In the early 2000s, my wife and I backpacked through the Sichuan province in China to Lhasa, Tibet. Many of China’s towns and villages were being torn down and rebuilt, and we wanted to see them before much of their history was lost. During our travels, we transacted with vendors using abacuses in the streets or at train stations. They would flip through the abacus with lightning speed and show us the resulting price. I will admit, we had no idea how to read an abacus, so we just nodded and handed them the number of paper bills we felt approximated the value of what we were buying. It usually worked out just fine.
Those who have used cryptocurrencies or other digital assets like NFTs can likely relate to how I felt about the abacus. Usually, it works just fine—except when it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, there may be a lot at stake! Unlike the abacus, the technology behind digital assets is enabling new innovations that are important for local communities and individuals. However, those innovations shouldn’t require the user to learn how to understand something that feels as abstract as the abacus did to me—it should feel familiar and secure.
I confess I am a technologist by profession, so naturally, I was interested in Bitcoin when it released in 2009. But it wasn’t until late 2017 or early 2018 that I jumped in completely by installing solar panels on my home and mining a cryptocurrency called Zcash. In 2018, I co-developed a blockchain patent with a colleague, and by late 2020 I realized that blockchain technology was developing into an important solution that could empower individuals and communities.
At that time, blockchain technology started evolving from a way to transact digital currency to a valuable tool for storing information, managing personal identities, coordinating large communities, and representing and trading real-world assets, among many other uses. These advances allowed the individual or community who developed the underlying protocol to maintain complete control over information. It felt like the wonderful, crazy chaos and discovery that marked the rise of the internet of the mid-‘90s, without today’s corporate capitalism.
Jump ahead to 2022, and the user experience remains a major problem. Even more, it’s clear that traditional finance (TradFi) and decentralized finance (DeFi) need to interoperate—there is too much confusion, and it impacts users. That’s why Mountain America Credit Union’s leadership team crafted a white paper about how credit unions, trusted community institutions that embody the cooperative values of DeFi but are still part of the TradFi ecosystem, can serve both financial models. Through this lens, the following spectrum of services comes into view:
Significant innovation is happening with cryptocurrencies, decentralized information storage, self-sovereign identities and much more in the decentralized finance space. Additionally, governance in the same space has settled into the time-tested cooperative model. This model is beneficial because it is owned and operated by its members, with all profits used to benefit them. Credit unions, including Mountain America, are cooperatives who work hard to represent the needs of their communities.
Traditional finance has remained largely the same for centuries. It is profit-driven and can sometimes feel like it was made by and for the wealthy. Credit unions provide the financial services their members need, which are typically rooted in the traditional financial system, and help their members experience meaningful benefits.
Our central question is, what if a credit union could fix DeFi’s abacus-like user experience and help its members securely participate in decentralized finance activities? As a cooperative, Mountain America could be a community finance institution that enables members to opt-in to the very best decentralized finance protocols so they can comfortably transition between the time-tested rails of the traditional finance system.
It is evident that Mountain America’s members are increasingly using decentralized finance. Also, the number of questions and comments the credit union receives from members about digital assets that represent a diverse range of opinions. Because Mountain America exists to serve its members, we are exploring a variety of opportunities that fit within today’s regulatory constraints to identify how the credit union can help members safely participate in both TradFi and DeFi. If Mountain America can be the bridge between these models, it can focus on improving the user experience in a unique way. As a not for profit, it can be trusted to reflect the values and behaviors of its members in how it executes these services.
As a pathway for exploration, Mountain America sponsored Cryptopia, a Utah-based Web3 conference focused on all things blockchain, including decentralized finance. The conference is the beginning of a listening tour for Mountain America to collect feedback and determine next steps. Mountain America is also reaching out to community, state and federal stakeholders to encourage responsible regulation and development that protects all parties, including those doing the innovating. If you’re a Mountain America member, please get involved in member governance and reach out with your feedback and thoughts. If you’re not a member, we still welcome your input. Together, we can move forward responsibly in a way that benefits everyone.