On Saturday, the Yale Blockchain Initiative — a Tsai CITY program that supports projects, education and programming related to online currencies —  hosted its first conference to discuss the economic, political and social implications of blockchain technology.

Over 100 students and interested professionals packed into the Omni Hotel to attend the conference. Blockchain, an online currency system that de-intermediates online banking by incentivizing people to facilitate open-source transactions, became popular in 2017. The conference featured social, economic and political panels with industry and academic leaders, hosting speakers such as Jeff Bandman, a lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a co-founder of the Global Digital Finance, as well as professionals like Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock — an internet retailer.

Davi Lemos ’19, executive director of the Yale Blockchain Initiative, organized the conference along with YBI board members Bryce Bjork ’20, Eric Duong ’20 and Jay Majumdar ’19.

“The Blockchain space really needs this right now, taking a step back and questioning underlying reasons why we are doing this, not just technical aspects of what direction we’re building in,” Lemos said. “We used Yale’s strong focus in the liberal arts, humanities and social sciences to create an interdisciplinary conversation on blockchain.”

According to Lemos, universities like Columbia and Harvard have already hosted conferences that focused on the technical aspects of blockchain technology.

However, Lemos said that they wanted to focus not on “what” blockchain is but “why” it is relevant and important.

Lemos said that YBI hopes to bring in more people and continue to refine the group’s structure.

“We want to host a second addition of the conference next year, maybe at [the School of Management],” Lemos said. “Lots of speakers have said that they wanted to come back for next year.”

But this is far from YBI’s first event to garner interest in blockchain. This past fall, YBI hosted a boot camp sponsored by Tsai CITY to introduce coding blockchain to beginners and refine advanced coders’ skills. The group currently hosts coffee chats on Friday where interested students present blockchain-related findings to each other.

In the future, Lemos also hopes to support other related practical projects to engage the Yale community.

For example, in January, Lemos, along with two of his Yale peers, opened an NGO that uses blockchain to make “volunteer tokens” that can be redeemed for business discounts and donations to NGOs.

“We’re using blockchain to ensure transparency in the transactions,” Lemos said. “You can trust us because everything is logged in an open source code — it’s a very transparent and democratic platform.”

Sarah Yang DIV ’21, who learned about blockchain through Tsai CITY, considered the conference a great introduction to both the technology and its practical applications.

“[The conference] caused me to think about blockchain in whatever I do next,” Yang said. “I really liked the idea of transferring information, capturing its value and transferring its value … and I see applications to developing countries, creating efficiency and helping others participate in the benefits of this.”

Yang particularly liked the interdisciplinary nature of the conference and the “information exchange” facilitated by the experts, speakers and students.

“I think the most amazing thing the conference demonstrated was how broad the possible case use of blockchain actually are,” said Robert Jett ’20, who also attended the conference. “It really isn’t limited to cryptocurrencies — there are companies popping up in every industry.”

The YBI is sponsored by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY) and Tsai CITY.

Samuel Turner | samuel.turner@yale.edu