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The New Digital Divide


In our increasingly digital world, I did something I haven’t done before.  I went to the cashpoint at the bank and took out cash with the sole intention of giving it all away.


About 18 months ago, I made a conscious decision to start paying for everything using contactless.  I appreciate this makes me something of a late adopter of the technology, but I felt that having physical cash in my wallet helped me not spend too much, and it also meant that I had flexibility in case some places or people didn’t take cards for whatever reason.

However, I realised the convenience of contactless meant I wasn’t always carrying lots of change around, and it also made transactions quicker, because shop assistants didn’t have to find and count the right change all the time.

Pretty quickly, this convenience took over, and I was using contactless cards for everything.  Well, almost everything – I kept cash available for taxis (not Ubers) which seemed to be the last preserve of a cash-based economic sector.  However, now, in their battle to compete with Uber, almost every London taxi now has a working card machine, so for the last 6 months or so, I have been using contactless even then.

This means that for the last few months, my wallet has, most of the time, not had cash in it.  And that means that I don’t go to cashpoints any more, or at least with sufficient regularity for me to use cash reliably; my first thought these days is to use my card.

This doesn’t make me one of those people who walks out of shops if they don’t take cards; in fact, that type of digital militancy I find annoying, and actually harmful.  Because I’m acutely aware that there are some people, businesses and scenarios for which cash is the only option.  The small business start-up by someone taking a risk who hasn’t got round to pay for iZettle yet.  The local taxi cab that picks you up in the middle of nowhere late at night in an area you don’t know.  And the people that can’t afford or access cashless payments.

Which brings me back to my visit to the cashpoint.  Charity is about giving,  and the charitable sector, in its broadest sense, will always be much more reliant on cash donations than any other.  Leaving aside the big organised charities with direct debits and “chuggers” – charity muggers – who ask for your bank details in the most unsecure environment possible, there are very few “on-street” donations that will be made via cards or cashless systems.  I noticed one contactless device being used to take payments for the Poppy Appeal in November, and another for a particular local charity, but they were on a LinkedIn feed, and I didn’t see any on the street.  This may well be something you see more ubiquitously this year, but for now, it’s still the good old-fashioned sealed bucket or collecting tin for charity street collectors.  And for that, of course, you need cash, either in notes or change.

And now, of course, I have neither.  So I can’t give to them (and as someone who used to run charity street collections, this feels strange).  But it’s not even these street collectors I was taking money out for.  It’s the Big Issue sellers, homeless refugees and accordion players who have sat, and sold, or begged, or played, respectfully and politely all year and past whom I have walked on my way to work.  Always remembering that I don’t have cash, and for whom it would be useless to ask whether they have an iZettle account or whether the Bitcoin value has gone up or down today.  And so I have decided to give them cash – hence the notes in my wallet.

This appears to be the biggest new sociological gap in digitised economies.  Yes, there is a rich and poor divide, but there are now those who have no access to the way in which most people in big, modern cities have money.  And these are some of the very people who are drawn to those big cities; those who have nothing.

To be honest, I don’t have an answer; I’m just making the observation.  And I appreciate that there are much broader challenges, issues and backgrounds that cause people to end up as homeless or refugees in the first place, and those issues still need to be faced, resolved and overcome.  But once they are there, the digitisation of money is making that path much harder, because fewer people are giving physical cash to those in this scenario.

In our increasingly digital world, where we can help improve people’s health or spot diseases through apps or use big data algorithms to measure wildlife populations, surely there is some way to make sure that those most in need of help don’t get further left behind due to their lack of digital access.

It seems to me this is the biggest digital transformation opportunity of our time.