The Times They Are A-Changin: A Cashless Future Is Approaching Faster Than We Think

Only in a cashless society built by trustworthy players with dependable technology can we make sure everyone gets access to the right digital tools in new, authentic, and equitable ways.

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If you've been increasingly feeling like physical money is about to be a thing of the past, you might not be imagining it. And you're definitely not alone.

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The concept of money as we know and use it today has evolved throughout thousands of years, but its current iteration hasn't changed much since the beginning of modernization. From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, digital payments have surged globally and almost without exceptions: across the board, over 40% of low and middle-income adults who made merchant in-store or online payments using a card, phone, or the internet did so for the first time since March 2020. And even though the implementation of measures such as contactless and digital payments was undeniably accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, 74% of respondents to a Mastercard survey said they will keep using contactless payments in a post-pandemic world- meaning it didn't take long for people to get used to the "new normal."

For online payments solutions providers, the challenge is now to draw up business models able to create value beyond transactions alone, as well as keeping up with evolving technologies, while continuing to build public trust in services that remain relatively new. Of course, global policy changes are happening fast and also need to be kept in consideration: "creating an enabling policy environment, promoting the digitalization of payments, and further broadening access to formal accounts and financial services" is now a World Bank Group priority, said its President David Malpass. In 2022, all data overwhelmingly points in the direction of a cashless society. But in our haste to adapt to COVID-19 measures and take advantage of the latest technological innovations, we might have forgotten to ask an important question: is this a future we should want to work towards?

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Let's start by defining a cashless society, which is simply one in which physical banknotes and coins cease to be accepted in financial transactions in favor of newer devices like credit or debit cards, electronic transfers, digital currencies, or online and mobile payment services. Although no existing society can currently be defined as such, some countries do come quite close. With only 20% of transactions made in cash, Sweden is often considered the most cash-free society in the world; India, Denmark, and Australia have begun a similar process by eliminating small bills; China is now pioneering a government digital currency, and Saudi Arabia has set a target to achieve 70% of non-cash transactions by 2030.

Evidently, their governments must appreciate the advantages of a steady transition to eliminate cash: to its proponents, the benefits of a cashless society include convenience, reduction in fraud and tax evasion, as well as the elimination of physical theft and violent crime. To this point, research into the correlation between "less cash and less crime" found that crime in Missouri dropped by 9.8% as the state replaced cash welfare benefits with electronic benefit transfer cards. Of course, as we've seen during the pandemic, handling cash facilitates the spread of contagious illnesses -not only COVID-19, but also norovirus, MRSA (methicillin-resistantsStaphylococcus aureus), and salmonella- and a transition to cashless would completely eradicate this problem. Finally, digital payments eliminate the costs associated with handling money, make it easier for people to spend globally and to stick to a budget (for example, by enabling joint-budgeting with a partner,) and are even "likely to be beneficial in any drive to reduce illegal immigration and modern-day slavery."

On the other hand, the downsides to going cashless greatly revolve around privacy concerns, theft by way of exposure to hacking, and dependency on technology and the internet. The increased risk of cyberattacks in a cashless society is undeniable, as is the possibility of technology downtime. But it's also easy to see that the further we move in this direction, the greater will be the effort by policymakers and key players on every side to secure what is now a developing system- just in the same way that banks did when they first grew from the merchant-based institutions to the fully fledged ones we know today. Opponents also voice their concerns about the potential for intermediary fees, and more practical matters such as how the undocumented, the elderly, and the homeless might fare in such a scenario.

The truth is we can't truly stop what is coming, because it's already happening all around us. What we can, and should concern ourselves with as the transformation unfolds, is how to envision and create a cashless system subject to checks and balances, safe from threats -from natural disasters to hacking - and ensuring we build it so that it doesn't exclude part of the population, but instead encourages people to participate in this new digital economy. Only in a cashless society built by trustworthy players with dependable technology can we make sure everyone gets access to the right digital tools in new, authentic, and equitable ways.

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