Singapore's Central Business District generally goes quiet during the weekends, the lobbies of steel-and-glass buildings silent and empty. But the IBM Innovation Studios, 42 storeys up in the Marina Bay Financial Centre, was a hive of activity one recent September weekend. If the street level resembled a set for a zombie film, this - with all the open laptops, lines of code and urgent discussions about APIs and blockchain - was more like a scene from some new technology-driven thriller.
Organised by ANZ and the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business Analytics Centre, the ANZ-NUS Financial Services Innovation Challenge was set up to generate digital innovation and collaboration on trade and supply chain issues, using emerging technologies.
The Challenge took the form of a hackathon: an intensive, short-term collaboration between coders and their business advisers to form teams to solve a problem, this time in just one highly-focused weekend event.
NUS students, with the help of mentors and coaches, were put through their paces and pushed to find solutions to salve current pain points in the finance industry.
It's a big ask: trade and supply chain issues are complex, with numerous stakeholders, requirements, and often involve multimillion-dollar projects. It can take weeks or months of discussion, research and development for banks and financial institutions to come up with ideas and solutions to implement.
Prepping for the hackathon required a series of lectures, as a crash course in trade finance and technology.
“We joined the seminars every Thursday afternoon, we listened to multiple different experts in different industries, they're teaching us and giving us hands-on experience with their tools, which can be quite expensive… as students we would not be able to afford them, but now we have all these assets," said Chen Dechao, a Masters student in business analytics.
“We learnt about technology, IBM Bluemix, various kinds of analytics software that's part of IBM and which is actually driving industry trends. We learnt a lot about the trade finance industry," said his classmate and teammate Abhishek Roy. Abhishek said that it was all new to him, as he didn't come come from a finance background. "It was really amazing, these sessions where we learnt a lot about this industry. Also the session by Reuters on how you can use the external data out there and merge it with your business internal data and come up with innovative solutions… it was really a very exciting opportunity for all of us," he said.
After the lectures and workshops - delivered over a few hours each week over five weeks in August and September - entrants then had only the weekend to develop and present their ideas to a panel of judges.
“I joined this challenge because I think financial innovation will be a major trend in the industry," said Shi Jia, who is currently completing a Masters in Business Administration. “I have seven years' working experience in the finance industry and I believe that Fintech will play in a major role in the future."
Shi Jia's team, Team Finus, is made up of a mix of computer scientists and business administrators. Their team leader, Zhang Wenbin, is currently working on a PhD in Mathematics with a focus on cryptography.
“I'm enjoying it. I find it's not easy, but if was easy the industry would have solved the problem already!" Zhang said with a laugh. “But because we're young and not very experienced this means we can come up with fresh ideas which might have potential."
Fresh ideas were precisely what ANZ was looking for in the challenge, and a key consideration in the minds of the judges.
“We have a lot to learn in connecting with what's happening in the external environment. Things are changing so fast that we run the risk of sitting in our own big office and telling ourselves that we know it all because we've done banking for 20 years," said Sreeram Iyer, ANZ's Chief Operating Officer of International and Institutional Business, who was one of the challenge's judges.
"But really the proof of all of that is what's happening outside, and there's a completely different world in the student community to come fresh, with no baggage, with no preconceived ideas and their expression is in their thinking and their innovation," he says.
“I believe that Fintech will play in a major role in the future.”
The competition was intense; out of the 22 teams that had initially joined the challenge, only eight made it to IBM's Innovation Studio that weekend.
“It's really exciting. There are people with computer science background, they're working on blockchain technology… everyone's making really high-flying models and there's a lot of good work going around," Roy said. His team, the Datavengers, clustered around a table in the middle of the room, their screens filled with data and colourful charts as they worked out the best way to present a system to allow banks to analyse and generate insight out of raw data.
But it's not just about the idea. After all, concepts can only go so far if they're not communicated to others. To get ahead, the teams don't just have to come up with the best solution, but also to develop a persuasive pitch, presented with confidence and flair.
The weekend included two pitch clinics, offering the teams a chance to run-through their projects and get feedback from mentors and coaches. Sunday morning sees Team Finus' Shi Jia and her teammate Xu Liang hanging about outside the pitch practice room, psyching themselves up for their second round of pitch practice. The rest of their team are still hunched over laptops. Eyes fixed on their screens, they clearly have no time to chat. The WiFi network has broken down, but no-one there is letting that stop them; they've simply plugged their phones in and kept on working on mobile hotspots.
When the final pitching practice gets under way, it's clear that there can be no half-measures. Pitching isn't just about running through an idea; it's a performance. The teams' designated speakers start to rehearse their spiels, seeking quiet, unobtrusive corners to drill all hesitation and nervousness out of their systems. As the first up, Shi Jia takes up position at the head of the table in the practice room.
She's got a sleek PowerPoint presentation done up, with the promise of a smart contract solution that'll cut down on tedious man-hours spent poring over physical documents.
There's no shortage of comments from the mentors and coaches. Questions, suggestions, tips and tricks come pouring in. Shi Jia takes it all in her stride.
“I made some changes to my PowerPoint, but I don't want to dwell on it too much. I think if I focus on it too much I'll just get more nervous!" she said later.
The Datavengers, too, have their own decisions to make. “We have arguments like how we should present our solutions, and should we focus more on the technical part, or more on the finance part? We have a lot of arguments but it is from the arguments that we really learn a lot and we jump on to areas that we've never been exposed to before," Chen said.
The energy is at fever pitch by the time everyone crowds into the room for the final pitching before the judges. Team Finus is up first, setting the tone for the highlight of the weekend. Shi Jia seems a little nervous, but pushes through, introducing the team's concept and taking questions.
The Datavengers are up next, and Roy seeks to wow the audience through force of personality. The team's presentation involves an impressive array of colourful charts and graphs; evidence of how quickly they've taken to the technology presented. It pays off: at the end of the day, each team member is the proud owner of a Fitbit, the reward for having made the best use of the IBM platform.
Team Finus, unfortunately, was not a winning team.
Team Finnovation - a group of seven Master of Science in Business Analytics students: Lyu Peijin, Xu Yuwen, Wang Yi, Wang Ji, Sylvia Liaw, Anna Ang and Chen Xiang - took out first prize for their data analytics-based proposal that used various data sources to pin-point the location of ships, matching this against trade finance documentation so fraudulent documents could be detected much earlier in the process.
For Team Finus, the disappointment was fleeting and left little time for unhappiness; the experience had been intense, and the participants were all eager to move on with their newfound knowledge. But first: they were all looking forward to a well-earned break.
Writer: Kirsten Han
Photographer: Stefanus Ian
Video: 90 Seconds