" class="no-js "lang="en-US"> Innovation for all - Fintech Finance
Wednesday, March 22, 2023
City Week 2023

Innovation for all

Emma Huntington, Nationwide’s Director of Innovation and Ventures, is determined to help members run a better financial race in life

The way people consume financial services is changing and providers need to keep innovating in order to stay relevant. That much we know. But, at Nationwide, innovation is nothing new!

Founded by the Victorians to help working people pool resources to build better homes that they could own, the society has been disrupting the status quo for nearly 200 years. Innovating for good is a philosophy that‘s embedded in its philanthropic roots, but modern technology and data means it can be fully realised in ways the founding fathers would never have imagined.

According to Nationwide’s Emma Huntington, innovation should be inclusive, accessible and put the customer, and what they want to do, at its heart – and it involves everyone in an organisation trying to deliver it. In other words: “Innovation belongs to everyone.

“We think about how we help foster and facilitate innovation across the whole Society, how we might seed new ideas. It just looks different, depending on who you are and where you are in the organisation,” says Huntington, Nationwide’s director of innovation and ventures.

“The human element is absolutely critical. When we are trying to solve problems, or look for opportunities to help our members, it comes from them.

“I think the challenge is really in responding to the way people live their lives now. It’s not about banking products anymore; it’s about serving people in a way that’s more personalised,” she adds. Huntington’s team prides itself on spending much of its time, not huddled in a creative bubble, but mixing with members of the public, including some of Nationwide’s 15 million customers. The ‘innovation venturing team’ will spend at least half a day a week in the community, looking at financial issues. Just now, it’s focussed on how the mutual can better support people in ‘later life’ – those approaching or entering retirement.

“It’s fascinating to understand how real people manage their day-to-day finances, make decisions and then turn that into something, whether it’s a digital service and/or through our branches and contact centres, that can really help them,” she says.

The most concrete example of how the society’s innovative thinking positively impacts the physical world is perhaps best illustrated by the recent announcement of a revolutionary not-for-profit house building programme in south-west England – making Nationwide the first modern ‘building’ society to live up to its name. In a scheme that harks back to its roots, the society is planning a development of 239 affordable homes at Oakfield Campus near its headquarters in Swindon, Wiltshire. Designs were drawn up after consultation with the local community and Swindon Borough Council, and Nationwide intends to use local firms for the construction should the plans be approved, which looks very likely.

This inclusive approach also extends to the digital realm. Last year, the mutual set up Nationwide’s Open Banking for Good Challenge, which sees seven fintech companies sharing a £3million fund to develop apps that help people who are ‘financially squeezed’. The selected firms – which address three categories of need, ‘income and expenditure’, ‘income smoothing’ and ‘money management and help’ – also receive mentoring from major UK organisations including Accenture, Citizens’ Advice and The Money Charity.

Unveiling the seven participating fintech firms earlier this year, Nationwide CEO Joe Garner said the initiative was driven by the mutual’s social purpose, with the aim of creating revolutionary new technology to help those facing financial challenges. He added that it was a great example of businesses, charities and the government working together to make a positive difference to society. Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport hailed it as a ‘fantastic example of how to harness tech for social good’.

Nationwide also last year launched its £50million fintech venture fund to form partnerships with startups exploring technology that could benefit its members and customers.

“These are very smart people, who are thinking about a problem every day, which could be valuable for their future,”
says Huntington.

For Nationwide, technological innovation is about more than just using data and Open Banking systems to provide better products. It’s about improving accessibility and serving people in a way that’s ‘on their side’, says Huntington. “So, using data and Open Banking, but using them for good.”

The first startup Nationwide invested in as part of the scheme was proptech firm Acasa, a home management platform that supports both landlords and tenants living in shared accommodation to manage their everyday finances. The app enables people to split their utility bills and track their household expenses, with the potential of saving users up to £200 a year. “So, no more nasty notes on the fridge, because we make it much easier for people to split bills,” explains Huntington.

The second major investment was in data company Hazy, an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven platform that identifies and anonymises personal data and helps businesses remain compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). A winner of the Microsoft Ventures Innovate.AI programme, Hazy has already worked with a range of clients, including fellow
startups, international banks and the UK government.

Nationwide has also partnered with Moneyhub (see page 38), a financial management platform that uses AI and Open Banking technology to enable customers to collate and view all their financial accounts in one place. Most recently, it invested in billing start-up Ordo, an app that uses Open Banking and Faster Payments technology to help users pay bills without having to give out their bank account information.

Partnership is important when it comes to Nationwide’s venture funding. It sees it as a way of benefitting both the companies involved and the wider community.

“We’ve invested in those businesses but, more importantly, we’re looking at ways that we can work with them, to help support them while also looking to provide those services to our members.”

Huntington believes the trajectory for financial services will be mapped more closely to customers’ financial wellbeing in future. She believes the industry will increasingly step up to the plate when it comes to helping people manage their finances in order to live a ‘really healthy life – with money not as a means to an end, but with money as an enabler’.

Huntington compares extending accessibility to financial services to running the London Marathon.

“Twenty years ago, it tended to be elite athletes that ran the Marathon, now thousands of people enter the race – that’s where our market is going to go.

“I think people are going to get much better at saying ‘this is what’s right for me, there is technology and there are companies out there that can help me to really own and take control of the way I manage my money’.”

Nationwide’s founders were all about enabling poorer people to run a better financial race in life. Today, the mutual is all about helping them win it.

This article was published in The Fintech Finance Magazine: Issue #12, Page 42 & 43.

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