I spent a day this week wandering the corridors of the ExCeL Convention Center taking in the annual Sibos conference. The conference was held this year in London for the first time in a half-decade.
Walking past the booths with their private meeting rooms and trays of snacks, I thought about what has changed and what has not changed in the bank industry and how that was reflected on the trade floor. Sustainability is definitely in. There’s less of a focus on disposable “swag” as the industry turns more environmentally conscious. Reusable (and edible) is in and those piles of fidget spinners are out.
Other things were much the same. I felt fortunate to run into clients past and present in meetings both planned and serendipitous. Sibos remains a cornerstone of the payments and banking calendar. The hall was filled with 11,000 visitors making deals and connections.
I have a few highly subjective superlatives to award from my day onsite.
Prize for best snack on stand – Starling salted caramel popcorn
Prize for best giveaway – Sibos flat water bottle
Best brochure – Murex – I’m biased
Best speech – China’s new normal
I would like to dig a bit deeper into that final award, because I think the speech was pitched right at the intersection of a couple exceedingly important banking trends. It helped crystalize my thinking about a part of the world that is changing rapidly and where it can be easy to fall behind.
China is a country like no other. It’s a place where children pay for sweets with their watches, where a system of facial recognition means cash withdrawals can be done with a smile. It’s a place where other countries are increasingly – and must – look for innovation.
But for all of its impressive gains in technology, data and market share, China still lacks trust. Consumers in and out of China remain skeptical about promises that their data will remain independent from the government. As we saw with Huawei’s attempt to dominate 5G infrastructure, this will be a huge stumbling block for China to emerge as the dominant payment technology provider for the world.
This presents an opportunity for both Chinese and non-Chinese institutions. The rest of the world is changing along with China. This year saw Starling Bank, the first of the so-called “challenger banks” to have a booth on the Sibos floor. The company – along with its local rivals Revolt and Monzo – are now serving millions of British customers.
The relentless focus on innovation has shaken up the industry incumbents. While I recognized many of the companies on the floor from a decade ago, they are speaking a completely different language from the jargon of old. The question for these firms is how they can learn from and partner with these companies to continue the pace of growth.
Therein lies the challenge for the banking community. They want to grow “at the pace of China” but while building or in some cases retaining customer trust. This means a relentless pursuit of simpler ways to solve problems in payments and everyday life. Customers have shown they are flexible and willing to experiment – when they see a benefit.
A day at Sibos inevitably pushes one’s thoughts in a more macro direction. On my way back to the underground, I wondered what the convention floor will look like when Sibos next returns to Britain. Will we no longer use our phones for payments? Will credit cards seem as antiquated as the fax does today? Will half the sessions be in Mandarin?
The answer, as ever, will only come with time.
Yvonne Maher is the deputy managing director of Cognito’s London office