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INCLUSION Conference on the Bund Shows that China is Open for Business, With Growth in the Spotlight
Shanghai and China are back.
It's hard to conceive of anyone but Shanghai and China pulling off a fintech conference on such a grand scale. It also served as notice that after years of pandemic isolation, Shanghai and China are back.
Come to the 2024 INCLUSION Conference on the Bund, Shanghai, if you'd like to see the kind of fintech conference the West will be throwing in 15 years. Unlike Western conferences focusing on finding the next fintech unicorn or "soonicorn," Shanghai’s conference focuses on inclusion, growth, sustainability, and using fintech for a greater purpose. It also shows that despite its size, Ant Group, one of the members of the conference’s organizing committees, and its partners are laser-focused on how fintech should be looking out for the little guy so that they too, can capture growth opportunities just like big corporates.
What is inescapable from the second you step on the conference grounds and read the program is that this is not a conference for two-person fintech startups who believe their blockchain protocol can save the world or crypto profiteers. INCLUSION’s technical discussions are industrial-grade, and the technology they promote is refined and well-tested. Yes, Ant invited smaller partners who demonstrate their latest innovations, but all display great pragmatism and professionalism.
The conference's break-out panels focus on the central themes of inclusion, digitization, growth, and sustainability and, of course, include a healthy dose of Generative AI, Web 3, and the metaverse, as do all conferences these days. What makes the coverage of these topics unique compared to its Western counterparts is that all of the sessions mean business and are shockingly "hype-free" to a Western observer. Cryptocurrency is not on the menu, and when Web3 and the Metaverse are discussed, it focuses on their use for industry and inclusion rather than gaming or get-rich-quick schemes.
Eric Jing, Chairman and CEO of Ant Group, talked about how the smart contracts contained in China's new digital yuan will "bring huge synergy effects to the industry."
Payments were a key focus of the conference. Peng Yang, President of Ant Group’s International Business Group, made it clear that for his small and medium enterprise (SME) customers, mobile payments are only the first part of an overall journey toward digitalization and its accompanying growth. This is a journey that Ant readily helps its SME clients complete with easy-to-use “growth tools” to help them quickly and efficiently deepen their ties to consumers by digitizing their operations. Ant’s focus isn’t just focused on next-gen payment but the next-gen commerce its SME clients need to grow.
Picking up on the needs of larger clients, Eric Jing, Chairman and CEO of Ant Group, talked about how the smart contracts contained in China's new digital yuan will "bring huge synergy effects to the industry." He explained how the digital yuan's programmability could be a game changer in equipment finance. A smart contract tied to a financed machine can capture output data through Internet of Things (IoT) to reduce the risk to lenders and lower financing costs. The digital yuan isn't going to take down Ant, as some have speculated, so much as work together across a payment spectrum where there is room for all.
The technical sessions don't just focus on pure fintech applications but include the basic building blocks of fintech, like open-source software, databases, KYC/AML, cybersecurity, blockchain, and digital ID. Ant builds these systems, so their inclusion is no surprise. What becomes clear after attending these more technically focused events is that Ant isn't just peddling visions of inclusion and sustainability built on vaporware. Most of what people discuss in the forums has already been built or can be built on Ant's systems. Ant purpose-built much of this tech for use on its own or clients' systems and is now making it broadly available to domestic and international marketplaces.
Alipay+ will be a household name with the broad based use of digital wallets throughout Asia.
Even though Ant and Alipay are true global players, they are not a household name in the West yet. This will soon change with Alipay+’s cross-border digital payment and marketing solutions, showing how Ant thinks big and aspires to international recognition. Alipay+ can connect more than one billion digital wallet users with merchants across the globe. The solution allows effortless cross-border payments across its network, with customers using the digital wallets they know and trust wherever they see Alipay+. For Asia, where digital wallet use is fragmented and will soon exceed credit cards, Alipay+ is not just visionary but an essential service.
The event wasn't just for the fintech glitterati and hosted a job fair for younger attendees, showing that INCLUSION is taking note of the needs of FinTech’s younger users. Youth employment is a significant issue, and the conference provided an opportunity for younger people to network and apply for starting positions, which seemed in keeping with the times and its message of inclusion.
The conference is an impressive event, and it's hard to conceive of anyone but Shanghai and China pulling off a meeting on such a grand scale. It also served as notice that after years of pandemic isolation, Shanghai and China are back, and the doors are open for international conference attendees.
Me at the inclusion conference!
That conferences like this will be the norm in the West only in the future is not an exaggeration. One esteemed Western visitor said that the Chinese systems discussed at the technical session he attended were over a decade ahead of those in the West. The West doesn't have a fintech giant of Ant's stature, though it undoubtedly will one day. As fintech matures in the West, its conferences will likely take on this level of polish and lose some of the hype they are famous for.
Still, it wasn’t the size of the conference or the number of sessions that made this conference special. It was its heart. Shanghai’s inclusion conference had a heart, which is precisely what fintech and more fintech conferences need. Peng Yang summed up the conference’s spirit best: “Our goal is to bring small and beautiful changes to our world." More fintech conferences should share this philosophy.
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Rich Turrin is the international best-selling author of "Cashless - China's Digital Currency Revolution" and "Innovation Lab Excellence." He is number 4 on Onalytica's prestigious Top 50 Fintech Influencer list and an award-winning executive previously heading fintech teams at IBM following a twenty-year career in investment banking. Living in Shanghai for the last decade, Rich experienced China going cashless first-hand. Rich is an independent consultant whose views on China's astounding fintech developments are widely sought by international media and private clients.
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