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‘The real magic happens in between the tech silos’: Fidelity Center for Applied Technology’s Adam Schouela

  • FIs are looking how to leverage new technologies to serve their constituents.
  • Adam Schouela of Fidelity's Center for Applied Technology joins us on the podcast to discuss what he's experimenting with now.
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‘The real magic happens in between the tech silos’: Fidelity Center for Applied Technology’s Adam Schouela

I find it fascinating to hear how some of the largest FIs handle emerging technologies. Fidelity, for example, has the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, where it tests and assesses new tech, like the metaverse and blockchain. It’s almost like Fidelity’s skunkworks R&D arm.

Today on our program I have Adam Schouela, the head of emerging technology at the center. Our discussion spans different technologies, emerging use cases, and sheds some light on how Fidelity thinks about its priorities and customers out into the future. 

We talk about the experiments Adam and Co. have done around blockchain technology, around the metaverse, and where it sees opportunities and just as importantly, where it doesn’t see opportunities. 

Adam Schouela is my guest today on the Tearsheet Podcast.

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The following excerpts were edited for clarity.

Working across business lines

The Center was designed in such a way that if we’re doing an experiment where we find learnings about one particular thing, it’s not just solely for our retail clients — it may be for some other lines that might benefit from something. The idea is that as we find these different things, as we get different learnings, we’re able to share it across lots of different business units. There are other areas where we’re able to go and shop some of these different ideas around and really translate the implications of what these new and emerging technologies have on Fidelity.

Moving technology into production

There are lots of different ways that something can graduate the Center — everything from a product being created or developed and then transitioning over into the business, all the way through to a business unit’s spinning off on its own. But the other side of it is there could be things where we’re doing the research, and we find that there’s nothing there. That’s valuable, too. It’s just as important.

Fidelity’s experiments with the metaverse

I think the first thing I would say is that if you were to pull up your favorite search engine, and Google the definition of the metaverse, right before you get a chance to scroll down a little bit, you’ll find at least four different definitions of what the metaverse is. The definition of the metaverse is also evolving. There are lots of things that are bubbling up, falling down, and swirling around.

What we like to do is try to be able to understand is what are the things that that have that potential of sticking? What are those unique characteristics that seem to be evolving from the conversation around the metaverse that have the potential of having some staying power and lasting into the future?

I’ll give you one example. Virtual reality is a way people connect in the metaverse — it’s not the only way. The metaverse has a very unique characteristic of empathy transfer. There are going to be a lot of people involved, so you’re not going to go into the metaverse necessarily alone. So this concept of shared experiences, of having a shared experience with people potentially around the world — there’s all different opportunities that come along with something along those lines. If I’m having a shared experience and I want to purchase something or transact in some way, shape or form, then that is something we’ll want to look into. How is that going to happen? If I have a virtual reality headset on, I’m not going to pull out a credit card and try to swipe it right on the side of the headset or something like that. What are the characteristics if I wanted to transact in that space with some sort of currency? Because there are so many different people that are there it’s actually a social transaction, right? We look at how to securely facilitate all of that sort of stuff.

Planning for the future

I think what we’re most most interested in is what are the things that have the potential of working. Let’s start building in these spaces and start experimenting so that we understand one of those design principles for an interaction like this or a transaction like that, that we would want to be able to do in that sort of a space. And if it works, great. If it happens, like if it comes to fruition, great. We understand how we want to be able to interact with that world in that way. And if it doesn’t, well, that’s okay. You know, we built it, we understood what it was and what the potential was, and then we’ll put it aside.

I’ll give an older example. A long time ago, there was back that first wearable watch, the Pebble watch. We built experiments with that, not because we thought that Kickstarter project was going to be that next big thing. It was more along the lines of well, what if this starts happening more, and our customers, our associates, start using a device like this? How would Fidelity show up? At the end, we sort of put it on the shelf…until the Apple Watch came out, and it became more mass market. And we were able to be first to market because we already did all of that research. We understood what those Fidelity-centric use cases were and what the design principles were around that form factor itself. We were able to move relatively quickly.

Retail investing and the metaverse

There’s a lot opportunities for bringing retail investing to the metaverse. Even from the perspective of identity — how do you know who the person is that you’re transacting with? Right in certain cases? People go on to the sites in order to preserve their anonymity. And in certain cases, it’s great. There’s just as many reasons in certain cases to be anonymous as there are to be identified as who you are. But in the case of a financial transaction, we do want to know who you are. So trying to understand how do we think of identity and securing those transactions from a payments or financial services transaction perspective?

The advice layer in the metaverse

I’m going to twist it a little bit more towards the edges in order to be able to give advice, or even to make a decision. The whole point of advice is getting educated on something — to really, truly understand so that you can make an informed decision about what you’re doing. The Metaverse has a unique opportunity because of some of its characteristics — this really powerful tool of empathy transfer and being able to better understand other people or other situations that are happening.

We’ve got a couple of experiences — there are two in particular that I’m taking out. One is about student loans. So if you’re thinking about taking student loans, what is the impact that it might have on family and that sort of stuff? We actually created a 360 video where you are sitting at the table with a family where one of their children basically just got accepted to university. And the family has a discussion around the table regarding the student loans and what impact they might have, what their uncle’s situation is, and all that sort of stuff. You’re sitting at the table with them having that discussion. Te learning that you get out of understanding how those dynamics play out is very impactful and totally different from the advice that you might get if you’re walking into somebody’s office to have a conversation about something.

In the metaverse, this could be something you experience by yourself, and then it can prompt a more in depth conversation, whether it’s with an advisor or other individuals. Creating these types of experiences is just completely different.

We did another one. This was an older one, but something that could go into a Metaverse type of situation. We had a retirement calculator type of thing where you enter in some of your information, like your age and your salary and your contributions to your retirement and things like that. And then you go down onto this green line, or Fidelity — you’re following this machine that goes down towards your retirement and the actions that you take. So your age, or the years go by every five years or something along those lines. And the puck will either move forwards or backwards depending upon how you interact in that sort of life moment.

These are experiences that people are having that help them better understand the impact of long term decisions. it’s like you can tell a child that the stove is hot a thousand times, right? But the second someone touches it, they’ll never do it again. So how do we give people these experiences to help accelerate that learning in order to be able to make better decisions at the end of the day?

Blockchain and its role

We have been in the blockchain space and doing research on blockchain for years. I think 2014 was when we first started looking at it. At the at the end of the day, a lot of the experiments that we have done, a lot of the stuff are just like, It’s a new tool that we can put in our toolbox. What does it do? What is it good for? How does it even work?

So early on, FCAT got into Bitcoin mining. The reason we got into Bitcoin mining was purely to better understand what this whole thing does. Why do miners even exist? That whole concept of just understanding the fundamentals of mining: recording transactions and securing the network and understanding the details around that and then trying to understand, well, what are the business cases where a blockchain makes sense versus, just the database.

And a lot of the experiments that we had done in the earlier days were around really, truly understanding those unique characteristics of blockchain. We were also trying to understand how people use it, not just from a corporate perspective, but the average person. How do they interact with this stuff? And what are the mental models that we have to build in order to help people better understand these private keys that are super long, that are completely nonsensical — how do people grasp that? And the concept of if I have this thing, and I know where all my stuff is, that’s my signature that allows me to do anything with it. And if I lose that, there’s no 1-800 number to call. So, how do we start adding the layers of abstraction, and in other cases, enabling folks and institutions to be able to interact in these spaces.

We’ve done all sorts of experiments in the space, everything from doing analysis on mining and wallets and transactions, all the way through to understanding what all these different blockchains even do. So if you have two completely different institutions, and we both have experience understanding how to work with blockchain, public or private, then you have ability to work together in ways that might be faster or easier than we’ve done in the past.

The role of FCAT

One of the things that I find particularly special about the role that I have is that people ask me all the time: I have groups working with augmented and virtual reality, I have a groups that are working with quantum computing, I have groups that are working with blockchain — they’ll ask me what’s the next big thing?

What I tell people is, first of all, that’s not enough. That’s a pretty wide array from a technology perspective. I have a view across all of them. It’s not each one of these different technologies in a silo, right? There’s tons of innovation that’s going to happen in those individual silos, but where the real magic happens is in the white space between those silos, and starting to connect these different types of things together.

So if you think about virtual reality or blockchain, where you’ve got a massive amount of data and information that we’ve never had before, I now have the ability to visualize data in completely different ways. I have all of this data — can I combine these two types of things together in order to be able to create something completely different? It’s that constant mixing and matching and finding how these different bits and pieces interact with each other, but also how they interact together? Tthose are some of the things that I find the most exciting. I would say over the course of the years, we have to get smart in each one of these different things in order to be able to really truly understand how they interact. So now, as we have lots of experience in these different ones, we’re starting to see more and more opportunities for that cross innovation between them.

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