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When it comes to cash, necessity is the mother of invention

As a British person attending the ATMIA Conference in New Orleans this week, I find myself feeling that the US is a society divided by extreme views. With the impending US elections I have heard people “discussing” in often heated tones the rights and wrongs of democrats vs republicans or vice versa. There’s the ever present highly emotional debate around guns and then the contrast between the haves and have nots in society - one that is often particularly stark in The Big Easy.

As a professional who has worked in the Fintech industry for nearly 20 years, I can’t help but draw parallels with the seemingly endless debate about cash - it’s imminent demise or otherwise. Just over the course of the conference there are sessions on bitcoin, on mobile and of course cash. It’s hard to argue that without data whatever may be said is just an opinion. But equally we all know that if you try hard enough, you can make statistics tell whatever story you like. So whether it’s the card providers with their big ad budgets or Apple and Google with their latest apps all saying cash is dead or those of us in the cash business proudly presenting slides with Central Bank numbers showing cash in circulation continues to rise, who is right?

One thing I do enjoy about industry conferences –and there are many things I don’t - is that every now and again, in amongst the noise, you hear a story that resets your sense of perspective.

This morning I was listening to a presentation by an executive from Alaska USA Federal Credit Union. Not the largest most well-known financial institution admittedly, but they serve customers in some of the harshest, most remote communities outside of Antarctica, where interestingly an earlier presenter told us there is a Wells Fargo ATM. Many Alaskan towns are so remote they can only be reached by boat, plane or snowmobile and, unlike McMurdo Station in Antarctica, many do not have an ATM. You might think these would be communities where electronic payments of all varieties had been welcomed to the exclusion of everything else. But you’d be wrong.

The citizens of these towns are so wedded to cash that the challenging environments they live in have once more proved necessity is the mother of invention. Customers of Alaska USA Federal Credit Union have combined the power of social media, with mobile money transfers to create their own cash eco-system.

So how does it work? Well say I’m going out for the evening, I want to pay cash but don’t have any, I post on twitter using the local hashtag on the town’s Facebook page asking if anyone has any cash. I then meet up with the folks who answer yes, they give me their cash and I then transfer money to their account using my mobile banking app.

As an industry insider, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I might define this emerging payment mechanism as “person to person, omnichannel cash recycling”.

But more seriously, this story reminds me that cash is so embedded in our culture and collective consciousness because it’s been with us forever, it’s ubiquitous and always accepted that we value it so much we’re ready to find these unique ways to continue using it even when the normal infrastructure lets us down.

So to borrow from one of America’s most famous presidents in his most famous speech The Gettysburg Address, I firmly believe the decision around whether cash lives or dies and in what timescale will not be made by those of us in the industry, whichever side of the debate we’re on, it will be made “by the people, for the people”.



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