Making Edinburgh the data capital of Europe - Stuart Chalmers

Navigating the challenges brought about by spiralling costs brings questions of resilience into sharp focus. How businesses tackle rising inflation, manage dwindling resources, remunerate colleagues and what they pass on to customers are once again mission-critical conversations.

Stuart Chalmers, Head of Financial Services for Accenture in Scotland
Stuart Chalmers, Head of Financial Services for Accenture in Scotland

What is equally critical is that we do not lose sight of the aspiration or our ambition to respond to such challenges through innovation.

Having fought through the pandemic, Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET) sets a pathway to do just that by drawing together policymakers, academia and business expertise collaboratively. It rightly sees the challenge of greater productivity and growth being met through better digital understanding, the wider adoption of cloud computing and the intelligent use of data.

Yet NSET’s ambitions are for long-term gains over the next decade. What, if anything, can we do through data-driven innovation to help both people and organisations tackle more immediate problems caused by soaring prices?

When facing a new profound challenge, how we use data becomes critically important. Our capability and capacity to use data and our technical expertise to get the right support to the right people in the right ways must guide our thinking.

In both the NSET, as well as the Scottish Government’s recent Digital Strategy, the financial services (FS) sector where I work was heralded as one of Scotland’s strengths and FinTech Scotland as an example of how government and the private sector can successfully work together. The current squeeze on people’s finances is also where FS can step up.

Recent analysis has shown how the effects of inflation are eating away at people’s spending power, while new interest rate hikes will hit mortgage borrowers hard. A report by UK Finance in collaboration with Accenture found that 1.3 million fixed rate mortgages are ending at some point this year, meaning many homeowners will be looking for a new deal.

Helping customers understand their finances is an important part of the banks’ role and most offer apps that provide some form of personal finance management (PFM).

These services help consumers keep close tabs on how much they’re spending and what on. The best have user friendly interfaces allowing consumers to get an instant picture of their finances, check the size and due dates of their regular payments, and consider fixed or variable options for outgoings like home energy.

Perhaps the most obvious move for banks now is to ramp up their PFM offerings to help improve customers’ ability to budget. PFM services have not historically been particularly popular, but their time may now have come.

Another option is to use the channels opened during the pandemic to proactively offer customers support with managing debt, from traditional credit card debt and personal loans to short term financing products such as buy now, pay later (BNPL).

Underpinning both is, of course, data. And when the understanding of customer needs requires high quality data sources and comes from the use and analysis of that data, the ethical and trusted development and application of artificial intelligence (AI) becomes paramount.

AI can improve customer interactions, increase efficiency and empower employees to provide the right advice. But it also carries incredible responsibilities, giving rise to questions around governance, authenticity and legality. It is also why responsible AI and the practice of designing, developing and deploying AI with integrity is a growing area of our business.

Turning back, if I may, to our aspirations, AI is an area where Scotland punches well above its weight. The aim to make Edinburgh the Data Capital of Europe was reiterated in the national AI Strategy along with using data intelligently for good purpose. Collaboration in various sectors, including financial services, has proved to be successful. As inflation continues to bite, and there remains little sign of energy costs coming down soon, it seems we have another test of our ambition, skills and resilience.

Stuart Chalmers, Head of Financial Services for Accenture in Scotland

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