A peculiar hype swept through the halls of the Dublin’s CHQ building on Tuesday, 30th January. It was expressed on the faces of suit-clad eventgoers who trod the upstairs café with coffee cups, waiting on the talk to commence.
The day’s buzzword was Fintech — but there was a message that accompanied it. It was uttered by the renowned speaker Chris Skinner from a stage from which he’d made his talk, reaching the ears of humbled bank execs. The message was: a new financial revolution is at dawn.
‘For the first time ever, everybody on Earth can transact and trade and talk in realtime with anybody else on Earth,’ Skinner said, during his set at Enterprise Ireland’s Future of Fintech conference.
‘Seven and a half billion people are included in the network – if they want to be. Everybody can now become entrepreneurial through a mobile telephone.’
Skinner’s predictions have garnered much credibility in recent years. His keynote speeches and two recent books outline a vision of the precarious financial markets that spans from the pragmatic (“Robot bankers will be arriving very soon”) to the slightly-dystopian (“Around the year 2030 we’ll reach a version of the internet that will be part of us – where we won’t go ‘I’ll just go Google that’ but you’ll think the question and get the answer”).
But, he insists, the future is coming – and his zeal suggests he’s enthused about the innovations to come.
Skinner regularly makes the cut for the internet’s most influential fintech advisors. It’s not hard to see why: he delivers his points elegantly, drawing from a rich pool of personal financial experience (over 15 years as a leading financial commentator and strategist). But his greatness lies not only in his ability to talk finance, but his ability to talk tech, qualifying him as a specialist in two valuable contemporary fields.
Skinner believes the spread of system networks across the world will soon lead to total financial inclusion, allowing millions of people in underdeveloped countries to have access to global wealth. But as digital platforms provide alternative methods for money management and fund transfers, conventional banks will find troubled waters ahead.
After captivating his audience with an engaging 30-minute talk, he grants me a small glimpse into his strenuous work life as we sit in a vacated backstage cafeteria during a panel performance. ‘When people ask me where I’m based,’ he says, ‘I tell them the British Airways lounge.’
‘The financial system was built for the industrial revolution,’ he says, ‘and most of the banks in Europe, Ireland and America are transporting banking as usual – faster and cheaper – with technology, whereas Asia and the African Sub-Saharan countries – countries that didn’t have a financial system at all, or one that was only basically working – have leapfrogged.’
‘What will then happen is, particularly out of Africa, they’re going to create something that’s incredibly cheap to serve people in microtransactions. Once that’s up and running there’s absolutely no reason why we won’t see entrepreneurs from those nations bringing those capabilities to developed nations, in which, as I say, the industrial-era structure is not fit for the digital age.’
To him, the digital revolution poses exciting new prospects. In one of his previous talks he detailed the transformation happening across Kenya, where many small-time farmers can now sell their stock across the continent by using social media and mobile money transfers.
The country is leading the charge in transforming African agriculture: an estimated 43 percent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product now moves around by mobile money transfers, and in 2016 mobile payment accounts across Africa exceeded the total number of bank accounts in the region.
Skinner also points to the success of Chinese online payment system Alipay as another emblem of the online revolution – and a shining example of the democratization of wealth.
‘Jack Ma [Alipay founder] got rejected from almost every job he applied for when he came out of college. He tried to get a job in KFC along with eight applicants: seven of them got the job. He was the one who didn’t.’
‘He had no idea that he would become one of the world’s richest men, but that opportunity arose mainly because he was inspired by Amazon to do the same in China.’
Alipay surpassed Paypal in 2013 to become the world’s largest mobile payment platform, amassing a staggering $150 billion in transactions compared to the latter’s $27 billion. It now accounts for over half of China’s $5.5 trillion mobile payments market.
It’s not the rags-to-riches essence of the tale that appeals to Skinner, but the means through which Ma found his success. ‘It’s what I think is going to happen to everyone,’ he says, ‘through the network.’
Skinner devotes a section to Alipay in his upcoming book, Digital Human, which is out on 7 March and deals with humanity’s latest evolutionary stage – integration with digital systems. He calls it the fourth phase of our evolutionary process, and traces it all the way back to our primary ancestors.
“There was a stage many thousand years ago when homo sapiens became the dominant creature on the planet in terms of human form. When they first appeared there was seven forms of human on earth,” he says. “The question then is, how did we become the dominant one.”
Usually the fervent analyst of financial systems, Skinner departs from his usual subject for his new book, instead focusing on our evolutionary development as a species. ‘Out of four things in the new book, only one of them is really about banking,’ he says.
Inspired by his world travels, the ever-changing state of humanity and writings of Yuval Noah Harari (author of ‘Sapiens’), it’s a historical examination for us to understand and form a better vision of the future to come.
I return to one of the things he said during his speech when he denounced the idea of allowing intelligent financial systems to operate completely free of human interaction.
‘If you delegate everything to machines you end up with Skynet, and that’s what people fear – the machine that can’t be stopped,’ he says.
‘Democratisation is good for allowing an equitable system to run but there’s often ways in which you can rig democratisation. Everyone says you can’t compromise Bitcoin because you’d have to own half the network to do that, well the fact is people are working out ways to own half the network, to rig the system.’
‘So I don’t think you can give everything to a democratised internet. I do think you need an off button that’s got a human hand on it,’ he says.
It is highly unlikely that androids will succumb us to a Cameronian fate anytime soon. In fact, what we’re more likely to see are rising global opportunities and the ability to reconnect with our innate genetic traits (“Most jobs that our kids will be doing in 20 years haven’t been invented yet,” he says).
Skinner is confident – and by the end of his 30-minute slot he’d converted a roomful of skeptic listeners into true believers of the digital revolution. Everybody seemed ready to embrace the change. Even the bankers.