Fintech is exciting. It’s sexy. It’s a world away from grey-suited bank managers and ballpoint pens chained to desks.
It’s going to take on the dinosaurs of banking with an armoury of apps that revolutionise the way money works.
If you believe everything you read in the fintech headlines, you’ll know that the following things are going to happen in the next few years:
- We’ll ‘Uberise’ financial services. No one really knows what this means, but it’s sexy.
- Blockchain will make everything transparent and fair. No one really knows how, but it’ll be sexy.
- We’ll have deep and meaningful relationships with our finances through intelligent chat apps that we’ll wear on our bodies. No one British feels terribly comfortable with this, but it’s still sexy.
- We’ll probably save the world. In a sexy way.
I’m all up for finance saving the world. I spent the first 10 years of my career trying to tackle problems like poverty, health inequality and climate change, until I realised that these problems had roots in the dysfunctions of our financial system.
It’s why I now lead the Finance Innovation Lab, an incubator for the ideas, people and projects that are working towards a financial system that serves people and planet.
But it’s also why I’m extremely sceptical that fintech alone will transform our global society.
Technology and innovation are two different things. Ideas come from people; technology is a tool for the implementation of ideas. And if you’re not applying that tool with a critical understanding of the failings of our current financial system, you’re not going to make things better.
The financial system is essentially a set of human relationships and infrastructure that, at the moment, largely serves itself and concentrates power in the hands of the few.
To be truly disruptive, fintech needs to transform those relationships. We need to restore the sector’s sense of service to the real economy and to society.
Simply improving the ‘customer experience’ – even by making it irresistibly sexy – is just putting a veneer on a system that doesn’t work for the majority, most of the time.
Some technologies are naturally disposed towards socially useful applications, blockchain being the obvious example. But it’s not a guarantee of positive impact.
Just as you can use blockchain to protect human rights or support local economies, you can also use it for creating assassination markets or cybercrime. It’s why you’re using the technology that matters.
Bad news, good news
So here’s the bad news. If you’re using fintech to replicate existing power structures and financial relationships, you’re not making things better.
At best, you’re maintaining the status quo. At worst, you’re creating faster, shinier ways for the financial elite to extract profit at the expense of customers, society and the environment.
But there’s good news. The difference between reinforcing the status quo and saving the world is you. It’s your motivations, your mission and your business model.
Innovation that’s driven by a passion to make finance more democratic, more responsible, fairer – that’s the sort of innovation that will genuinely transform finance, not just make a quick buck.
3 quick things…
So here are three things I’d like the fintech sector to do:
Find its purpose. Finance is meant to serve the real economy, not the other way around. You can align profit with social and environmental gain. Sounds unrealistic, but in reality, values-based banks have been doing it for decades, showing stronger, more stable financial returns than the big global banks.
Change the way it talks. One of the reasons we feel so unable to challenge the financial elite is because the language of finance makes us feel stupid. But the language of fintech – from DAOs and EthBaaS, to unicorns and gazelles – is at risk of doing the same. If we’re serious about empowering people to take control of their money, we need to cut the jargon.
Reflect the communities it wants to serve. The best fintech solutions will come from those who experience the problems – from financial exclusion to environmental damage. Inclusive innovation means supporting people from all communities to develop their ideas, and supporting customers of all types to have a say on the products they rely on. (Think all-male panels are a thing of the past? Fintech still has virtually all-male conferences.)
None of this is easy and it requires a degree of humility that’s not always evident in tech circles.
But in my experience, people don’t get into fintech because it looks easy. They do so because they see the opportunity to disrupt a system that’s badly in need of complete transformation.
The profit potential is there, but so is a choice. Do we want to build a financial system that drives increasing social inequality and fossil fuel addiction, or one that supports thriving communities and a healthy environment?
I know which sounds sexier to me.