Could we see a whole city go cash-free? From Seoul to Bergamo, cities big and small are at the forefront of a global drive to go digital. Many of us are happy to tap cards or phones to hop on a bus, buy a coffee or pay for groceries, but it raises the prospect of a time we no longer carry any cash at all.
No spare change for the busker at the station, the person sleeping rough in need of a hot drink, the market trader, the donation box. Although even on-street charity fundraisers are now broaching the world of contactless payments, what might the rise of the cashless city mean for street vendors, small merchants and the poorest inhabitants?
Some experts now fear a two-tier urban realm in which those on the lowest incomes become disconnected from mainstream commercial life by their dependence on traditional forms of currency.
“The beauty of cash is that it’s a direct and simple transaction between all kinds of different people, no matter how rich or poor,” explains financial writer Dominic Frisby. “If you begin to insist on cashlessness, it does put pressure on you to be banked and signed up to financial system, and many of the poorest are likely to remain outside of that system. So there is this real danger of exclusion.”
Ajay Banga, Mastercard’s CEO, has spoken about the growing global risk of “creating islands, where the unbanked transact [only] with each other”.
In India, the question of how the poorest might connect with the digitised world of the middle-class consumer is now of central importance. In November, the prime minister Narendra Modi announced the removal of 500 and 1000 rupee notes from circulation. Part of a wider attempt to jolt the nation into joining the cashless revolution, Modi’s government believes restricting currency and pushing the take-up of electronic payment will help tackle corruption and regulate India’s untaxed, “black” economy.
Saurabh Shukla, the Delhi-based editor in chief at NewsMobile Asia, says he has seen many small “mom and pop” store owners introduce card readers and learn how to use Paytm, a mobile payment platform, over the past two months.
“They realise a big change is here and they are trying to adjust to electronic payment,” he explains. “But they still want to convert back to cash at the end of the working day or the working week. It will be a gradual adjustment. We might not be able to create a completely cashless India, but we can aim to create a low cash economy.”
According to a recent report by Fung Global Retail & Technology, nine of the top 15 “most digital-ready” countries are in Europe. It predicts Sweden could become the world’s first completely cashless society. Niklas Arvidsson at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology thinks it could happen by 2030.
Yet even Sweden has seen an enthusiasm gap emerge, mostly along demographic lines. Older people in the rural north, tending to be the least tech-savvy, resent the economic power of Stockholm and Gothenburg, now almost entirely cash-free urban zones. The National Pensioners Organisation is a key player in the “Cash Uprising” coalition now campaigning to make sure older Swedes can still deposit and remove cash from banks.
Wealth, however, remains the key factor in determining who might be entirely left behind by the evolving digital economy. Some of the poorest people in Europe’s richest cities have found themselves pushed aside.
In Amsterdam, homeless people selling street magazine Z!, the Dutch equivalent of The Big Issue, now struggle to find customers still using cash. Z! trialled card payments by giving a dozen of the city’s vendors iZettle readers back in 2013, but the method was deemed too cumbersome.
“After a few weeks, our vendors said, ‘Look, this is too complicated’,” says editor Hans van Dalfsen. “It became too clunky and time-consuming for the vendor to juggle their magazines, the card reader and their own mobile phone connected to Bluetooth – all that stuff was needed to carry out the transaction.”