Dr Ying-Ying Hsieh told us about her fascination with blockchain and what the future holds for digital money
Despite its erratic nature, the cryptocurrency market continues to be a source of fascination for investors and the public alike.
When Dr Ying-Ying Hsieh, Assistant Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Imperial College Business School, first came across cryptocurrency in 2014, she was similarly fascinated. At that time, the industry was still in its infancy and most people hadn’t heard of bitcoin – and, if they had, many associated the burgeoning technology with criminal activity.
“The engineer in me wanted to truly understand what it is, how it works, and what’s unique about it, and when I figured it out, I decided to study the phenomenon no matter what – even if bitcoin died the next day or before I finished my PhD,” she says.
Dr Hsieh, also the Associate Centre Director of Imperial's Centre for Cryptocurrency Research & Engineering, focuses her research on the organisational design of blockchain-based decentralised platforms. She also looks at the growth and decline of decentralised platforms, participation in them, the effectiveness of governance and their designs, which allows her to draw parallels from her background in materials science and engineering.
Regulating digital money
The value of cryptocurrency lies in its function as a way of exchanging monetary value online without intermediaries, but perhaps another reason it has such a devoted following is the ideological and political possibilities it presents.
“The purpose of creating digital cash is to take back control of our money and to be our own bank,” says Dr Hsieh. “It’s an opportunity to build a financial system that is decentralised. It isn’t sponsored by a corporation, there are no managers, no CEOs, no employees to manage all the transactions in the same way as traditional companies.
“This decentralisation can hopefully help us get closer to the idea of the democratisation of money, finance and data ownership.”
Despite these possibilities, cryptocurrency also poses a dilemma for financial regulators: how to avoid killing the innovation prematurely and, at the same time, protect investors and consumers. In January 2022, Dr Hsieh told Reuters that, in the future we can “expect a more well-defined regulatory framework to emerge, with a goal to bridge the crypto world with the traditional financial systems”.
For me, teaching informs research and vice versa
So, what would this new financial landscape look like? Dr Hsieh believes it is likely to be open, flexible and experimental.
“It’s a big question and regulators are experimenting with different ideas, and trying to see to what extent we have to reinvent the wheel. It isn’t possible to apply the existing regulatory framework to the new system because there are many unique features [to cryptocurrency]."
Despite these difficulties, Dr Hsieh says cryptocurrencies are here to stay.
“It isn’t like it was back in 2014, when there was still a lot of uncertainty. Today, we are quite sure that this is not going to go away, so regulations become necessary if organisations want to adopt this technology.”
The future of cryptocurrency
Dr Hsieh’s current research focus is blockchain-based platforms and how they can perform effectively without the usual managerial hierarchies and authorities seen in other financial institutions like banks.
Having initially investigated and published research on the decentralised structure of cryptocurrency platforms, she is now broadening her research to investigate the implications of decentralised platforms for participants, such as developers.
Beyond her work at Imperial, Dr Hsieh is keen to share her research, its relevance and potential impact, with other experts in the sector. In July 2022, she took part in a Chatham House event, Crypto Going Global: What Next for Digital Money?, during which experts explored what the future holds for cryptocurrencies in a turbulent and uncertain time for digital finance. In October, she spoke at the Organization Design Community Annual Conference 2022 about decentralised autonomous organisations and their implications for collaboration.
The purpose of creating digital cash is to take back control of our money and to be our own bank
She is also passionate about educating the next generation of innovators and has won two Teaching Excellence Awards, which are nominated and voted for by students. Dr Hsieh believes research and teaching should go together for academics.
“For me, teaching informs research and vice versa. The most rewarding part of teaching is when my students tell me my teaching has motivated them to pursue a particular career path or further education.”
Being an academic has allowed Dr Hsieh to fulfil her intellectual curiosity, as well as the chance to have a positive impact on the world.
“I am able to ask interesting questions, discover the answers and hopefully my research and my teaching will influence managerial decisions or policy making for the greater good.”