What will money look like in 2050?

How will payments change in the next 35 years?


June 9th, 2050

It’s been another muggy day in London and despite my contact lens telling me that my histamine levels are fine, I’d much rather be indoors. Besides I can see we’re due another tropical shower, and I’m not sure my nano-proof shirt will take another one. I help myself to a coffee from the booth and head towards the transit. Typical: the barrier won’t let me in because I’m under 65 and it’s peak time. Drat.

I’m about to think for a cab, when one of those autonomous pods that seem to loiter on corners draws up, sensing correctly that’s what I would do. “Yes” I say before it has time to ask me if I want to go home. Thankfully it’s one that knows me, so doesn’t try and sell me anything.

When I get to the apartment I plip in and go straight to the fridge, which thankfully seems to have ordered more Coke. I scan the wall to check what my home has been doing whilst I’ve been out – as usual it’s all bills – and have a look at what it has planned for my evening’s entertainment. Looks like a holotheatre trip with buddies in New York and Beijing. Just time to have a shower and get a snack from the assembler, and then maybe I can get the robo to sort my back whilst I watch.

William Gibson, the writer who gave us the term ‘cyberspace’, said that “The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed”. I think this is certainly true of payments. For a consumer, choosing any new way to pay is simultaneously both risky and boring, so although there is a lot of innovation around, the deep currents of how people pay actually change relatively slowly over time. For that reason, I think we can see quite a bit of what payments in 2050 will be like from what we are starting to see and do today.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the future isn’t just made up from long slow trends, but from more rapid changes too. Many things that affect our lives from the internet to budget travel, chilled ready-meals to e-readers, went widely unpredicted even a few years before. I’d be confident that a key aspect of payments in 2050 will be something we wouldn’t expect today. But trends are what we have, so let’s work with those.

Here are five of the key payment trends that I see now, and how they might play out over the next 35 years:

  • Don’t pay, just choose: In the past, payments were a very separate thing from the activity of buying. You had to stop doing what you were doing to pay. The best websites and mobile apps are starting to integrate these closely into the experience, so you don’t register a separation between “choosing” and “paying”.
  • My car will pay: Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a proliferation of payment devices or “form factors” like cash, cheque, cards, mobile. By 2050, everything will be able to pay, and often will do so by itself. In fact, we won’t use anything you could call a payment device any more, since practically everything will be one.
  • Many currencies, many accounts: Despite the many predictions of convergence, I still carry a PC, a mobile, a tablet and an e-reader. Sometimes it’s better to have more ways to do something, and sometimes we just can’t be bothered to rationalise. We are already seeing consumers use more alternative payment methods, and I think this will increase. So I see a world where consumers have as many accounts as they do services they use, and where they use tens or even hundreds of specialised currencies. They will just rely on technology to make sense of it all.
  • Invisibly secure: today we have to interact with our payment devices to provide security and information, whether putting in a PIN or clicking a mouse. But in the online world, we are already seeing how clever combinations of data can be used to verify who people are. By 2050, payment devices will draw their information from a wide variety of biometric and environmental sources, and will verify themselves that the user is genuine.
  • Price for you, sir: today, most of what we pay for is priced generally, and if we want to take a line of credit, that’s a separate activity. Airlines now price a seat depending on demand, and technology will enable the same for parking spaces, TVs, and even food items. And why get scored once for a credit card at 18, when you can get scored for each item you buy? By 2050, goods will be, more often than not, dynamically priced, taking into account a range of factors to decide both the price for you, and the terms it will be offered on.

So what do payments look like in 2050? Well that’s a bit like an early Victorian asking how we go about making up all the fireplaces in 2015. For the most part, we don’t. Heating the house is no longer an activity that you do, it just happens in the background. I think payments will be the same. In the example above, there were numerous payment moments, but most of them “just happened”:

  • despite my contact lens telling me that my histamine levels are fine” - this is a service I subscribe to on my contact lens, and Roche charges me a few pence a day for my health monitoring\
  • my nano-proof shirt” - a was admiring my brother’s, so he bought one by just saying ‘send a shirt like mine to Dan’. I’m not sure he could tell you which of his personal devices picked up the command and actioned it
  • "help myself to a coffee from the booth” – the booth recognised my face and found an account it could charge. My bank picks up all my coffee transactions from various accounts and reports them together, so I don’t care which one it was paid from
  • it’s one that knows me, so doesn’t try and sell me anything” – most devices collect data in 2050, and many of them share it. The downside of this is that it’s hard to keep anything personal (although there is legislation that limits the extremes), but on the plus side, at least things generally know who you are and behave how you’d hope
  • the fridge… seems to have ordered more Coke” – most devices have payment capabilities as well as intelligence, and everyone’s fridge these days is authorised to buy food. How else would I make sure I didn’t run out?
  • holotheatre trip” - my friend in New York is a real bargain-hunter, and likes to look out for last minute deals. None of the channels likes to see a poor viewing figure, so if you time it right, you can watch some great events for practically nothing.

So that’s 2050, with one more idea: I think we’ll still be using cash and credit cards for something in 2050, even if it’s just buying a drink on a far flung holiday. Like on the beach in Greenland…


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