Why fintech should think beyond banking the unbankable

Fintech may be the key to solving the world's biggest problems, and it starts with turning our global economic model on its head.

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Over two billion people remain unbanked in the world. These people have no bank accounts and many have no choice but to turn to predatory lenders to get by. This is where fintech companies come in on a white stallion, as an emerging champion of the unbankable and under-banked, bridging the gap between finance and philanthropy.

According to proponents of fintech for good, the sector has the power to grow profitable customers while lifting low-income communities out of poverty by giving them access to finance.

According to Chandran Nair, founder of Hong Kong-based think tank, The Global Institute for Tomorrow, fintech’s role in bringing financial literacy and accessibility to the world’s unbanked is just the tip of the social impact iceberg of what the inherent relationship between finance and technology can do.

“We need to move beyond banking the unbankable,” he says.”How can we have finance and technology pretend to sit comfortably with each other when they are fundamentally at war with the planet? We have an economic model that is increasingly at war with people.”

Speaking at the Innovate Finance Global Summit, Nair explains that our current economic model is counterproductive to success.

“We need to ask how finance and technology can challenge our economic model. Having the pizza you ordered delivered in two minutes and via drone is yesterday’s news. We need to think beyond that and see how policy, finance and technology can merge to serve the world at large,” he argues.

It starts with how we value and price consumption, he adds. “This is not a Greenpeace rant. It’s a genuine economic discussion. The alternative mode starts with us looking at how we price CO2. Our economic mode is based on excessive consumption and underpricing resources.

We need a different way of thinking about how consumption is priced and can be restrained, without adversely affecting quality of life. How would that look like? Finance and technology can be used to fingerprint consumption and in identifying those who over consume so that they pay for it. ”

Nair explains that the push for automation and robotics and the way the discussion has been progressing is in itself contradictory to the best interest of the world’s majority.

“Why would you need robots replacing people in markets with large populations? These first world discussions don’t apply to the rest of the world. It only affects 15 per cent of the global population.

Stephen Hawking and others have warned us about the dangers of automation precisely because of this,” he explains. Before anyone can call him out on being a luddite, Nair quickly adds that he’s an engineer, and sees a lot of potential for technology; just perhaps to a different end.

Along those lines, Inma Martinez, data science expert and venture partner at Deep Science Ventures, agrees. “When you develop AI as I do, you inevitably get asked two questions: are the robots going to kill us? Or are they going to take our jobs? And of course there are two camps in the artificial intelligence community.

One is Google’s position, where you build technology and see how it develops, without a purpose or a goal in mind. The other camp, backed by Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and others including myself, is one that puts humanity first, and AI after. It’s going to be all about human capital in the coming years. We need to look at how people need to be working, how we can maintain them, incentivise them and most importantly, retrain them with new skills they’ll need as technology evolves,” she says.

As a regular speaker on all things AI, Martinez recalls her time on a panel with Sir Bob Geldof that stayed with her. “I was in a panel with Bob Geldof, where he said that it is through our work that we find purpose and an identity for ourselves. And that’s a very important point we need to remember as we develop intelligent technologies. Human beings are meant to create. If you take that away from us, we may not find other things that will bring us pleasure to do, and that could destroy us,” she explains.

She envisions a future where humans can lead in peace and prosperity alongside a society where machines are incredibly smart. But that can only be realised if humans are trained for their creativity and intuition.

Nair believes that one way to regulate our inefficient economic model is to tax robots. “Most governments operate by looking at their public’s best interest. What doesn’t serve the public is either taxed or banned. Why should regulators shy away from taxing innovations that may not best serve the public’s interest? The arguments for productivity and job creation are all well and good for the world’s 15 per cent of the world’s population. But the majority of the world haven’t had their basic needs met.”

This is where the true opportunities for finance and technology lie, and that requires a very different way of thinking.

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