EXCLUSIVE: FinTech Week London 2022: Do you speak Finance?
Last week was Fintech Week London 2022, a five-day event where fintech heads gathered to discuss the “Coming of age of the Fintech Industry.” For a sector that has existed for around two decades now, walking the line between new and old, it’s safe to say that fintech is in a constant flux of reinvention.
Across a two-day conference, leaders like Pietro Candela of AliPay, Ghela Boskovich of FemTechGlobal, and Lori Lightfoot the Mayor of Chicago, sat down in conversation, fervently discussing the trends of finance technology, from ridiculing the big legacy banks, to proclaiming embedded finance the future.
The FF News team were sprawling throughout the event, from conducting interviews in a mock hair salon, to going rogue from booth to booth on the networking floor.
The cost of living and the cold winter to come will be a horrific blow for the economy. We are entering into an era of brutalism, where customers can only afford what is absolutely necessary, accoutrements excluded. The two-day conference brought us back to life, and when I say that, I am not referring to post-pandemic relief, but to the fact that the economic world is up in flames and solutions need to be found now.
The fintech agora revolved around banks. What is their job? Why do we need them? Could we do without?
FTW’s Chairperson Chris Skinner assembled this framework in his keynote. He took a landscape view of the current craze around crypto, proclaiming that “the modern world demands a decentralised digital currency.” From the onset of globalisation and Open Banking, a universal coin, which can be used across borders and complies under a standardised distributive ledger à la SWIFT, seems like a natural conclusion to banking and payments.
Yet, we are nowhere near that goal post. There are several factors for this, one borrowing from the adage of Rome not being built in a day. Changes, especially in the banking and financial services sector, take years to come to fruition. Automation in insurance has existed since the 70s, and we’re still experimenting with its use cases. The crypto market just crashed, with Bitcoin dropping down from its $49,000 high in November 2021, to a hellish $15,000. Like any cycle, we will eventually return to a period of prosperity, but we cannot plan for the future when current structures are yet to be cemented.
This was bound to happen. Bitcoin will most likely stabilise in the coming months and people will get some of their money back. What this crash props up is that crypto is still very much in its experimental stages. It will take years to get to a decentralised digital currency, and it will come with its trials and tribulations.
A common theme was implanted in Skinner’s keynote. No matter what innovations come and go, time and implementation will always be the most important factor to consider.
This filtered into the first big panel of the day on Big Tech and Big Banks, of which big banks and fintech leaders Ronit Ghose of Citi, Rita Martins of HSBC, and Mark Hartley of Bankifi assembled. Friction ignited on the topic of banks and their relationship with tech companies. Martins earnestly approached the idea of banks becoming tech companies, offering more on the customer-facing leg of rewards and personalised experience.
This, Ghose retorted as fickle, banks will always be financial services first, because banking is where their primary interests lie. Starling and Halifax would not be investing so much in pastoral pleasantries if customer loyalty and returns were not guaranteed. Financial services are the name of the game and tech is what we use to win.
By far the most enlightening argument came from Hartley, the CEO of Bankifi, an Open Banking provider specifically focused on the often underserved demographic of SMEs.
There is this naïve thought that customers don’t care about the ins and outs of financial services and that they just care about the experience of the onboarding process being straightforward. The latter is true in so much as that what simple means is inclusive and lacks corporate jargon.
I caught up with Hartley during the conference, where we discussed a myriad of peeves of the industry, most of which accumulated to whether fintech was doing anything to better the lives and finances of the end user, real people. For Mark, things are still speculative, the fintech companies which will stand the test of time will be those that have a distinct model with something to solve, geared toward the problems people face in the here and now.
The next panel broadened the horizon to alternative payments around the world, with Pietro of AliPay and James Winter of Thunes piecing together what makes the age of digital wallets and super apps so enticing for the likes of India and Asia, who are operating in space-age level.
I spoke to Winter more about this idea of personalised offerings from banks and why that matters more than ever to customers. “The people with less pay the most,” said Winter. We traded anecdotes about what matters to us in terms of our banking experience. We agreed that rewards and incentives were important in convincing a customer to use a service or product. A 1% cash bank on all transactions and £20 off a weekly shop would make a huge difference to half the population of this country, who are plunging ever deeper into economic insecurity.
The last panel discussion provided a sucker punch to the whole industry, ripping to shreds the pedantic trends of crypto and metaverse.
Titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, the group boasted an exciting collection of speakers; Ghela Boskovich, the founder of FemTechGlobal, Andrew Vorster of the Banking Scene, Theodora Lau of Unconventional Ventures, Chris Skinner, and Dr Leda Glyptis of 10x Future Technologies. In this final swing, the group dissected every current issue and trend affecting the fintech industry, from ESG to attracting new talent.
“The metrics for ESG are for vanity or low industry standard,” said Glyptis, when discussing greenwashing and how standards set by companies themselves on reaching zero carbon emissions aren’t enough.
“The industry is good and bad, but we are not accepting accountability as there is no real punishment,” said Ghela Boskovich. We approach necessities like equality at arm’s length, with no real vigour when it comes to pinning down perpetrators. The reason for this, the group explained, is because we are attached to legacy thinking, what we are comfortable with, banks invest on a six-year term, disregarding the seventh term. It is uncomfortable to push for a change in thinking.
The injection of ambiguity is a retroflex to time. It takes time to implement and perfect new technologies, blockchain, embedded finance, and open backing, we are still on the surface level of understanding how to use them. When new shiny ideas pop up, it is to keep the motivation alive and push toward evolving initial ideas, as Boskovich describes “the metaverse is just a distraction.”
A final thought resonated with me and it pertains to the reason why we gathered this week in London.
“These events are educational […] we have a duty to educate new starters on what is plaguing the industry, we need to do the work to see progress.” and the constant learning of new technologies and businesses can be overwhelming. My premonitions subsided when I spoke to the leaders and disruptors of our industry, so open to talking about how fintech affected all people. It became very clear that we were all heading for the same storm, but in different boats – trying to find answers to very human problems.