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Winning the ‘War for our Thumbs’

More than 1,000 members of the Hungarian banking and tech communities packed the Budapest Congress Center for the Novathon conference organized by CIB Bank, a subsidiary of Italian banking group Intesa Sanpaulo.

Head of multichanel and customer experience at Intesa Sanpaolo Maurice Lisi (left) and Steve Wozniak.

Novathon is an engaging, inspirational and trendsetting event that focuses on finance innovation and culture transformation. It first took place here in 2016, traveled to Croatia in 2017 and Slovakia in 2018 before returning on October 30 to Budapest.  

The conference promises to address the hottest topics in banking. This year it explored how banks are responding to the challenge of FinTech, which uses technology to optimize finance.  

Technologies like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and machine learning are all driving FinTech and disrupting the global financial landscape. The FinTech Global website claims that USD 41.7 billion was invested in the industry across 789 deals in 2018. Europe accounts for 10% of the market, according to global market intelligence website Netscribe.

Demand to attend Novathon, a program of presentations and discussions featuring international financial influencers and big names in Hungarian banking, was so great organizers CIB Bank changed the event venue. This year, the main attraction was Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.

The Move to Mobile

Mobile is key for FinTech, and traditional banking is scrambling to win what one speaker called “the war for our thumbs”. Another speaker announced that, by 2023, more people will bank using their mobile than will visit their branch.  

Although bank customers have historically been resistant to change, this has been in part because there simply hasn’t been a viable alternative. FinTech disrupters like TransferWise, the international money transfer service, appeal to customer intelligence and a general dislike of what is seen as banks being secretive and less than transparent. They also harness the perception that tech is modern, clever and liberating.

Another significant factor is customer service. As Toby Triebel, European CEO at roboadviser firm Wealthsimple told Computerworld UK, “Banks command trust because they are big and have been around for a long time, not because people feel they can relate to them on a human level. One of the biggest areas where FinTechs have distinguished themselves is by providing a really high standard of customer care and taking a customer-first approach when it comes to the design and delivery of their product.”

It’s an approach that works extremely well with digital natives, from Millennials downwards. According to one Novathon speaker, seven out of 10 Millennials would rather go to the dentist than to their bank.

But will the FinTech approach appeal to Hungarians? Judging by the atmosphere at Novathon, the Hungarian banking industry is gung-ho to go over the top in the war for the country’s thumbs and find out.  

FinTech in Hungary

Disruption Banking is an online platform dedicated to financial technology, new age banking and emerging markets. In an article this year, it turned its attention to Hungary.

Despite praising Budapest as a city “pulsing with tech activity”, Disruption Banking goes on to point out that a survey carried out by Hungarian economic research company GKI revealed “market penetration for mobile banking and payments is at a minimum, with less than 10% of the population having tested online shopping or payment apps.”  

One reason for this is that the Hungarian economy relies very heavily on cash. Research by Deloitte revealed that only 79.4% of adults have a bank account.

Clearly, there is a significant opportunity for banks and FinTech companies in Hungary if they can reach the potential market for their products in the right way. It is not surprising, then, that Novathon 2019 was packed and that there was a somewhat feverish worship of innovation and disruption.

Wisdom of ‘The Woz’

Anyone expecting Steve Wozniak to storm the stage at Novathon with the intensity of his Apple co-founder Steve Jobs would have been disappointed. A somewhat shambling bear of a man dressed down in ill-fitting black, Wozniak radiated humility. This came as a contrast to the pumped-up worship of disruption by speakers like Matteo Rizzi, whose shaved head and tight-fitting black t-shirt looked like an homage to Jobs.

Known as “the Woz”, Wozniak has engineering in his DNA. Asked what he thought was his purpose in life, he said: “To be a clever engineer, doing things in a way others didn’t. Early on in Apple, all I wanted was engineers to look at my designs and say ‘Wow!’”  

Wozniak’s constant impulse to invent, to make technology better for individuals, certainly helped make tech what it is today. His spirit helped bring the Apple Watches, iPhones and MacBook Airs of the Novathon audience to life and drive mind-blowing innovations like the Internet of Holograms. He’s a great believer in disruption, even arguing that companies should have a Chief Disruption Officer.  

But Wozniak is also committed to defending civil liberties in the digital world. He helped create the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990.

And he mistrusts the monopolistic, controlling elements in tech. He is particularly scathing about the so-called gig economy (where, according to Investopdia’s definition, “temporary, flexible jobs are commonplace and companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers instead of full-time employees.”  

Education is another passion. In 2017, inspired by his experiences teaching high school in California, he created Woz U, an online learning ecosystem that, he says, “empowers individuals (learners), higher education and corporations to overcome the talent and skill gaps plaguing the technology industry.”

After the conference, the organizers commented, “The biggest takeaway is that banks shouldn’t only implement the latest technology, thinking they’re innovating. A deep transformation that touches internal culture and organization is the key to succeed.”

At an event dedicated to exploring how tech and finance can penetrate more deeply into our lives than ever before, Wozniak was a breath of patchouli-scented fresh air. The “deep transformation” Novathon’s organizers hope for needs to be guided by the spirit of The Woz.

Roundtable discussion at Novathon.