I Spent Two Weeks at Vitalik’s Pop-Up City Zuzalu, Here’s What I Learned.

Davos could never...

DeFi Dave
DeFi Dave
May 9, 2023
I Spent Two Weeks at Vitalik’s Pop-Up City Zuzalu, Here’s What I Learned.

Imagine you are in a room with some of the brightest minds in their respective fields where an exercise using an emotion wheel is taking place. Out of all the feelings people could have picked, one of the most popular ones was “inadequate.” The irony of this did not escape me as I could hear the late Charles Bukowski say “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

Zuzalu was not your typical gathering. It was a pop-up city organized by Vitalik and company that brought together the world’s top minds in frontier knowledge; AI, Zero-Knowledge Cryptography, Longevity, Network States, Crypto, Public Goods, etc for two months of mini-conferences, discussions, and activities. It’s as if Vitalik took all of his deep interests that he was involved with in some capacity and planted his flag off the coast of the Adriatic Sea in Montenegro; he was ultimately a schelling point for people to gather around.

My time at Zuzalu started at the tail-end of ZK week and came to a close during the middle of AI-alignment debates. In between, there was a mini-conference about Network States, a whitewater rafting trip, and even a few discussions about stablecoins hosted by yours truly. After almost two weeks in the community I left with several takeaways, some being reminders of what I already knew and others newfound conclusions that offer me fresh insight on what is to come.

Everything is Connected

It is naive to think that our specialities exist in a vacuum, especially when we are at the frontier of tech. Personally, being in crypto for so long which is interdisciplinary in its very nature at the intersection of computer science, economics, cryptography, and game theory, it’s easy to look over new paradigms forming just at the horizon. Because they are so novel, these cross-model between fields are still forming but one can speculate on how they will cross-pollinate in the future.

For instance, envision a future longevity-focused network state that distributes public goods using quadratic funding and employs zk-technology to maintain citizens' privacy during voting. AI enhances all layers of the longevity network state including efficiency in governance and speed of research. Although this may seem far off to many, it was this type of mixing of the minds that took place at Zuzalu. With the right people, it may be closer to happening after all.

ZK is Here and Has Live Applications Today

For those unfamiliar Zero-Knowledge is a form of cryptography that allows you to prove to someone that you know something without revealing to them what it actually is. For example, with ZK, you can prove to someone that you solved a sudoku puzzle without showing how you did it. This type of cryptography was originally discovered in the 80s but today has proven to have a wide and growing variety of applications.

After talking to several devs who were still around post-ZK Week that specialized in the area, I can say I learned more in those few days than the past year. Spending time mostly at the on-chain financial and social layer, the most I heard about ZK is in regards to zkEVM, but that was barely the tip of the iceberg. At Zuzalu, a number of experiments using ZK tech took place. For example, ZuPoll allowed for anonymous feedback and the ZuPass was the city’s zk-powered passport that citizens used to check-in and sign up for events. Seeing these projects in action even at a small scale shows how this tech could be applied to larger ones in the future.

One of the most exciting ZK-projects I discovered at Zuzalu was Axiom which describes itself as a “ZK compressor for Ethereum”.  By augmenting blockchain consensus with zero-knowledge proofs, Axiom allows smart contracts to trustlessly access all on-chain data and arbitrary expressive compute. These abilities make for some fascinating use cases including updating DeFi parameters based on historical data, making oracle queries for on-chain data trustless, and much more. Those two use cases in particular are extremely relevant to on-chain lending which makes prices more accurate and less prone to manipulation. Another ZK protocol, Semaphore, empowers Ethereum users to send signals such as votes, endorsements, and memberships in an anonymous manner and is already gaining adoption. ZK3, a project I wrote about previously during my time in Tokyo, utilizes Semaphore to help users privately identify with their Web3 tribes as well as their Web2 personas.

We Are in the Primordial Soup Phase of Network States

Balaji checking if the US banking system is still functioning from his phone (allegedly)

When Balaji Srinivasan released his Network State v1 last summer, it caused as much discussion as it did excitement over the new concept that is intended to be the technological successor to the nation-state. For those unfamiliar, the one sentence definition of a Network State is a highly aligned online community with a capacity for collective action that crowdfunds territory around the world and eventually gains diplomatic recognition from pre-existing states. When it comes down to it, the power of network states are measured by their ability to collectively bargain with other entities in a sovereign manner. Today, we are in the primordial soup of network states where although non-exist currently, the practical elements that would make up one already exist.

One particular group at Zuzalu stood out as a truly high aligned online community with a capacity for collective action which was Afropolitan. The Pan-African centric digital nation was started years before network states was even in the lexicon. Their “why” for existing is clear. Since the dawn of nation-states forming in Africa in a post-colonial world, countries on the continent have struggled to accumulate influence and resources relative to their counterparts. The result is a region that is known for its instability with passports that are extremely limited in their mobility. This was evident at Zuzalu itself where the attendees from Africa counted in the single digits. The one commandment for Afropolitan is to gain leverage to build abundance for their constituents. Afropolitan was one of the few if not the only network state effort that is being driven by necessity rather than having the luxury to exit.

One of the biggest takeaways from the network state presentations was that by partnering and building with constituencies that already have jurisdictional recognition in some form people and groups can still accomplish their goals without needing to become a network state. A great example of this is the Catawba Digital Economic Zone, a sovereign regulatory zone that is backed by the Catawba Indian Nation that calls its home at the border of North and South Carolina. The federally-recognized jurisdiction offers some of the most cutting edge regulatory guidelines and clear frameworks for crypto projects, taking the best guidelines of what is already established in places like Delaware, Wyoming, etc. and adapting the approval process for the digital age. Some of what the Catawba Digital Economic Zone offers include DAOs to incorporate as LLCs and UNAs (Unincorporated Non-Profit Associations) as well as comprehensive banking regulation. Today, Catawba lends itself to being a regulatory sandbox and positively contributes to legislative discussion based on practical implementations of their digital frameworks.

Coordinating Public Goods in a Digital Age

Although I did not make the “official” week for public goods, it was a repeated concept of conversation especially in the context of Zuzalu. Studying Public Goods is the study of how to properly distribute resources, something that humanity has grappled with throughout the ages. Whether it be agricultural, industrial, or beyond, surpluses bring order and it is up to the order to decide where those surpluses are directed. In the digital age, coordination tools enable us to fund public goods in previously unthinkable ways, leading to numerous experiments in this area.

One such experiment that I learned about was Hypercerts which is a new type of retrospective funding that tracks, evaluates, and rewards efforts of contributors in an open manner. For example, today (yes literally today), more than 40 projects were created as hypercerts to reward supporters for their Gitcoin alpha round donations.

The potential for properly rewarding public goods to contributors cannot be understated. Less time will be taken figuring out how to fund efforts while more time will be focused on actually completing them. Furthermore, it will increase the productivity of contributors that are properly aligned and incentivized.

People Are Hungry To Learn More About Stablecoins

Although not listed in the planned programming of Zuzalu, stablecoins did have their time in the sun. Many attendees were unfamiliar with stablecoins beyond the stories they heard in the media, and I lost count of how many conversations I had explaining the fine nuances between different types and how they worked. Stablecoins are an area that has proven to be the least understood in DeFi even though it is one of crypto’s most proven use cases. In a short amount of time, stablecoins have collectively reached $130 billion in market cap and every day, stablecoins are used as a medium of exchange and store of value by tens of millions worldwide.

Not sponsored by Arizona Ice Tea

I decided to throw two stablecoin-focused events for my humble contribution to the knowledge sharing taking place at Zuzalu. The first was a panel with Pablo and Ben from QiDAO, where we jammed about stablecoins and their current role in DeFi. The second was a presentation I gave “stablecoin maximalism”, a new concept proposed by Sam Kazemian at ETH Denver this past year. About thirty people across different backgrounds and fields attended to listen to how on a long enough timeline, the most DeFi protocols will have a stablecoin and the most successful stablecoins at scale will have the same universal structure.

The attention given to stablecoins amidst other topics highlights their importance. One can argue that stablecoins touch every part of the Zuzalu stack whether it be network states issuing their own stablecoins, zk-technology ensuring the privacy of stablecoin users and issuers, public goods being funded by stablecoins, etc. It will be interesting to see if in the future if Zuzalu organizers will incorporate stablecoin programming in future events (and if you guys need help with that, let me know!)

AI is Here and We Are Grappling With its Ramifications

Towards the tail end of my time at Zuzalu, AI was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, more so than anything else. I am a complete novice when it comes to AI and more so used my time to gather insight from conversations with others. From a practical standpoint since Zuzalu, I took the advice of using AI as an assistant and was encouraged that my non-technical background was even an advantage in this arena. If AI is an infinite canvas empowering humanity to create in manners once deemed impossible. Yet AI leads to many philosophical questions about humanity’s place in the universe. If AI evolves to the point of not just general intelligence but superintelligence, what does that mean for us?

Firstly, I don't agree with framing AI as "artificial," as it implies separation from us. They are more so our collective reflection as a species having been emotionally imprinted with humanity and all of our highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, and love and loss. Intellectually, humanity is passing on their memes like how we biologically pass on our genes to the next generation. There is a debate on whether AI has the ability to become conscious or not but regardless, reframing AI as collective intelligence and an extension of us is a much healthier and cooperative mindset to have.

Final Thoughts: It’s All About The People

Yes, the water was really that blue.

Whether they are a two month resident or one week visitor, everyone who comes to Zuzalu has their own unique experience. For me personally, I enjoyed getting to know people, their stories, and figuring out their “why” in what they do. Generally speaking, that is why for many they are rooted in long-term thinking; how can we utilize the developments we are working on here to improve the world around us. A memorable moment was playing ultimate frisbee against the longevity enthusiasts during a camping trip. It was little moments that we shared in the hard fought battle (that we won) and being in the moment with others that made Zuzalu what it was.

I’d like to thank all the organizers for putting Zuzalu together. It is no easy feat managing the logistics of a pop-up city and you all have been doing a phenomenal job in doing so. I hope to return to Zuzalu or something similar to it in the future, but I walk away knowing that there are others out there who care and even in the face of uncertainty (either about themselves or the world around them) they continue to pursue something greater than themselves.

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