The early hours of PYMNTS.com’s The Innovation Project 2013 featured no shortage of star power. With Market Platform Dynamics CEO Karen Webster leading off the event with a unique take on innovation and the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffett offering his wisdom to the crowd, the bar was set very high for the event’s first panel.
Fortunately, former Vice President Al Gore was up to the task, calling in live from London to speak about payments, innovation and his take on a concept he says he’s been developing for years: the Global Mind.
How does Gore define his concept? According to the former Vice President, the Global Mind consists of “networks that connect billions of people and their thoughts and feelings, not only to one another but also to an increasing array of intelligent devices, embedded systems, artificial intelligence machines, and vast databases that put knowledge at everybody’s fingertips,” he summarized. “It’s changing the way we do business, and changing and disrupting business models.”
That potential for disruption became a focal point for the rest of the panel, as Gore was joined by an impressive and electric group of innovators and established players in the payments space. Accompanying moderator Gary Flood, president of MasterCard’s Global Product and Solutions, were: Roger Hochschild, president of Discover Financial Services, Karl Mehta, former CEO of Visa PlaySpan and White House Technology Fellow, Jeff Jordan, partner at Andressen Horowitz, Lisa Stanton, CEO of Monitise, and Russell Simmons, CEO of UniRush.
After Gore’s initial comments, Flood opened the panel up for questions. That’s when Gore’s comments became perhaps most candid and interesting.
The Q&A was started with an inquiry into Gore’s “ global network” theory and some current businesses – namely M-Pesa – that would seem to conflict slightly with some of its tenants. “We’re seeing emerging markets sometimes go their own way in building independent regional payments networks rather than relying on traditional networks … are we better off having some interconnectedness and more domestic and homegrown creativity?”
Gore responded by saying that he believes smaller localized system will eventually become integrated into wider-reaching platforms, but that for now regional innovation was something to encourage.
“At least in the short-term I would agree with allowing innovation, stimulating innovation, in local models, and M-Pesa, which you cited, is a fantastic example,” Gore said. “Kenya has a very narrow regulatory definition of what a bank is, and as a result there was this huge unregulated space that led to a tremendous innovation that has improved the lives of millions of people. So I think at least in the short-term, yes.”
During his response to a question from Mehta, Gore touched on Bitcoins and other virtual currency types, reserving caution for their regulation but expressing enthusiasm for their approach to innovation.
“When Bitcoin currency is converted from currency into cash, that interface has to remain under some regulatory safeguards. I think the fact that within the Bitcoin universe an algorithm replaces the functions of [the government] … is actually pretty cool,” Gore said. “I know that there are a lot of innovators that are out there that are trying to think up … come up with new models and I look forward to that.”
Gore made several more interesting – and occasionally tangential – remarks about how governments can improve regulatory practices by moving online, how to best avoid a “mobile shadow economy” that mirrors the drawbacks of cash economies and
Still one of his strongest takeaways came from one of the first points he made, and one he touched on again in a conversation with Simmons. Mobile payments are useful and disruptive for developed economies, but for the un- and underbanked, it has the power to truly change lives.
“I just want to make this point: this is a good development for the poor of the world. Those who do not have access to banking services, who do not have access to financial services of various kinds, are now gaining access through mobile payments,” Gore said. “ We are obviously in a period of disruptive innovation, and it is early in this revolutionary period, so we are kind of in the “let a thousand floors bloom period.”
Asked by Flood for his parting thoughts, Gore ended the panel with some sagely advice.
“I guess my tip for the day after listening to you all,” Gore said, “is do not invest in a wallet factory.”