Bill Maurer, Director
Jenny Fan, Institute Manager
John Seaman, Administrative Analyst
Ursula Dalinghaus, Assistant Researcher
Stephen C. Rea, Assistant Researcher
Farah Qureshi, Graduate Research Assistant
Mind your Ps and 2s
It’s hard to believe that it has been a decade since
IMTFI was founded. Back in the early days, the jury was out on
whether M-Pesa's apparent take-off in Kenya would be sustained;
whether other, prior mobile phone-based money transfer services
would endure in places like the Philippines and South Africa; and
what technological models, interfaces, and protocols would
ultimately win the day. We didn't even know what to call the phenomenon that we were witnessing: for a while, everyone attached the initial "m-" to everything, signifying "mobile," like folks had done during the dot-com boom with the prefix e-. So we talked about m-banking and m-savings alongside e-commerce. It's hard to remember what a revelation it was to make a key terminological change - and then to make a corresponding pivot away from the simple initial focus on loan repayment and banking services. The terminological change was to adopt the phrase "mobile money" to refer to all of the emerging mobile-based services that could perform any of the functions of banking, payment, credit, or commerce (largely inspired by the GSMA). The pivot was to realize that what we were witnessing was the creation of a set of new digital payment infrastructures, as Jake Kendall, Philip Machoka, Clara Veniard, and I argued in Innovations. Spotlighting payment and platforms rather than a specific service or functionality opened the door to thinking more broadly about the importance of infrastructures in general - technological as well as social - and their role in supporting the public good and in creating new profit opportunities for large-scale corporations and micro-scale entrepreneurs alike.
In their survey of the mobile money space since IMTFI's founding, Drs. Stephen C. Rea and Taylor C. Nelms lean on IMTFI's international network of grounded research to outline 10 key lessons that have emerged since those early days. I want to spotlight one of those lessons, an overarching theme - Rea and Nelms suggest - for understanding mobile money: "Mind your Ps and 2s." Rea and Nelms argue that in the excitement around peer-to-peer money transfer, industry professionals and the donor community were too quick to focus on the pain points and frictions and ironically enough neglected the real import of each of the initials in the acronym for that core initial mobile money use case: P2P. It matters who those peers are on either side of a transaction. The word peer flattens inequalities, equates social and economic positions, and individualizes the "peer" who very likely is operating in a network of social relationships and obligations. And it also matters what "2s" are intermediating that transaction. The infrastructures, technological as well as social, are not just lines of connection, but rather complicated, often messy, and kludgey networks (just like payment infrastructures in the global North, by the way). Rea and Nelms write: "The complexities involved in introducing and scaling mobile money … resist distillation and are not going away." IMTFI research helps them underscore what they call the "variables that make a difference" in different contexts - variables of history, culture, and politics, among others.
I've been thinking about minding my own Ps and 2s in approaching this issue of our newsletter, because 10 years invites reflection on what we have accomplished - what our own Ps and 2s have nurtured and fomented.
First, our Ps: the huge network of researchers, variously positioned inside academic and non-academic institutions ranging from well-known and wealthy universities to smaller regional and local colleges and research groups; from very different cultural, religious, economic, and national backgrounds; bringing with them diverse toolkits, from market research to ethnography to agricultural economics to design. Over 180 strong, from 47 countries, IMTFI's researchers themselves reflect the diversity and variation in contexts we think it is crucial to understand if we are to grasp - and impact the trajectory of - mobile money and digital financial services for social good and, as Rea and Nelms also emphasize at the end of their paper, financial justice.
Then, our 2s: the forms of media and mediation we depend on, create, and sustain, from our white papers, blogs, and other forms of written dissemination, to novel experiments in bringing our research to life. Take Loy Loy, the board game developed by Andrew Crawford's team now being field-tested and refined by IMTFI at venues ranging from the Clinton Global Initiative University to the American Anthropological Association to development and aid organizations looking at financial literacy. The game teaches players how a rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA) works. (Said one recent player, "Capitalism is so much easier" than this.) Our 2s also include our events and convenings, from a recent blockchain and supply chain conference at UC Irvine, to a convening on mobile money in Africa at Cornell, a conference titled "Decolonizing Financial Inclusion" at Habib University in Pakistan, and ongoing conversations in Colombia and Mexico on the varieties of financial inclusions in Latin America.
And we published two new books! One - with former IMTFI postdocs, now professors, Drs. Smoki Musaraj and Ivan Small - takes lessons learned from IMTFI into technology, design, and the social sciences, with chapters by IMTFI researchers and commentary by thought leaders across these three fields. Another, with Dr. Lana Swartz at the University of Virginia, brings together essays on the stuff of money, the materiality of payment infrastructures, and reflections on the future. As Lana and I argue in our introduction to that book, even if we're going cashless, cashlessness itself demands so much stuff in order to work. Again, those 2s: the technologies of intermediation and their complicated - and fascinating! - economics, politics, cultures, and histories.
On the horizon: more work to be done! We are extremely grateful to our supporters and community members here at UC Irvine and further afield who have sustained us. As our period of grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation comes to a close - and we remain one of their longest running, continuously supported research enterprises! - IMTFI will be looking for new sources of financing as it begins its second decade while as we diversify our portfolio of research and stretch our wings. Our three newly established regional centers grew out of conversations at our annual conferences; a recent report commissioned by the International Currency Association, Cash Matters, by former IMTFI postdoc Dr. Ursula Dalinghaus, emerged from our thinking on the technologies and infrastructures of cash. We also have been named a Center of Excellence in Emerging Technology by the Filene Research Institute, and are embarking on a series of projects related to fintech and the credit union industry; and we are continuing work on blockchain supported by the National Science Foundation. We also want to thank our community supporters here in Orange County - and, as always, we need your support, too!
Stay tuned for more in the coming months on payment deserts and inequality, blockchain blockchain blockchain, and the ethics of machine learning in digital credit and beyond.
Bill Maurer, Director