The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is about as Establishment as you can get.
The organization, based in Brussels and owned by member banks, has been transmitting payment messages between financial institutions across the globe since the 1970s. But with a team of about 10 professional disruptors collectively known as Innotribe, SWIFT is trying to cast itself as an agent of change.
Innotribe mostly plays an evangelist role, organizing innovation-themed events. At a SWIFT conference in New York in March, I arrived late to a workshop on building incubators and scratched my head at the roomful of straight-laced bankers full-on engaged in arts and crafts, making show-and-tell models with balloons and Tinkertoys.
Naturally, Innotribe has been on the TED Talks circuit. In a presentation at this year's TEDx New Wall Street conference, Peter Vander Auwera, an Innotribe innovation leader (that's one of the titles on his email signature), advised budding corporate trailblazers, "Focus on the abstractions, things that are five to 10 years out."
It all sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky. But clearly banking is in need of some kind of transformation.
"Every piece of our revenue stream is being nibbled at around the corners," Bradley G. Leimer, the vice president of online and mobile strategy for Mechanics Bank in Richmond, Calif., says of the industry. "Some is being taken in big chunks."
"Banks need to look beyond transactions, payments, and money flows" and think about "what other things their customers have of value they can protect," he says. "What is the banking model 20 years from now?"
Innotribe is offering one possible answer, based on the storehouse of data that banks have accumulated from their retail customers. Its idea, dubbed the Digital Asset Grid, reimagines banks as a facilitator of commerce, not just in terms of how payments get processed but in terms of how consumer data gets shared over the course of a transaction.
An example: You need to buy a bouquet of flowers. Instead of visiting the local florist, or comparison shopping across different florists' websites, you pick up a mobile device and type (or say) "request florist delivery." Bids start flowing in from several shops in the area. It's similar to the way a general contractor gets bids for construction jobs, except at this point none of the bidders knows who you are.
Your bank can vouch that you are good for the money. It may have even told some of the vendors (with your permission) that you already have loyalty relationships with their stores. But you've made only a nonbinding, general request.
After reviewing the options (and, perhaps, customer reviews of the stores coming back to you with offers), you accept a bid. But you don't send anyone your data. It stays put at the bank, which would be the custodian of your "digital assets"-which can include everything from your name, address and payment account numbers (debit, credit, PayPal, etc.) to your medical or shopping history. The retailer gets temporary permission to access the data, and only for the purpose you've specified. Like an attorney, the bank reveals client information on a need-to-know basis.
Underlying all of this is the Digital Asset Grid, which would point the retailer to the appropriate bank for the data it needs.
The Digital Asset Grid is Innotribe's second stab at in-house innovation, and by far the more ambitious one. (The first was MyStandards, a collaborative website for back-office bankers rolled out in the spring.) The grid would be SWIFT's first consumer play in its nearly four-decade history; the organization would run the infrastructure, maintaining a worldwide map of where everyone's secured data resides and keeping track of who has the right to do what with which data.
Contrast the idea with what happens today. The merchants control the interaction. The florists compete with each other in a broad sense, but they're not trying to outbid each other one purchase at a time. They set the terms. Take them or leave them. Meanwhile, your personal data is parked in multiple places, a reality that is unsettling for many people, especially when you think about all the purchases you've made via Amazon.com and eBay and countless other online vendors (not to mention all the intimate details you've voluntarily given Facebook).
With a Digital Asset Grid, the consumer has more control over her data and considerably more clout in her dealings with vendors than in today's world. Her bank has played a big role in giving her that power and privacy, and knowing this could make her a happy, loyal bank customer.
"The answer to every market problem since the Industrial Revolution has been to expand what the seller can do," says Doc Searls, the technologist and author, most recently, of "The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge." It was his ideas that inspired the SWIFT project.