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  • Writer's pictureSarica Robyn

Anthropology and Finance in 2018



As we start a new year, the question of which technologies will dictate the tech sphere, becomes salient. From bitcoin and blockchain to augmented reality and affective computing, new technologies are rapidly paving a future that will significantly disrupt key areas of human life, including travel, healthcare and finance.


As we know, technology has changed the very way we experience daily life. Intelligent assistants like Siri and Alexa have altered the way we communicate, and increasingly personalised services are helping us to make informed decisions. Advancements in AI technology – through machine learning algorithms – have changed how we connect with others as chatbots are increasingly being utilised in businesses, call centres and mobile apps.


In this scenario, one would not normally assume the hand of anthropology in emergent technologies and yet, design and anthropology are key players driving the change. It is a useful reminder that anthropology has evolved from providing academic tools within the field, to providing concrete ways of exploring human experience within technology. As companies increasingly recruit designers and UX researchers for projects that utilise AI and machine learning, the role of anthropology has become more relevant than ever.


With the increasingly shifting landscape of technology and data, it has become essential for designers to not simply base their findings on quantitative data, but to practice fieldwork by observing people’s experiences in the real world. This fieldwork aspect can be achieved through utilising ethnography: immersing oneself in real-life situations in order to truly understand the user and their experiences.


Finance, for instance, is a key area in which new technologies have caused major disruption and changing the very way in which we take financial decisions. There are three ways in which design thinking and anthropology work fluidly and in tandem with finance this year:


(1) Fintech and the role of personalisation


The explosion of Fintech has caught the finance world by storm. Traditional financial services companies are increasingly struggling to compete with the emerging disruption and ambiguity caused by Fintech startups, and this trend is likely to continue through 2018.

Fintech uses technology to make it easier for people to invest, make payments and even get a loan – features that are particularly popular amongst today's millennials struggling to advance amidst rising house prices and ruthless competition for jobs.


Crucially, Fintech has levelled the financial playing field by providing access to services previously reserved for those with at least one million dollars in assets. For instance, Betterment – an online investing company – uses AI technology and machine learning to provide highly personalised and curated wealth management services, but crucially, attracts everyday customers who would not ordinarily receive services from traditional banks.


Given this new emergent phenomenon, there seems to be an increasing need for financial services companies to drive customer loyalty, especially among millennials inundated with choice today.


Herein lies the real role of anthropology in navigating the ambiguity of financial decisions. By employing human-driven tools, one can arrive at much greater insights into user preferences and ultimately, develop a human-focused approach to finance. Financial services companies can engage based on unique and insightful data in order to truly understand their product needs, and offer services to users that can incentivise positive lifestyle changes.


Importantly, by adopting personalised and human-focused approaches, financial services companies can develop emotional connections based on empathy. Such moves away from a one-size-fits-all model towards personalisation, would improve user satisfaction, loyalty and trust.


Ideally, then, if we can leverage anthropological insights to develop empathy towards the user and create higher engagement, as well as harness technological tools (chatbots, AI and machine learning) in order to offer enhanced products and services, we can truly humanise the user’s experience.

(2) Blockchain


Blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions that records information across a decentralised network of devices. The emergence of blockchain technology has been a powerful new entry into the financial sphere, revolutionising the financial services industry by allowing customers to make transactions without traditional intermediaries.


Indeed, blockchain has the potential to radically disrupt entire industries, and its impact is not limited to finance, as it can be used as tool to improve efficiency in areas like healthcare, politics and trade.


The organisation Democracy Earth, for instance, has released a programme known as Sovereign, that aims to provide “open source and decentralised democratic governance protocol for any kind of organisation”. This peer-to-peer democratic system combines liquid democracy and blockchains to provide a service in which voters can directly express their standpoint on political issues, as well as cast their votes.


The key point here is that employing blockchain technology is no longer just about disrupting financial services, but also about empowering everyday citizens to feel politically engaged. Given this disruption, we need to question how human-centred design can be employed to not only work with these changes, but ultimately pave the way for a future in which blockchain technology is embedded in most areas of human life. Since blockchain is a radically new technology, it will become imperative to understand this new tool and the way it will impact our social interactions and our digital lives.


Designers and anthropologists will now need to focus on how blockchain technologies can be integrated with human-focused design so as to provide services that understand the user and offer rich experiences. Indeed, as blockchain becomes more embedded within our everyday interactions, designers will need to produce services that communicate trust and security amid a revolutionary and highly adaptable technology.

(3) Gamification in Finance


Customer-centric demands and emerging technologies are disrupting traditional models within financial services companies. Gamification – the application of gaming principles to non-gaming contexts – is increasingly being employed across healthcare, finance and fitness apps as a means of providing an interactive and experiential service for users.


Through gamification, financial services companies can deploy tools to improve user experience and educate users about the products and services they offer. As millennials demand greater engagement, gamification offers a far more experiential and customer-driven approach to financial decision-making.


Indeed, gamification is powerfully human-focused: it emotionally engages users and helps them to achieve their financial goals. Gamification, then, harnesses the power of play to understand the needs and desires of customers.


Anthropologists can harness gamification technology to truly understand users’ financial behaviour and psychology. To truly understand the financial lives of individuals, is to arrive at empathy – the basis for designing useful and beneficial solutions.

So through understanding the human behaviour behind financial decisions, such as exploring how one’s personality can affect the kinds of investments one makes, designers have the opportunity to create solutions that genuinely improve people’s lives.

Finance, then, is not just about financial decisions — it is also a lifestyle, a means of communication and a way of navigating relationships.


Anthropology began as a discipline that explored culture and society and revealed the desires, motivations and vulnerabilities of individuals experiencing everyday life. The pursuit of ethnography was to “grasp the native’s point of view” and to truly immerse oneself in a cultural context. Today, anthropology has taken a new direction: traversing culture and technology and operating in previously unchartered field sites.


Yet, the premise of anthropology today remains the same: to use research as a process of inquiry and discovery and to understand social and cultural change. Indeed, the new technologies we experience today challenge the anthropologist to examine human behaviour in the face of disruption in much the same way that Gluckman (1963) and Barth (1981) examined social change and “dysfunctional” practices in Zambia and the Swat Valley, respectively.


With new technologies impacting significant areas of culture and society and changing the way we experience everyday life, anthropology is not just relevant -- it is more critical than ever.

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