Given last year’s annus horribilis for the digital asset sector, many investors would be forgiven for writing off cryptocurrencies altogether. But the fear of missing out is an underestimated human driver.

In the first half of 2023, Bitcoin and other major cryptocurrencies kicked off the year with a strong performance. But with rising borrowing costs and a slowdown in the global economy have since dampened appetite for the speculative asset.

Continued Regulatory Uncertainty

In July, a decision by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled the XRP token sold by Ripple Labs in secondary markets was not a security, which led to a short-lived bump in cryptocurrency prices.

Many legal observers noted serious flaws in the Ripple Labs decision. Especially in the District Court’s flawed application of the famed Howey test for securities, established by the US Supreme Court.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has announced it intends to appeal the Ripple Labs decision, possibly bringing all token issuances within the ambit of the regulatory agency’s oversight.

Cryptocurrency enthusiasts, eager for the SEC to approve a long-awaited spot-based Bitcoin Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF), also had their hopes dashed when the regulator recently announced a delay in considering all applications. Payment processing giant PayPal announced it would be issuing a stablecoin, only to “pause” the initiative just a week later.

Against this backdrop of continued regulatory uncertainty, investors, both retail and institutional, are understandably standing on the sidelines when it comes to cryptocurrencies and the sector has not seen meaningful inflows.

Yet as investments go, Bitcoin and some other cryptocurrencies, including ether, have had an incredible run this year, with Bitcoin gaining some 75 per cent and Ether up some 55 per cent. And even with the recent pullback in cryptocurrency prices, it seems the human penchant for speculation on a technology simultaneously overhyped and underdeveloped, shows no signs of waning.

Central banks globally have yet to stop exploring the prospect of issuing their own digital currencies, commonly known as “central bank digital currencies” or CBDCs. BlackRock, one of the biggest asset managers globally, has thrown its hat into the ring and applied to list a spot Bitcoin ETF in the US. Meanwhile, Europe saw its first spot Bitcoin ETF listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange.

These activities come against a backdrop of regulatory enforcement actions against some of the biggest names in the digital asset industry. That includes action by the SEC against Binance and Coinbase, two of the world’s largest exchanges.

If financial institutions are skittish about participating in a sector so rife with regulatory challenges, their actions don’t seem to be reflecting that reticence. In some ways, the prospect of enforcement and regulatory action may be a good thing for cryptocurrencies long-term as it would provide the much-needed backdrop of certainty that could move more institutional participation.

Macroeconomics and Cryptocurrency

At just over a trillion dollars in market capitalisation on a good day, cryptocurrencies, to paraphrase a recent decision of the New York District Court for the Southern District of New York, just aren’t that systemically significant.

Yet, an ongoing narrative touted by proponents of cryptocurrency as an investable asset, argues the unprecedented growth in money supply, inflation and an interest rate hiking cycle that looks set to taper, should bolster the attractiveness of deflationary assets such as Bitcoin.

Bitcoin’s deflationary quality (there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins and the amount that can be mined roughly every four years halves) has long been touted as a reason for its inclusion in an investment portfolio.

Many investors have been seduced by the siren song of the simplicity of Bitcoin’s “deflationary asset quality” as an investment case. But just because an asset is deflationary doesn’t necessarily mean it will retain its value over the long term.

Take gold for instance, which has long been touted as a hedge against inflation given its finite supply.

Yet despite record-high inflation in the US in 2022, the value of gold as an inflation hedge actually decreased because a stronger dollar and higher US Treasury yields made it more attractive for investors to put their dollars into assets which generate yields, which gold does not.

Similarly, with the current risk-free rate of return well over zero, it’s hard to make an investment case for an asset that generates zero yields such as Bitcoin.

Another narrative being touted as supporting the investment case for Bitcoin is that interest rates will soon taper and start to be cut, which will bring increased liquidity and make speculative assets such as cryptocurrencies more attractive. Yet, there is nothing to suggest interest rates won’t simply remain higher for longer.

The US Federal Reserve has not indicated it intends to cut interest rates anytime soon, instead, the overwhelming messaging from members of the Fed has been persistently high inflation and a need to keep rates at their current level or higher for longer.

Historically, central banks have also always acted one step behind market conditions, cutting rates only in the face of a full-blown recession rather than preemptively.

And if a recession is a necessary precursor to rate cuts, it’s difficult to see how dire economic conditions could bolster the investment case for cryptocurrencies.

The elephant in the room of course is Bitcoin can’t be a Chimera, constantly shifting its investment case on the basis of the current macroeconomic climate—Bitcoin can’t be both a speculative asset and a store of value to hedge against inflation depending on who’s asking.

Perhaps, and because, Bitcoin in particular and cryptocurrencies in general are so susceptible to narrative capture, the nascent asset class (if it’s safe to refer to it as that) will almost always find itself an audience, even if the size of that audience may regularly vary.

The Internet of Value

Many cryptocurrency enthusiasts liken the current state of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies to the early days of the Internet and acknowledge that the propensity to oversell its usefulness was in many ways similar to when the world was first coming to terms with a new means of communication in the form of the Internet.

Today, few, if any, can imagine a life without the Internet, which orders many aspects of modern life. Given how much of our lives are increasingly digital, surely the way we conduct our commerce ought to be as well? But much of commerce already is digital.

Whereas early iterations of the web were ill-suited to supporting financial transactions, digital payments in most of the developed world are taken for granted. Where there remains plenty of room for improvement is in the areas of transparency and access. Although digital payments have become almost ubiquitous, huge swathes of the global population remain unbanked.

Mismanagement and inflation have plagued citizens in certain parts of the world, where it turns out that holding Bitcoin is far more sensible than clutching to pesos and bolívars.

The tokenisation of assets and the analytics and transparency that would afford is attracting greater interest.

Billions of dollars of bonds have already been tokenised, and financial institutions globally are embracing the use of blockchain technology to speed up processes without giving up security.

And finally, to improve access to banking services and speed up transactions while reducing friction, central banks are still open to the idea of issuing their own digital currencies.

The concept of tokenised securities is also taking root, with some pointing to the ability to effect faster and safer trades while receiving real-time information on interested party transactions.

It is difficult to say what cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that underpins them, would look like a decade from now; it is unclear at best.

Even in the early days of the Internet, it was impossible to foresee how advancements in bandwidth, mobile technology and rich content would reshape not just our digital experience but our physical lives. Similarly, where blockchain and cryptocurrencies will take us next is less certain.

To be sure, blockchain technology will need to scale significantly while keeping costs low, to constitute a meaningful alternative to current methods of value transfer.

What is clear though is that given the potentially transformative power of both blockchain and cryptocurrencies, there will be more than a handful of investors willing to take a punt on their long-term value, which is all fine and dandy as long as they recognise exactly what they are doing—taking a punt.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Let’s talk trends. Hotel trends, specifically. It’s axiomatic that you
can have too much of a good thing. They also say the cart shouldn’t lead the horse. The social media revolution has brought much good but it can also do great harm. And while I enjoy a sexy hotel Instagram shot as much as the next guy, I’m starting to wonder if we are entering the Upside Down; a world where influencers have run wild.

I see more and more of a prevailing trend in design that revolves around the dangerous idea of being Instagram-worthy. A lot of clients believe that this is what drives guests to stay with them. I try to instil in them the notion that this is the antithesis of authentic, lasting design. While going for the easy wow factor might make for Insta-gratification, guests will soon see past the shallow stunts. And in a world of wow and one-upmanship, where does it end? Chasing after the next fleeting fad as the filtered, pouty crowd rushes off to the next photo opportunity.

In parallel, another trend in luxury travel is authentic experiences. Luxury hotel guests often search out the unique and plan their travels around it. This is my wheelhouse. At BLINK Design Group, we subscribe to the philosophy of placemaking as the genesis of authentic, unique design rooted in a sense of place, and inspired and fed by local culture, arts, crafts and traditions.

This is a much deeper point of distinction in an ever-fiercer competition for guests. Sure, cheap wows can get attention. The secret is keeping it. Peeling the onion. Going deeper. Revealing more. True luxury travel is a marathon, not a sprint. Discerning travellers demand more. Is the Insta-crowd doing the TikTok tango trend? You can keep them.

I guess, I’ve always viewed a real sense of place as an inherent part of our design process. I’ve not thought of it as a trend or something fleeting. It really is the genesis of all of our projects. Through the years I think we’ve managed to refine it and it’s driven largely by our desire and love for travel and exploring. Authenticity is key in placemaking but so is the art of distilling that authenticity into a single thread to magnify its significance.

Travel has bounced back in a big way post-pandemic but it’s a double-edged sword. The two big challenges that affect what BLINK does more than ever are time and money. Developers want things done yesterday. Everyone is in a rush to make up for lost time and opportunities. But the supply chain is broken and it can’t be healed overnight.

There are a lot of materials and supplies that are either no longer available or have much longer lead times, which leads to project delays. For us, abortive work is having to reselect finishes and materials. Project deadlines have got shorter and we have become used to meeting online. Calendars are awash with Zoom dates.

Trends are trending to the universal. Love it or hate it, the world we live in is ever-more instantly connected. A client in one part of the world can see what is happening halfway around the world. This has led to a circular design culture in which trends stretch across continents and clients are more often than not in search of the same trends. Of course, the danger is design becomes an ouroboros, hell-bent on devouring itself.

Now, the elephant in the room: Artificial Intelligence. I think we are at the tipping point in terms of hotel design. AI is still nascent yet its potential is both scary and endless. I had always thought the day when AI replaces hotel designers would not be an integral part of our industry during my generation, but I was wrong. We’ve already had a few clients asking for AI-generated mood images. At BLINK, AI is something that we are keen to understand more and embrace as a design tool.

In a very human industry, built by and for people, can artificial intelligence really ever replace the human touch? It’s an interesting question. I am more excited than scared, and I’m rolling up my sleeves to try to understand how to work with AI in order to make hotel designs better. How can we create spaces through the use of AI?

Another trend I find encouraging is the shift to a small, local and nimble perspective. Just a few years ago the hospitality design firm was dominated by large practices with global offices. But times have changed. In almost every corner of the world, there are now a lot of small firms that do wonderful work. I’ve been following a handful of them on (insert ironic chuckle) Instagram. It’s inspiring, to say the least.

Regarding geographical trends, the Middle East is a big story right now. It’s a huge hotspot for growth due to several factors. The region, which has long relied on its wealth from oil, has pivoted into becoming travel-focused. In countries like the UAE, a lot of the interest is driven by man-made attractions such as the recently opened USD1.6B Atlantis The Royal. But its neighbours such as Saudi Arabia are turning to their rich history and natural beauty, which I find more exciting. Places like the Red Sea where they are developing two giga-projects or more historical places like Alula and Dhiryah Gate.

A quieter trend has been the ongoing development of new destinations within proximity to major urban cities like Bangkok and Tokyo, with areas like Khao Yai and Karuizawa being hotspots for new developments that BLINK is keeping a close eye on.

I’ve also recently been fascinated by collaborative efforts between two labels, like the Gucci and adidas collab. It forced me to think [about how] these unions work. Usually, they’re from two opposite directions—luxury versus sports apparel—but together, they create something different.

That could be an emerging trend in hospitality design: smashing polar opposites together to create something new and unexpected. That’s exciting. It would take brands and owners with the courage to step into the unknown but it could just be the future.