EXCLUSIVE: “‘Remote’ Banking” – Duncan Cockburn, OneBanks Hub in ‘The Paytech Magazine’
OneBanks Hub is attempting to restore the ‘face of banking’ with a physical presence in branchless communities across the UK. Natasha de Terán spoke to Founder Duncan Cockburn about his mission
In developing Square, Jack Dorsey says he set out to meet his customers where they were. His customers were out and about on their phones, but weren’t using them to take payments, so he decided to build the simplest thing to enable them to do so. In coming up with the OneBanks Hub concept, Duncan Cockburn is essentially doing the same thing. His (potential) customers are out and about on the high street, in stations and supermarkets, but aren’t being banked there (any longer).
He’s planning to change that.
It takes a certain type to make those leaps – leaps that are pure genius at inception and so obvious in hindsight. Dorsey wasn’t in payments or retail. Cockburn wasn’t in banking. But, whether OneBanks Hub aims to be as ubiquitous as Square, or Cockburn has ambitions as big as Dorsey’s, it’s hard to argue that a high street solution for (open) banking isn’t needed.Cockburn is, one senses, a serious soul; ambitious and commercial, he’s also thoughtful – enough to stand back and realise that, for all the virtual opportunities and efficiencies that technology is bringing to banking, banking still needs to meet people where they are, physically. What seems somewhat remarkable – at least to me – is that Cockburn reached this conclusion in California, while learning to code. In other words, it was when he was (presumably) surrounded by techno-evangelists and deeply immersed in technology that he realised how much others would be left behind by its progress.
Having quickly been taken by the promise of open banking and APIs, he returned to Scotland where between 2010 and 2020 the number of bank branches had fallen from 1,500 to around 690. “I had really got into open banking and APIs during my period in California and could easily have gone down a pure fintech route, but the thing with open banking is that it only reaches people who are digitally savvy,” says Cockburn. “It doesn’t help those who aren’t, particularly the older generations. And so, while I was really excited about open banking, I was also concerned about what this meant for those who weren’t being taken on its journey, particularly in the face of all those branch closures.”
Passionate about financial inclusion and about making technology more accessible, Cockburn’s idea was OneBanks Hub, a visible, physical entry point to open and digital banking. No matter which bank they were with, customers could pop into a OneBanks Hub to deposit and withdraw cash, make payments and get help with setting up or using online banking.
Cockburn’s banking kiosks have so far popped up only in Scotland and the North of England, although perhaps we can expect more openings soon. Combining the physical with the virtual, staff with machines, the personal with the impersonal, they even update the ATM for the digital age. In fact, OneBanks Hub’s open-banking-powered cardless ATM withdrawal facility recently won an API VRP hackathon award. The facility is both a useful tool and an appealing entry point to digital, which is, of course, core to the OneBanks Hub mission.
There are quite a few such claims in fintech, but, when you look at the maths, you often end up questioning either the business’s survival or the speaker’s conscience (sometimes even both). I am convinced by Cockburn, though, and when I check out his previous on YouTube, I find he always comes across the same way: sober and matter-of-fact. I canvas some opinions from others to find out where they think he lands on the scale between commercial savviness and social consciousness and while one comes out far on the social conscience side, most can’t (or won’t) put a number on it. Perhaps because they’re coy – perhaps because they can’t. But one recurrent theme my interviewees return to is his interest in fairness and in making technology accessible.
“That really gets him out of bed,” says one, “the fact that he can make a business out of it is a plus – but also a really necessary one in his mind.” Making technology accessible is an interesting thing for a twenty-something coder to worry about. Cockburn will not have been exposed to life pre-Apple or Windows. If his first experience with digital had involved programming with C language or even Fortran, would he think today’s technology needed to be made accessible? Anyone who suffered computing life when menus were only found in restaurants will know that technology is oh-so-much-more accessible today.
But what about financial technology? Many of the same people who email, Zoom and FaceTime, who use laptops, tablets and smartphones, are excellent in Excel and wunderkinds with Word, but they are nevertheless struggling to go digital with their finances. Cockburn believes part of this is down to trust.
“Money is all about trust, and banks with their physical branches have provided that for generations,” he says. “Some people really only want to deal with and trust other people in their financial lives – they therefore only want to interact with people, not machines, particularly the older generations. Apps don’t offer that element that physical branches and real people do. The face-to-face environment and physical touchpoint are therefore both hugely important, especially during their transition.”
Accessibility is another problem. “Not all digital offerings are accessible or appealing to all. We were very aware of that and saw how alienating it was and, as a result, very deliberately set out to make our positioning as broad as possible. We made sure our font sizes were large enough for everyone to read, and we designed the app to flow like a conversation, making the interaction as like the real thing as possible. “We have sign language and read-out facilities in our kiosks which are always wheelchair accessible. Accessibility at OneBanks Hub isn’t an afterthought, it’s how we design things in the first place.”
While customer-facing staff will be key to the success of OneBanks Hub, it’s also Cockburn’s hope that its customers will be upskilled through their experience with them.
He points to one recent example: “We recently had a 94-year-old customer come in who was really blown away by the possibilities. He had a lack of understanding about and trust in open banking but our kiosk made the difference.
“He was literally gobsmacked by how he could see his three balances on the same interface. It’s been really amazing to see first-hand the impact on people, particularly this older generation.“The ‘gobsmacked’ customer might have been in his nineties, but it’s not just nonagenerians who are struggling with the shift to digital or who are attached to physical contact. The average age of a OneBanks Hub customer is 59. “How the market is serving the older generations is certainly a real issue but at the same time it presents a real business opportunity,” says Cockburn. A big opportunity, in fact. He sees OneBanks Hub ‘as the future of banking everywhere’. “I think the model will be replicated all over the world,” he says.
The demise of physical banking and its impact on older and marginalised customers isn’t unique to the UK and OneBanks Hub isn’t the only alternative model. The UK Post Office has begun to roll out banking hubs as a result of an initiative with the banking industry and the UK Finance Cash Action Group; New Zealand has run a similar pilot involving four banks; and Australia’s Bendigo Community Bank – which is owned by the otherwise branchless communities it serves – is thriving, even in settlements with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.
The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority is preparing to strengthen its guidance to banks on assessing the impact on local people of changes to services, such as closing branches or reducing banking hours. The thoughtful and respectful way OneBanks Hub and others like it are addressing the issues faced not just by older users but by all those in danger of being overlooked and left behind, is a lesson the rest of the fintech industry could learn from.