The Singapore FinTech Festival (SFF) is the world’s largest and most inclusive fintech festival that brings together heads of state, financial and technology leaders, fintech founders, policymakers, investors and multilateral agencies. This year the festival will be running on 7-11 December with a unique hybrid format, combining a 24-hour online event with 30 hyper-local physical events in fintech hubs around the world.
The focus for Day 2 on Tuesday 8 December was very much on infrastructure, with sessions on foundational digital infrastructure, distributed ledger and digital currency, AI and 5G, cybersecurity and regulation. Speakers included global leaders such as Bill Gates, Agustín Carstens, Nandan Nilekani, Sallie Krawcheck and Anthony Eisen.
First up was a session all about building infrastructure for resilience and what the COVID-19 response can teach us about how to scale financial inclusion. Here, Bill Gates talked about his optimism around growth. He even went so far as to assert, “We are not going to be as far along by 2030 as we would have been without the pandemic.” He cited India and Kenya as examples of digital financial inclusion. Gates said giving people visibility and advice is key and the phone can be a crucial connection for low-cost interaction.
Developing countries need to start feeling the benefit of the digital revolution, Gates said, “It’s about learning what worked in China and India and making it easy for smaller countries to do this.” The private sector will help the central banks create these systems, he said, “but moreover the phone companies, banks and entrepreneurs will build the applications that use these financial capabilities.”
Scaling up is going to be critical to providing universal access to finance, Gates said, “Traditional banks are embracing these systems as a way of broadening their customer base but it will be a challenge if they don’t adopt a strategy that doesn’t commit.” He predicts that within the next five years most banks will be on board, but warned, “It’s important to remember how far away we are from universal financial inclusion.”
Gates suggested looking to India as an example and in a later session, Nandan Nilekan, co-founder of Infosys, talked about how India has got an impressive 1.26bn people a digital ID. The process took six years, he explained, and its success was partly down to the government getting firmly behind it. “We’ve seen things happen in India we haven’t seen in other countries. What does India have that others did not see? Nikelan put this down to a government supportive of technology and a tech-hungry history. “In the last ten years it’s built a number of large systems. The UPI [Unified Payment Interface] developed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) handles 2bn transactions a month.” He added, “It’s about empowering people with their own data and creating a society willing to use the new things.”
Host Manisha Tank pointed out a recent statistic from the World Economic Forum that suggests digital IDs have the potential to unlock economic value of up to 13% of GDP by 2030.
Later in the day another session asked, Can digital currencies birth the next generation of world-class payment systems? Joshua Ashley Klayman, Linklaters’ US Head of Fintech and Blockchain & Digital Assets, moderated a panel discussion on the future of cryptocurrencies alongside industry leaders from Diem (formally Libra Association), Coinbase, Circle and Soramitu to answer.
The future of digital currency is exciting, there’s no doubt. As Jeremy Allaire, Circle CEO and founder was keen to point out, “We can take what we think of as a traditional currency and represent that as a native form of data on the internet just as we can represent audio and exchange and transmit with the same ease as we can with information and content online.”
What’s more, the possibilities are endless. Stuart Levey, Diem CEO agreed: “The key thing is the utility that people have derived from a digital currency to reprogramme it to do what they want it to do and at a lower cost than is traditional with payment systems. This opens up possibilities to billions of people who are currently excluded.”
“Money is digital data,” said Makoto Takemiya from Soramitsu, “This is the biggest revolution in money since the Sumerians but we’re not even at 1% of the possibilities yet.”
Allaire likened the current situation to 1998’s World Wide Web explosion: “There was a lot of excitement but very little had been achieved. Those who were seeing the power of an open connected world, could see very clearly over the next 10 or 20 years.” Allaire thinks we’re on the cusp of what he calls ‘the broadband moment for digital currency’: “We haven’t had mature frameworks for digital currencies and we’re now seeing that.” He added, “We’re seeing innovation on consumer experience and getting around to connecting that to the delightful consumer apps that people know and love, whether WhatsApp or a Coinbase wallet. Most major fintechs that touch hundreds of millions of users are adding support and people will be saying, ‘How could I have not had this before?’”
But there are differences. “The one thing that distinguishes fintech from the internet is this is a field where that governments feel they must regulate,” said Levey, “We’re starting to see governments grapple with regulatory standards and one of the things that will be necessary before this can reach its full potential is that there needs to be some sort of government harmonisation.”
Whatever happens, the fintech revolution should not be viewed as a threat, said Allaire, “The genies out of the bottle. People can transact on the internet.” What we do need, however, are innovative ways to deal with deep risks, such as sanctions and funding for terrorism: “We can’t put the genie back but we do have to think creatively.”