On Mondex and CBDCs (again)

Introduction

We were delighted to get a lot of good feedback on Neil’s previous blog on Mondex Memories and CBDCs and its relevance to CBDCs and thought it would be interesting to respond to some of the more interesting – and difficult – points raised in a follow-up blog. Before addressing those I wanted to put the Mondex program into some historical context. They were very different days – we didn’t have an intranet until 1996, let alone internet access. There were no SDKs – although actually we did build a precursor to one of those – or APIs and the idea of remote payments was still in its infancy (although we did that too).

Mondex Memories and CBDC

Mondex paraphernalia

Deep in the mists of time (that is to say, the early-1990s), I led the team from Consult Hyperion responsible for Mondex specification, design and development. For those not familiar with paleo-payments, it was one of a clutch of (contact) smart card based electronic cash systems, none of which survived beyond, let’s say, early adolescence. There were two main reasons for their demise, one technological and one business. The concept was ahead of the capabilities of the underlying technology. Transactions took about the same amount of time as cash plus change, which wasn’t a compelling reason for anyone to leave their wallet behind. The promoters of the schemes (retail banks and payment brands) did not target particular niches where there may have been a business case (I always thought car parking might work) but instead blanketed retail outlets in particular cities or small countries. So, mostly unused devices were put under the counter, and people forgot about the schemes after an initial blaze of publicity.

My generation

[Dave Birch] Technologists (and I include myself in this category) generally tend to overestimate the short term impact of technology but underestimate the long term impact. This is as true in payments as in any other sector: we tend to assume that because technology B is “better” than technology A it will automatically supplant it. Yet there are many entirely non-technological reasons for things being the way they are.

One of the key reasons seems to be that new technology is deployed in support of existing business processes. It’s long time since transistors, laser beams and computers arrived in London yet it still takes three days to clear a cheque. Technology has been used to “digitise” existing processes and mechanisms (banks, clearing houses, settlement cycles and so on), not to support more efficient or more effective processes.

This is why the next generation of digital money will be different, because it will bring the bastard son of BPR (business process re-engineering) and non-bank competition to bear on the payments industry.

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