Cashing in on blockchain What does that mean for Lafayette?

Photo by Christiaan Mader

A mea culpa: When I noticed on a stray tech blog that Mayor Joel Robideaux was talking cryptocurrencies at a conference in March, I was incredulous. That he called it “crypteaux” and conceived of it as a way of getting people to pick up trash made the whole thing come across like a novelty, a pipe dream or some combination of the two.

Turns out: Crypteaux is bigger and more real than we could have imagined.

In case you missed it, last week Robideaux announced his intention to position Lafayette as a player in blockchain and cryptocurrencies, a red-hot tech space many believe is an economic game-changer as revolutionary as the internet itself. Robideaux wants to slingshot the city’s entry into the market by launching a municipal cryptocurrency (think Bitcoin). That process is called an initial coin offering, or ICO.

We’d be among the first to try this. Berkeley, Calif., and Seoul, South Korea, have contemplated the idea. Estonia wants to launch an e-residency program, where international companies can domicile in the country and trade in the national cryptocurrency. Venezuela’s ruling party claims it raised $5 billion when it introduced a national cryptocoin backed by oil reserves. That’s rare company for Lafayette.

Unveiling the ambition during the Robideaux Report, the mayor placed the blockchain/cryptocurrency move in the context of a futurist vision for Lafayette — one in which the city becomes a breeding ground of sorts for blockchain companies. Indeed, the more global message is that the mayor is doubling down on the tech sector as Lafayette’s future economic engine.

That’s a powerful message given the lackluster state of the oil and gas industry.

When the mayor says he wants Lafayette to move into the blockchain space, he’s referring to the technology’s emergence as a marketplace of possibility all its own.

Cryptocurrency is hot right now. Bitcoin, the most famous of the cryptocoins, currently trades at $8,000 per coin (down from its peak of almost $20,000 in December). Just a couple years ago, it sold for a rough average of $500 or below. You can imagine that people have gotten insanely rich on this stuff.

The cryptocurrency cash grab took the lead in local day-after headlines, but it may be worth paying more attention to the mayor’s interest in blockchain, the technology that enables and undergirds cryptocurrency. If you want to read the mayor’s play as a broader economic vision, blockchain is the bigger fish to fry.

Blockchain: Where it all begins

Blockchain is often described as a ledger. Indeed, it’s essentially a record of transactions and data exchanges between anonymous parties. The key innovation is that it is distributed, i.e. kept and updated across a decentralized network of participants. The ledger isn’t kept in one place by one authority. The outcome is a near magical feat: It makes transactions more transparent, more private and more direct. Money and information can be exchanged faithfully and easily between parties without a central intermediary. Therein lies its disruptive capacity in banking and other industries.

Moving our definition forward, blockchain is a type of distributed ledger that was developed to do the books for cryptocurrency like bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies use blockchains to track and trace the purchases and transactions that use them.

Blockchain’s genius has broad applications beyond banking and finance. It could change the power and process structures of any industry that relies on a centralized control of information. In health care, for instance, blockchain could give you more control over your medical records and data, allowing you to share and access your information with medical providers on your terms.

When the mayor says he wants Lafayette to move into the blockchain space, he’s referring to the technology’s emergence as a marketplace of possibility all its own. The idea is to play Lafayette’s fiber edge (an advantage that’s waning), raise a cryptonation flag with an ICO and attract blockchain researchers, innovators and startups. That could mean getting in on the ground floor of a potentially powerful and lucrative industry.

In his speech, Robideaux said he wanted Lafayette to become a “living lab” for companies in this space. What exactly he has in mind is unclear. One possible touchstone is Chattanooga’s “Innovation District” — a section of town specifically carved out to serve as a place to grow startups. The mayor visited Chattanooga earlier this year.

Cryptocurrency: There’s gold in those blockchains!

With a tenuous grasp on blockchain, you can probably wrap your head around cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are digital “coins” or “tokens” that enable purchase of goods, exchange of wealth or a system of rewards. Again, the innovation here is that the transactions are decentralized, private and transparent.

Principally, they’re like any other currency in that their value is determined by scarcity and demand. You hold them in a digital wallet or keep an account at a digital coin exchange. You can receive them for work or as reward in a game. You can distribute them, horde them or steal them.

Cryptocurrency transactions are validated by a large network of participants. Each time a purchase or transfer is made via bitcoin, let’s say, computers on the network (“miners” is the term of art here) race to authenticate the trade. Miners who complete a set number of authentications are rewarded with the chance to compete for newly minted bitcoin by cracking a complex numerical code. Right now, the winning miner gets 12.5 bitcoins for a successful solution. That’s about $100,000. The bitcoin protocol caps the total possible number of bitcoins at 21 million. As of this writing, roughly 17 million are in circulation.

It’s sort of like a system of digital notaries, only the notaries race each other to stamp as many deeds as possible for the chance to win $100,000.

The total valuation of the cryptocurrency marketplace is roughly $300 billion and rising.

Take note of the incentives built into cryptocurrency that drive participation in the system. You can apply that system of action and reward to participants in lots of ways. In a civic context, this could drive participation in a litter abatement program (Gnome Nation, anyone?) or reward citizens for carpooling. That becomes more attractive as the value of the cryptocurrency rises.

There are hundreds of cryptocurrencies, most of which you’ve probably never heard of. Bitcoin remains the big dog in the game. Ethereum is the Pepsi to its Coke. Although fevered purchase of the stuff has cooled, the expectation is that the space will continue to grow. The total valuation of the cryptocurrency marketplace is roughly $300 billion and rising, a figure Robideaux quoted in his remarks. He’s a budgets guy who thinks a lot about return on investment. No doubt he sees an opportunity to cash in on a growing market.

ICO: The hype machine

One of Robideaux’s aspirations is to create a cryptocurrency for Lafayette that could unlock new ways of financing public projects. Cryptocurrency has to be worth something, either by way of perception or cash infusion. One way to achieve value is to juice a currency launch with speculative capital, not unlike taking a company public on a stock exchange through an initial public offering, or IPO. In the cryptocoin universe, that’s called an initial coin offering, or ICO. One key difference between the two, however, is that ICOs are totally unregulated.

Indeed, one risk facing the mayor’s venture is the uncertain regulatory and political climes. Headline-grabbing thefts around ICOs have spurred talk of federal regulation. European regulators have pushed back on Estonia’s efforts, claiming the EU member nation can’t mint its own currency. The facts on the ground could vary wildly between now and an eventual ICO, making it difficult to predict how interested investors could be.

How exactly the mayor intends to monetize a Lafayette cryptocurrency is unclear. But take to heart for the time being that, depending on the details of how it’s structured or financed, an ICO could be a lucrative money machine or an impossibility.

So, uh, is this really feasible?

The short answer is yes. But, like with anything else, the devil lurks in the details. Thus far we don’t know much about what Robideaux has in mind.

Because the cryptocurrency market is unregulated, there aren’t any apparent legal obstructions. Lafayette, in theory, has the technical resources to make it happen, so it’s logistically possible. What’s not clear is how he intends to go about it. The possibilities are myriad.

In Berkeley, for instance, the idea is to back an ICO with municipal bonds. Blockchain decentralization then enables an interesting wrinkle: Individuals can trade smaller chunks of the bonds to buy city goods or services, or raise money for small-scale projects. They call that “microbonding,” and it end-arounds the typically onerous municipal bonding process — cumbersome regulations, gatekeepers and all. The folks behind the Berkeley ICO hope the proceeds can fund affordable housing programs orphaned by the Trump administration’s subsidy cuts.

Regardless of the funding mechanism or code undergirding, the mayor’s cryptocurrency will need hype to succeed. Advances in the use of the technology have begun to distance cryptocurrencies from strictly financial uses. So the program can have utility beyond accruing speculative value and financing. Nevertheless, like conventional currencies, people have to buy that a cryptocoin is worth something — the self-fulfilling magic of commerce.

Make no mistake, the mayor’s shot has been heard around the small but mighty cryptocoin world. Only time will tell if the headlines will grab investors and carry the mayor’s vision into being.