Posted Wednesday 25th May 2016 by Tony Moretta

From Ponies to Payments: Technology, Disruption and Jersey’s First Fintech Unconference

In 1860, a postal service was set up from St Joseph Missouri to Sacramento California, delivering mail by horseback using a number of relay stations. Dubbed the “Pony Express”, the service’s adverts boasted of covering 1,800 miles in just 10 days. The express played a big part in Wild West legends but for all its fame, survived just 19 months and made a significant loss. What finally finished it off? The arrival of the Pacific Telegraph line. In fact, the Pony Express closed just two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City.

From Ponies to Payments: Technology, Disruption and Jersey’s First Fintech Unconference

This is the story we explored at Jersey’s recent Fintech Unconference in an excellent session delivered by Dave Birch, Director of Innovation at Consult Hyperion, an internationally recognised thought leader in digital money and identity, and a popular speaker in Jersey.

While the demise of the Pony Express is a cautionary tale of the consequences of disruption, it’s also a reminder that technology’s role in reshaping and at times replacing industries is nothing new. Taking the next steps in fintech for Jersey means adopting a fresh perspective and understanding that the shifts we’re talking about in finance are already happening – we know they are, but awareness isn’t enough: effective action is required.

Jersey Fintech: The (very condensed) Story so Far

Happily, the backdrop for Jersey’s fintech unconference this month was already a vibrant one. We saw from the success of last October’s fintech conference, and the on-going excellent attendance of Jersey’s NewFinance Chapter, that there is a significant appetite in the Island to seriously explore the future of our financial services industry. Alongside the conference, 2015 saw the release of a KPMG report which identified fintech as a promising and feasible proposition for Jersey, alongside Digital Health and Jersey as a new technology testbed.

We’ve also seen closer collaboration between Digital Jersey and Jersey Finance in this time, with our joint steering group running for six months which continues to expand further to include more and more key players in the finance sector. All of this is naturally a positive step for fintech, with both organisations working together and reporting to the Chief Minister’s Office under Philip Ozouf’s aegis as minister responsible for financial services and digital. The unconference was an ideal opportunity for the two agencies to work together for the first time running an event.

If you’d like to look at developments in Jersey’s fintech space in more detail, you can find more info here.

The Fintech Unconference

In light of the collaborative approach we’re taking with Jersey Finance, the fintech unconference had three main aims:

  • To encourage an equal balance of engagement between ‘fins’ and ‘techs’ (our last conference was excellent but it was 70:30 techs to fins, whereas the unconference attracted even more representatives from the finance industry, which was positively influenced by our collaboration with JFL)
  • To provide an informal space for both industries to come together, share ideas and build beneficial relationships – which made the attendee-led, flexible structure of an unconference ideal
  • To go beyond talk and identify specific proposition development groups to set up, focussed on areas where Jersey has a strong likelihood of success and can expect tangible results in 6-12 months

Following the success of our digital health workshop, which saw medical and digital professionals join forces, share ideas and expertise, we’ve seen the formulation of viable and innovative propositions which could make a real impact on the medical industry. The aim was to do the same for fintech with this unconference.

We knew we were in for a day of invaluable insights, with around 80 attendees. We heard initially from KPMG’s Jason Laity and Rob Kirkby, who explored in more depth the findings of 2015’s KPMG Digital Jersey Opportunity Analysis in relation to fintech – which you can find out more about in Digital Jersey’s 2016 Business Plan.

We then had a very entertaining session with Dave Birch, who challenged attendees to think about the aforementioned Pony Express – and asked for suggestions from all of us about what strategy we would adopt were we directors of the beleaguered postal service. It was a fantastic opportunity for us to reframe the challenges of fintech by taking a radical step back.  My favourite Pony Express suggestions were ‘riderless horses’ and shorter, lighter messages of ‘140 characters or less’, although no-one thought that one would catch on!

In line with the attendee-led nature of unconferences, we then asked attendees to jot down ideas they wanted to discuss on Post-Its, and Dave together with Jersey Finance and Digital Jersey sorted through and identified the main talking points. The first round looked at Artificial Intelligence, Payments, KYC and Blockchain, with attendees choosing the topic most relevant to them and a spokesperson reporting back to the conference. The next round focussed on Data Privacy, Skills, CyberSecurity and ‘Jersey as a Platform’ – a concept which looks at jurisdictional initiatives to be used as a platform for the private sector, e.g. a ‘Financial Passport’. Questions explored included whether government could put in place an ID scheme like the Estonian e residency model, among other features we could put in place to ensure Jersey is as hospitable and advanced as possible for digital businesses.

As we wrapped up, Dave Birch shared with us how impressed he was with the quantity and quality of ideas, alongside the breadth of topics covered. The noted quality was undoubtedly due to the excellent mix of fins and techs, which made sure we were asking the right questions and searching for the right solutions.

What Next?

This unconference was all about action – seeing what’s needed, what’s possible and taking our next steps from there.  

We’re going to work closely with JFL to set up proposition development groups focussed on four major areas identified at the unconference:

  • Virtual Currencies (building on work already taking place with SoJ)
  • Blockchain
  • Regtech/KYC
  • Wealth Management Platforms

Both agencies will work to build these groups to ensure all key players and those who have expressed a particular interest are invited to join initial meetings. The idea for these groups is to deliver trial products in six to twelve months, which means we need to make sure that all the barriers that could get in the way of the financial and digital sectors working together are removed – be they issues with regulation, funding, skills or more.

In line with Digital Jersey’s aims to put Jersey firmly on the map for digital innovation, we not only want these groups to develop products and services, we also want to turn them into case studies so we can successfully market Jersey overseas and attract inbound investment, talent and skills to the Island. We already have some exceptional case studies – the aim now is to build up a continuous ambience of fintech excellence through a whole cluster of new products, services and projects.

The exciting thing is that this is all absolutely possible given the excellent groundwork in place – we can do this and, frankly, we don’t have a choice: we need to diversify, innovate and grow, and fintech will play a big part in this.

While there are some obvious differences between a 46.14 mi² island just off the coast of France and the 19th century Wild West, at least one similarity is clear: the potential and reality of disruption will always be with us. We need to find intelligent, proactive and long-sighted ways to adapt.