The innovation of money: How tech is redefining value – From biometric payments to cryptocurrency

Innovative insights, distilled weekly. Tom Ollerton and Alastair Cole offer up cut and paste knowledge from The Innovation Ramble, their weekly podcast which investigates the world of innovation one subject at a time.

The Innovation Ramble investigates the world of innovation one subject at a time, last week we looked at sex and found out that an adult film is made in America every 30 minutes, and that pornography has been around for more than 35,000 years

This week’s focus is money, inspired by last the recent UK launch of Apple Pay, amidst a flurry of excitement, and a few warnings – not least those from Transport for London. Paying with a wearable may be a growing global trend but any guesses what the oldest form of world currency is?

Well, it’s not cash. Nor is it the snails traded by the people of Paraguay. Or the butter exchanged by Norwegians, or the deer hides used by early U.S. colonists - the origin of the modern term 'bucks' for dollars. The correct answer is the cow.

Humans have been trading cattle since 9000 B.C. and they were still used as money in parts of Africa until the middle of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, when the first bronze coins emerged in around 2000 B.C., they were cow-shaped.

One of the greatest marketing innovations in money was the practice of rulers putting their faces on it. One sure fire way of telling the populous that you were the man in charge was to whack your mug on the moolah. Julius Caesar was the first to do this ensuring that his grimacing face was starting up at you when you were paying for a new toga.

Money and power have been inseparable and amusingly so in the post-war period when the people of Germany fell in love with American chicken. The local birds weren’t cutting it and they were imported in a such huge amounts that the local chicken peddlers took umbrage. They forced the German government to slap a large levey on Uncle Sam’s foul and regained control of the trade. The US were annoyed about this and looked for the nearest German import to take this out on. At the time VWs were everywhere and so the govt slapped on a 25 per cent chicken tax on to all foreign vans being imported. This tax froze out foreign vans and still stands today.

Fast forward to today and the use of technology to liberate our lucre from us in myriad new ways is gathering momentum. Barclaycard has just launched bPay into the UK - allowing users a choice of a wearable wristband, sticker or fob with which to touch-and-pay for goods up to £20 in price. The big plus for the consumers is that you don't even need to bank with Barclays. Instead all you need to do is transfer money from any Visa/MasterCard debit or UK credit card.

Barclays are comfortable being at the forefront of the transactions but PayPal has created an innovative security system - a password you can eat. It comes in pill form that dissolves in your stomach, recognises your unique chemical identity and emits a signal that unlocks your PayPal account. Gulp. Chemical identification is just one of a number of new biometric methods being explored in the search for better security and payment processes. According to Dr Windsor Holden, head of consultancy and forecasting at Juniper Research, “The role of biometrics in payments is likely to be critical [in the future take-up of mobile payments].”

Biometric verifiers are already on the scene. The Nymi wristband, authenticates wearers using their heartbeat. Based on unique EKG readings, the wristband offers continuous proximity-based identity verification. it is also tied to MasterCard to enable wearable tech payment for users. Another method is finger vein recognition. It’s similar to the fingerprint sensors used in iPhone and Samsung devices, only much more accurate. A Chinese food chain is using facial recognition to let you pay with your face and Alibaba have a product in beta called Smile To Pay.

Money laundering has taken on a whole new form with washing detergent being used in the US as currency. The largest bottles of Tide are commonly recognised as a superior product with a fixed financial value and washing powder is useful thing to have. This means that Tide is now being traded for drugs. If a user can’t get the money together then they can steal a bottle of Tide and use this to pay for their hit. The dealers know that the Tide has a recognised value ascribed to it and acts a currency and it’s clean too (ouch) because Tide bottles, unlike notes, are untraceable.

No money innovation would be complete without mentioning cryptocurrency and there’s no space here to explain how bitcoin works. But much like Tide, salt, stones or many of the other weird things we’ve used to represent value; users of Bitcoin agree on it’s worth due to the transparent technology it is built on. The recent innovations of Bitcoin have been DogeCoin, now the second most used cryptocurrency after Bitcoin. Citibank are taking this innovation seriously and are experimenting on their own Citicoin and finally there is SolarCoin which you can earn by installing solar panels on your roof.

The original invention of money allowed people to ascribe value to a person. A credit note said that a certain person was good for the money. And now with the innovation of financial biometrics the journey of money has come full circle. Our physical beings are once again the measure of our personal value.

Tom Ollerton is We Are Social's marketing and innovation director and Alastair Cole is chief innovation officer at Partners Andrews Aldridge / Engine Group. You can follow their innovation ramblings @innovramble and listen to the full money and innovation episode on iTunes.

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