoughts on blockchain in energy management as seen in the light of the high energy costs contributed by crypto mining?

I talked to my father about blockchain. We discussed the energy consumption of crypto mining. He told me that the first computers he worked with had some MByte capacity and an enormous energy consumption.

Blockchain technology is in its infancy. Energy consumption is a problem that will be solved. We solved it for computers; why not for blockchain?

What are some blockchain use cases you are most passionate about?

Energy, health, elections, food security, and land registry, to name some of them. My favorite is energy applications and health.

I find it very touching to see that I can have my data back. I won’t have to give it to Facebook in the future. And if they want my data, they have to pay me for that.

Do you believe blockchain has the potential to solve some of the world’s most pressing socio-economic needs?

I am not sure. A technology is as good as its users. It can lead to some layoffs, especially in large industries. But new jobs will evolve. However, I personally think that it will contribute to people having a less direct link between a job and an income. To disconnect that is one of our world’s most pressing needs.

How is the blockchain industry evolving, from what you’ve seen since you first become involved?

We are still in the laboratory scale phase. Some testing applications can involve a few thousand users. It’s the beginning. Still amateur craftspeople style. Internet of 1992.

A crowd of motivated people follow my posts and articles on LinkedIn, and every day there are more of them. This is an indication of how the blockchain topic is gaining momentum.

From your evaluation of blockchain whitepapers, where do you think companies are going wrong, and what principles should they align themselves with?

White papers are sometimes what they call themselves. All white. I sometimes don’t find any intelligent words on them.

My main point: a technology shall solve a problem. And sometimes I don’t find the problem described in white papers.

What is the problem blockchain technology shall solve? That is the first question! And then one has to prove it. In written form. Most whitepapers I see make the mistake of starting with the hypothesis that blockchain can solve every problem of this planet.

Are you personally invested in any blockchain companies?

I am not. I bought some bitcoins and ethers, at the time of purchase valued 1000 Euro. The maximum amount I would allow myself to lose when playing in a casino.

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