London FinTech Week 2015 kicked off in style with a brilliant presentation from Jean-Stéphane Gourévitch, CEO and founder of Mobile Convergence Ecosystems, which looked at the future of mobile money with reference to the likes of Kenya's mighty M-Pesa.
The way that mobile transactions have fostered financial inclusion in places like Africa must be remembered as one of the great success stories of digital technology. During a quick chat with Jean-Stéphane, I recounted the view that M-Pesa is now leading to unbanked people actually opening bank accounts, as the whole economy formalises thanks to mobile telephony.
He agreed, while pointing out that in places like Nigeria, M-Pesa is seen as a non-prestigious form of finance, a service for the poor. And this in turn has fuelled demand for credit cards which denote status – such is the depth of Gourévitch's understanding of this ecosystem.
Among the starts hawking their wares were: cheap remittance service for migrants TransferGo; Squirrel, which allows people to manage their money via work place payrolls; CoinJar, a Bitcoin personal finance app; and Bankable, a white label payments solution.
Day two and the emphasis was on markets trading and investments, with questions like man versus algorithm being considered.
Bitcoin forex and trading apps were well represented with Colin Kwan, Magnr CEO demonstrating his unique bitcoin leverage trading and savings platform.
IBTimes caught a quick chat with Dr Timo Schlaefer of insured hedging bitcoin trading service CryptoFacilities, which is about to announce a tie-up with a major financial institution.
Schlaefer agreed that bitcoin forex is possibly the dominant play at this time. Staring into the middle distance, he mused that the Bitcoin network is quite simply unlike anything we have ever seen before.
That evening Innovate Finance held a cybersecurity event with a presentation from its CEO Lawrence Wintermeyer.
In the middle of FinTech week I attended a technology briefing by Swift, the people responsible for interbank payments plumbing.
To be clear, this was not part of FinTech Week's diet of events. Interesting though - Swift has recently won the contract to build a real time retail payments platform in Australia. This is to be completed by 2017.
The slow and cumbersome nature of interbank clearing and settlement is generally thought of as a low hanging fruit for proponents of private or permissioned blockchains. Swift is aware of this fact, which is perhaps another reason it's under pressure to move towards real time.
Carlo Palmers, senior manager market infrastructures at Swift illustrated the need for faster payments with an example of transfer of property, like a company buying building off another, which involves large sums of money, a notary and can take upwards of two weeks. He said this sort of thing will become instant.
This is a typical use case for faster, blockchain-enabled systems of settlement. If real time settlement and clearing could be deliverable by 2020, could this effectively knock out some use cases for permissioned blockchains at banks? Or is a distributed system cheaper to implement and run anyway and so a preferable option to a bank? Would private blockchain evangelists even admit it if it wasn't?
I asked Dr Lee Braine of the Investment Bank CTO Office at Barclays if a blockchain model was the preferred approach these days. He said that it's not really an "either/or" situation and what we are looking at is a "roadmap" towards more efficient systems.
Swift also pointed out that faster automated systems across borders remain encumbered by AML considerations and that a suspicious transaction cannot be processed, by law, which has a knock on friction effect to the system.
I asked Dr Gideon Greenspan, founder and CEO, MultiChain, what he thought about sticky jurisdictional issues such as this, in the context of distributed ledger: "I think the answer is that each blockchain address would be tagged with its country, at the time that it's given permission to transact. Then different logic would be applied by the blockchain for transactions between countries, with perhaps an extra piece of approval required, etc..."
Thursday at Fintech Week saw a host of blockchain specialists gathered together. Eric Benz and Nick Williamson, co-founders of Credits were holding a session on the definition of blockchain which was well attended and informative.
Following that Williamson joined Brian Donegan of the Isle of Man government for a session titled "Isle of Man: Open for Crypto & Blockchain Business".
Another well attended session was by Applied Blockchain founder Adi Ben-Ari on smart contracts. Ben-Ari, who helps firms build systems that can handle complex data commands on blockchains, said some time ago Ethereum "blew his mind".
"We love the code – all the public blockchain stuff is really for us a distraction," he said.
The permissioned versus permissionless blockchain debate was front and centre of the final session which featured a panel made up of economist Jon Matonis, the former CEO of the Bitcoin Foundation; Richard G. Brown, who recently left IBM to join blockchains for banks startup initiative R3; and Dr Lee Braine, a distributed ledger architecture specialist from Barclays.
Matonis made the point that not only are private blockchains denying the benefits of a global, secure, frictionless financial system, they could actually be used as a blockade or cartel against smaller financials or countries that are facing economic hardship.
Asked what his one sentence definition of a blockchain was, Richard Brown declined, saying the term has so many meanings to so many people that it is becoming meaningless.
Friday's mentionables included a bubble football event to mark of the official launch of the Loot app, tagged with the line "99 days to create a bank".
Another challenge to the UK's age-old banking hegemony comes in the form of Germany's Fidor Bank, which has finally arrived in the UK. For those that don't know, Fidor views Bitcoin as a natural part of the digital environment and has proved the point through its tie ups with German exchange Bitcoin.de and Kraken in the US. Interesting times.