How fintech can be a force for good and create a more sustainable planet

sustainable fintech
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As global societies and economies contend with the resurgence of infections, new strains of coronavirus, repeat lockdowns, economic recession and climate change, finance and technology brought together into “fintech” delivers on its promise to create a more inclusive society and a more sustainable planet. 

In the past 12 months, fintech has enabled greater access to financial services.  Whether they are individuals paying for products or services purchased online, foreign workers remitting money to their families in their home country, or, small businesses transacting online, fintech democratised services for all when traditional means and in-person meetings were not an option.   

As providers of financial services, we are at a significant positional advantage – that of staying ahead of the curve of a structurally beneficial future market populated by the next generation of global citizens and consumers of financial services.

To make fintech a force for good is in our hands. It is now more critical than ever for us to build an organisational culture within the financial system that blends conduct, structure, performance, trend analyses, and privileged insights on the real players of the future; that embraces uncertainties and disruptions; that balances flexibility with organisational commitments; and that develops strong convictions on how to stitch all of the above into a viable strategy and action plan to deliver competitive advantages for financial services well into the future.

Positive steps

It is truly heartening to note that at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in 2019, 130 leading banks collectively holding USD 47 trillion in assets, came together to collectively commit to align their businesses with the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[1]

These banks – including major names such as BNP Paribas, Santander and Barclays, RBS, UBS, Lloyds, China’s Industrial Bank, DNB, Citi, and Credit Suisse – have stated that by signing on to the UN Principles for Responsible Banking they agree to “concrete and time bound actions that the banks will take to scale up their contribution to and align their lending with the agreements of the Paris Agreement”.[2] We eagerly await the judicial and regulatory processes that these banks will advance to enforce action in line with their commitment made at the Climate Summit.

Sustained action from the global to the local level is expected to cost five to seven trillion US dollars annually[3], and investors in sustainable development, such as banks and other financial services, will need scaled up analytics platforms to better understand the operating, financial, and sustainability invested performance of their assets. How is this to be achieved?

Enter fintech in the shape of four technology families: The Internet of things (IoT), Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Blockchain. The ability to make better decisions and meet SDGs is at the heart of the ‘fintech revolution’, with fintech drawing strongly from the ‘data revolution’ built within the IoT, Big Data, AI and Blockchain. These technologies have the power to provide information, context, data, and the tools to build a more sustainable and equitable world, for example through building economic capital alongside social and economic inclusion, protecting natural and human environments across vast areas of the globe, or building smart cities that could conserve valuable non-renewable resources.

Enormous possibilities

How do these four technology families support fintech, and what are the possibilities they generate to meet the challenge outlined above?

The Internet of Things represents internet-connected devices which can also be used to track information on human and environmental developments across a wide arc. 

Big data is characterised by datasets produced in high volume, large variety, high velocity, high value and dependable veracity. Fintech is designed to use relevant data from these sources to make better decisions, especially when financial investments with global scale impact are being considered. Cases in point are the Belt and Road Project and the Arctic Drilling Project.

Artificial Intelligence applies machine learning to Big Data to ‘learn’ and build advanced use algorithms to enable pattern recognition, fraud detection, complex data organisation, and context recognition so that the flood of data can be curated, organised and managed for use at different levels within, and for the purposes of, an organisation. 

Blockchain has, as its main functionality, the tracking of every single piece of digital data from its source to its end use within a peer-to-peer network and uses encryption to enable decoding of the streams of information end-to-end. 

With these powerful new resources to hand, digitalisation could conceivably disrupt and recast the USD 300 trillion global financial system. For example, Zadek[4] recognises that fintech’s main thrust to date has been in improving financial inclusion, but it could equally be possible to mine the power of fintech to:

  • ensure financing decisions to commit to social and economic values built on the principles of justice and equality for all, manage climate risk and ameliorate the problem of climate and economic refugees through responsible project, and infrastructure financing support universally equitable and fair labour standards;
  • strengthen financial autonomy for women through the use of blockchain integrity;
  • fund distributed solar technology through crowdsourcing and thereby preserve non-renewable resources facilitate mobile payment systems for poorer communities.

One can also imagine fintech being harnessed to augment global efforts to provide equitable access to education for all; access to clean energy; and providing humanitarian assistance and ‘e-identities’ to growing numbers of people displaced due to war, drought, disease, famine, and natural disasters. We are just scratching at the surface of the enormous possibilities here!

The role for regulation and compliance

By making the gathering, usage and movement of data faster, cheaper and more reliable, fintech will provide the key for responsible decision making. Fintech will be central to how we pay for goods and services as individuals, and to our values and relationships to the goods and services that we choose to buy. Communities of consumers, as well as employees of organisations, are beginning to think in terms of a ‘climate neutral relationship’ with the planet. Their brand loyalties will depend on which providers of those goods and services respect that relationship. 

With the coming together of many technologies – such as the IoT, Big Data, AI and Blockchain – regulatory and compliance teams will have to reconfigure how they view the development of sound standards and practices to benefit local and global sustainable development. To do this they will also need to have a grasp of the plethora of scientific evidence warning of the impacts of global climate change, as well as other factors that have institutionalised inequality of opportunity, through globally destabilising events such as political discord, war, drought, famine, poverty, and so forth.

The conversion of information into knowledge, through verifiable data collection, enables industry leaders, regulators, and business and compliance teams to have a readily available platform to make decisions that are sound and robust for the planet as well as for the industry’s bottom line. This benefit has already been demonstrated in other initiatives. 

It is easy to imagine how banks could capitalise and monetise the opportunities created in the examples above to demonstrate cleaner asset creation initiatives on their own balance sheets. Nevertheless, financial system regulators, standards setting authorities and business teams must adapt while they enter the uncharted territory opened up by fintech, and will need to maintain the three key principles on which financial systems have been built over centuries, namely: 1) financial stability, 2) a competitive platform to promote market efficiencies and 3) protecting customer and other data that have heretofore been the exclusive and confidentiality protected foundation of banking but which are now facing transparency onslaughts from the global information highway enabled by the IoT, AI and Blockchain.

Fintech also creates specific challenges for the legislative system, central banks and supervisors.

For example, the technological revolution demands new skillsets in order to balance prudential oversight with a rapidly moving business environment. Moreover, there is a need to embrace a global approach and for collaboration between international financial and non-financial peers in areas such as data rights, cross border movement of information and funds, grappling with cross jurisdictional mandates necessitated by global information flows and perhaps even creating a single global web of jurisdiction (a kind of ‘super-regulator’) to cope with the new reality of conducting business in a globally democratised business environment. Repositioning regulation as principally a ‘principles-based approach’ rather than one tied to specific technologies, business forms or product types may advance the effectiveness of a global ‘super-regulator’ and may be the key to a successful regulatory development within a business environment turbocharged by the techno revolution.

Finding a balance

There are several further potential downsides to fintech, which have to be recognised and dealt with responsibly by regulators and compliance teams.

If financing decisions are made from purely automated data production and analytic capability, outliers such as poorer or higher risk borrowers may be excluded as well as those needing finance for unusual or innovative projects. Until now, regulation and standards development have focused more on financial inclusion and consumer protection rather than on how to regulate to avoid systematic exclusion of assets that fall outside of the normal.

Secondly, digitalisation increases transparency of financial decisions but by facilitating democratised usage, it may also open up new and previously untapped avenues for illicit financial flows, expose customer data and increase systemic risk as well as create moral hazards through peer-to-peer lending. Policies, regulations and standards are just beginning to correlate these risks and tackle this problem.

While fintech regulation is clearly needed in unprecedented new directions and levels, it needs to be balanced against the risk that too much regulation may inhibit consumer-friendly innovation. 

Thus, it seems reasonable to say that, while it is not yet the silver bullet for promoting the sustainable geo-economic services of the future, fintech has a great opportunity to be at the vanguard of transforming financial services from being purely focused on shareholder value towards taking greater responsibility for global stakeholder value.

[1] UNEP Finance Initiative New York 2019
[2] Statement from UNEP Finance Initiative, 23rd September 2019
[3] Erik Solheim, Head UN Environment in the Financial Times dated Oct 14th 2016[4] Simon Zadek: Principal Project Catalyst, UNDP article “Financing sustainable development: Is FinTech the solution, problem or irrelevant?”

By Helen Langton, CEO, Asia Pacific and Middle East, International Compliance Association 

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