There’s a good chance that, as you read this, somewhere on you or nearby you have a little rectangular piece of plastic with your name and the logo of a bank or credit company on it. You might use it every day, and yet never really think about it. But at Ant Financial, we do think about it. We think a lot about the evolution of payments, recordkeeping, and financial technologies in general. Not just the latest things like digital wallets, AI-managed insurance adjustment, or blockchain and distributed ledgers, but about the fundamentals of what financial technologies does for people, and what it’s meant to do.
For decades, those living in developed countries have been accustomed to the certain ecosystem of financial technologies, including electronic banking, ATMs, and credit cards. That ensemble of technologies has been around since about the middle of the last century, so whether you consider it still modern or out-of-date may depend on your point of view. Those with a stake in the old world of doing things are still trying to innovate; Mastercard, for instance, not long ago debuted a credit card with a built-in fingerprint scanner.
But should we really believe that these established technologies are all what we can do?
Today there are some two billion people in the world who are still unbanked, with about a third of those living in India and China, and with hundreds of millions of others in Asia and Africa. In Southeast Asia in particular, roughly 70% of all people remained unbanked as of 2016.
Those facts alone tell us that the last generation of financial technologies was not enough on its own. Fintech, like any technology, has to be designed to meet the needs of those who will use it, to give them the power to do things better, faster, more easily—or even to do things they never could before. The old financial ecosystem of banking, credit, and debit payments did the job for some, but clearly not for all, even after more than half a century. We need something more.
The world has seen how, in Africa for instance, the arrival of even so-called dumb phones and services like M-Pesa helped to give people an option beyond cash for the first time, and more importantly, the power to transfer money instantly, anywhere, over any distance. That is something that many in developed markets might take for granted, but it is transformative, both for individuals and businesses. Transactions that might have taken hours or even days of time are now effortless. It’s a classic example of how some of the best and most effective financial innovations can arise in parallel technologies, bypassing legacy systems.
And that is what Ant Financial is looking to. Whether it be payments, insurance, investment, or loans and credit, our focus isn’t how to support and continue an existing set of technologies, but on how to bring financial services to those who lack them. That gives us the freedom, and motivation, to innovate in the truest sense of the word, and to develop and deploy financial technology in radically new ways.
Soon to be obsolete.
Whatever the use case, we pride ourselves on being able to extend services to those who otherwise might never have the benefit of them. Our mobile payments methods have allowed Himalayan mountain camp guides to receive direct payments from travellers and climbers for their goods and services, even while up on the side of a mountain. Our digital loan platform has enabled smallhold dairy farmers to get the credit they need to expand their businesses, when traditional banks would have turned them away. Of course, we’re still exploring, also experimenting with more advanced solutions like NFC and facial recognition for payment confirmations, or blockchain for registering and authenticating imported goods. But our touchstone is always, how are our choices of technology going to make a given financial service more accessible?
We don’t underestimate the scale of the task. But at Ant Financial we already have some six hundred million users. We are developing database and blockchain technologies that can scale and meet the demands of a world’s worth of transactions. Yet we don’t assume we can just go it alone, because financial inclusion is a job for more than just one company. We have over 250 partners working with Alipay in all different capacities, including many in South and Southeast Asia, and we are partnering with other likeminded payment services, like Paytm in India, Ascend Money in Thailand, and Emtek in Indonesia, along with a half dozen others. Through cooperation and collaboration, we can extend financial services farther and faster, and bring opportunities and access to people who have never had it before.
There was never any reason to believe that credit cards and the fintech systems that evolved in the 20th century would be the endpoint for innovation, any more than paper money was before them. And probably in the long run mobile payments, blockchain, and the rest of the latest and greatest fintech won’t be the endpoint, either. But they are what’s next, for billions of people across the global north, south, east, and west.
And we mean to keep working, keep experimenting, and keep questioning, not just what financial technology can do, but what it needs to do to bring more equal opportunity to more people.
To achive that, we have gone on a worldwide tour, convening in Silicon Valley and Singapore in just the last few months.
Now, we are hosting our own Ant Technology Exploration Conference as part of London Tech Week, Monday 11th June, 1 PM to 5 PM, under the theme of “New Technology: Bringing the World Equal Opportunity”,where we and invited guests will share just how the newest technology can help realize greater financial inclusion across the world.
Also, we will have an exhibition showcasing the finance innovation under the theme of Fintech: A Material History. You’ll see all financial devices and arrangements that run our modern economy.
To learn more about how we find the way to financial inclusion and bring financial equality to the world, please join us for our free London Tech week event on Monday 11th June!