Learnings from ETHDenver 2023: The World’s Most Sprawling Blockchain
Galaxy Research’s Christine Kim attends ETHDenver, the world’s largest and longest-running Ethereum conference, which was held at Denver’s National Western Complex last week. In this note, Christine explains the breadth of programming at the conference this year and what it conveys about the state of Ethereum development.
Back and Bigger Than Ever
The 6th annual ETHDenver conference was a massive event, attracting more than 20,000 attendees from around the world for a 10-day celebration of Ethereum and the network’s many diverse facets of development. The conference quite simply had it all: hackathons, fireside chats, panel discussions, solo presentations, coding workshops, numerous side events, free childcare, an NFT art gallery, and even a “zen zone” for decompressing and sleeping during off-hours of the conference all in one giant venue.
Last year’s ETHDenver conference was held at the Sports Castle, which is a four-story, 35,000 square feet building originally used as a Chrysler car showroom. This year, ETHDenver was held at the National Western Complex, which is a sprawling, 48,000 square feet multipurpose venue normally used for rodeos, livestock competitions, and horse shows. Last year, ETHDenver attracted roughly 15,000 attendees, whereas this year the conference grew to accommodate its largest turnout of attendees yet and for every participant, the conference organizers had something to offer. Every square foot of the gigantic venue was completely filled with an activity, booth, or stage. These activities were grouped together geographically at National Western Complex by track. The five main tracks included: DAOs + Community, Decentralized Finance, Public Goods, Infrastructure, NFTs + Metaverse + Gaming.
The breadth of topics covered by the programming at ETHDenver this year was impressive. Still more impressive was the fact there were a plethora of side events to ETHDenver hosted by other entities throughout the city diving deeper into topics like MEV, shared security, ZK tech, account abstraction, TEEs, privacy, and more despite the wide coverage and ample space organized through the main conference. The chaotic energy created by all different types of Ethereum developers and community builders gathering in one city also helped fuel a sense of continued optimism and excitement for the future of Ethereum regardless of current market dynamics or ETH price. For a short, 10-day period, the focus of everyone’s minds at the conference was on preparing and building for the next wave of user adoption.
A Sight to Behold
But digging beyond the surface-level conversations around DAOs, DeFi, blockchain infrastructure, NFTs and other buzzworthy topics at the conference, it’s clear that the main narratives around development on Ethereum haven’t changed all that much since Devcon VI hosted back in October 2022. There remains a lack of innovation for application development on Ethereum. Most innovation is happening in the infrastructure that supports applications, such as rollups and blockchain design, but new, game-changing applications are hard to come by. Within the infrastructure space, most of the innovation continues to face the same issues of a lack of decentralization and censorship resistance that have characterized blockchain scaling techniques for years, and there hasn’t been much advancement on solving them yet. Concerns around centralization to and the overreliance on trusted entities to mitigate the negative impacts of MEV remain a source of concern for the Flashbots team and Ethereum core developers. Beyond the veneer of excitement around how much is happening on Ethereum, there was little about the projects or discussions at ETHDenver that presented new narratives or ideas about the future of Ethereum development.
Rather than present new ideas, the discussions at ETHDenver reaffirmed that incremental progress is being made on existing priorities. This year, the focus of Ethereum core developers remain on activating staked ETH withdrawals through the Shanghai upgrade and the early steps of proto-danksharding through the Cancun upgrade in the Fall. The Flashbots team continues to make progress towards realizing its vision of decentralized block building through hardware-based memory encryption. Other teams like Obol, SSV, and Diva are making headway in advancing distributed validator technology (DVT) for implementation on Ethereum, which would help improve the distribution of the validator set across multiple entities and staking pools. Staking pools like Rocketpool are focusing on improving their scalability through reducing costs for validator node operators and opening new staking services for institutions. Layer-2 rollup teams such as Arbitrum, Optimism, Polygon, Scroll, and zkSync continue to perfect their technology for greater speeds, lower costs, and stronger security guarantees.
Walking around the conference hall at ETHDenver this year, I was reminded of how much development on Ethereum occurs outside of Ethereum core protocol development. Ethereum is like a sprawling city where, beyond the confines of the protocol, there is an unrestricted and limitless amount of experimentation occurring on top of the codebase, even as the codebase continues to evolve. Regardless of the speed at which core developers work, Ethereum today is already supporting permissionless innovation at a large scale among decentralized application developers, blockchain infrastructure providers, and academic researchers and cryptographers, so much so that it is becoming impossible to define a single, cohesive narrative around the state of Ethereum development. Rather there are several compelling narratives around Ethereum development, each of which is actively in the process of being tested by a different group of developers and builders. While there weren’t any significant advancements in these narratives at ETHDenver, there was a clear illustration of them all thriving under one roof at the conference, which my, was a sight to behold.