In 1947 a carpenter from Billund, Denmark came up with the single greatest design innovation in the history of toys.
He called it the Lego.
Legos are not as cuddly as stuffed animals or as flashy as video games systems— but generations of children and adults have loved for Legos for almost 70 years for one simple reason — variability. One can build almost anything with Legos — princess castle, car (replica or working model), Death Star, Sydney Opera House — the limits of Legos are only how many blocks the builders have and how much patience they have for snapping them together. According to an actual mathematician, the six basic Lego blocks yield about 100 million combinations.
And while most people who aren’t either children or extreme adult hobbyists don’t spend much time thinking about the humble Lego, i2c CEO Amir Wain told Karen Webster in a recent interview that Legos are exactly what banks should be thinking about when they’re designing the future of the digital systems for a world filling up with ever more complex regulatory issues and consumer needs.
The constraints of reality simply don’t allow banks to build stable compliant products years in advance and completely in tune with the needs of consumers out of the box. Consumers and the services they required are both too fluid — and financial services providers need a method to get ahead of those baked-in fluctuations.
“If we want to reduce it to a word — it is abstraction. How do you abstract the problems? Go back to the Lego pieces — it’s about having a series of interlocking pieces that snap together to build a solution. We at i2c don’t claim we know everything about every human need because we can’t. Every day we learn something new, and instead of designing a product for a need — we look at it as a composition with a Lego piece that is missing.”
The goal then, Wain noted, is working backward from that decision about how to build a specific missing Lego piece — and then generalizing it into a tool that can be snapped into, or out of, a composition.
It’s a big job.
“We still have 200 plus people coding every month, we put in half a million hours a year,” Wain told Webster. “But what we’re adding, and how we’re adding it, is at a higher level of abstraction. We aren’t trying to build solutions or products — we are trying to create interlocking pieces.”
Interlocking pieces that their issuer partners worldwide can “snap together” like Lego pieces to build customized offerings.
And while this can seem a bit counter-intuitive — building user-centric custom experiences out of generalized pieces — as Amir Wain sees it, it is in fact the best response to the needs of a world that have changed dramatically.
The New Normal Pace
Traditionally, financial services have a problem with their legacy systems, according to Wain, and it is a very well known one. They’re slow.
In the not-too-distant past when the innovation cycle between early and late adopters was a decade long — that inherent slowness wasn’t an immediately apparent flaw. In the superheated digital environment — when the difference between early and late adopters can be as little as 24 months — the problem is much more apparent.
“You have a much shorter time to get there then you once did,” Wain told Webster. “The problem for the legacy tech is that it is not designed for this time scale and the market has really compressed this timescale.”
Bankers aren’t stupid, Wain notes, and they are well aware of the increased demand for nimbleness in the market. But demand doesn’t change the real constraints of legacy systems — and bankers are facing genuine limitations in how they consider the problem.
“You don’t want disruption if you’ve built a stable business, and people go to banks for stability and reliability,” Wain notes. “They have a trade-off they have to manage between nimbleness and speed, but no one wants a bank to fail or be in turbulence.”
Moreover, issuers face constraints from regulators that are highly specific and non-negotiable in their demands, particularly around consumer experiences.
“These guys see the change, but they have real constraints. They have regulators and they have to be worried about stability and scalability. They get the problem, if you give them a solution, they are jumping on it.”
So what does that solution look like?
Reliability + Flexibility
“We have to re-engineer our processes and tools to meet the time scale,” Wain told Webster on the constant trade-off FI’s feel like they are making between stable and compliant and nimble and flexible.
“At the high level you get out of the coding business and into the composition business.”
The problem with the coding business — specifically with trying to hard code those solutions and products into legacy systems — is that it is just completely out of step with how the marketplace works. It makes it impossible for issuers to drive a custom platform, test a variety of options or apply anything they learn about their customers’ experiences because legacy systems aren’t built to handle those kinds of additions and subtractions quickly.
“You’ve gotta convert the dilemma that goes to the root of agile processing,” Wain told Webster. “How do I become flexible while staying reliable?”
The solution, Wain told Webster, is to recenter the project entirely.
“All customers we service today run off the same source code, not a single line is different for a New Zealand or the U.S. or Brazil or Africa, they are all running on the same code. What we offer are Lego pieces that can be combined and recomposed into different experiences as the use case demands. The underlying assumption is that I have tested this pieces, so every time I am composing experiences I am not rewriting code — I am rewriting the use case.”
The demands of building these systems, Wain notes, are not light. It requires first the creation of a lot of custom code for the wide variety of use cases i2c faces. And that is a wide variety of use cases – as i2c works with at least one top ten bank on four different continents as well as a variety of medium and smaller-scaled firms. And from those custom codes, i2c “stamps” new Lego pieces — now usable for configurations across their platform.
And apart from being able to do it — which is a sizable technical challenge — there is the not small matter of convincing very conservative and rightfully risk-averse banks around the world to sign on.
“They want a solution,” Wain told Webster, noting the problem isn’t lack of desire to plug into platform or for systems that may help get legacy-based banking systems more in step with modern market pacing.
“They won’t put their reputation and their brand identity on a start-up that has existed for a few years, has taken in $100M in funding and a platform that hasn’t done a billion dollars yet. A clever app can push the market and put pressure on FIs to offer more — but they aren’t going to stake a reputation on it.”
But this is where i2c is a little different — they do over $1 billion a month and have been working with banks, and designing new Legos, for 16 years.
“When we go to banks and tell them this is our track record — we can actually demonstrate something over time,” Wain notes.
And when it comes to the world of providing an ever more complex and integrated line-up, time is the resource that issuers are often in search of the most. Time to test their products, time to get them to market, time to make an innovation count while it is still innovative – and time to figure all of this all out.
Unfortunately, i2c is not selling time machines. But it is offering a more efficient use of time for issuers — designing compositions with interchangeable pieces instead of obsessing over coding. It requires a different way of thinking — and one that is more holistic.
But if a circle has to be squared between slow and stable and nimble but untested, the ability to easily snap in customizations as one goes certainly seems like a good start.