Who should have their picture on a banknote?

That’s the question being put to UK citizens by the Bank of England. It’s taking nominations for a scientist to feature on the new £50 note, and has stipulated it must be a real, deceased person, who has “shaped thought, innovation, leadership or values in the UK”.

The topic isn’t without controversy. In 2013, the BOE sparked fury among campaigners when it said war-time prime minister Sir Winston Churchill would replace prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note, meaning none of the four denominations would feature a female historical figure.

After a long campaign spearheaded by activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, the central bank said it would put author Jane Austen on the new £10 note, which entered circulation in 2017. The new £20 note will show male artist JMW Turner and is due for issue in 2020.

Charles Darwin will be replaced on the UK £10 note by Jane Austen.
Image: Bank of England

The furore underscores how banknotes reflect culture around the world. Euro notes depict bridges, arches and doorways in different historical styles. However, for political reasons, only hypothetical examples of the architectural eras are shown, rather than real structures. In the US, a plan to put anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill hasn’t yet come to fruition.

And while campaigners say the range of people who feature on banknotes holds symbolic importance, even talking about cash might seem a bit outmoded in 2018.

Many countries are transitioning away from cash and the trend is redefining people’s relationship with money, as well as the role of central banks as its printer and guardian.

These themes are explored in the World Economic Forum’s Beyond Fintech report, which illustrates how consumers are shifting purchases to online and mobile channels. The report underscores how payment experiences differ significantly even in similar markets.

How important are banknotes in 2018?
Image: World Economic Forum, Beyond Fintech report

It used the example of Canada, where regulation drove much earlier adoption of “smart”, or chip cards, compared to the US, where retailer pressure slowed the roll‐out. As a result, in 2016 only around 19% of US point of sales transactions used chip cards compared to more than 90% in Canada.

India’s government is pushing for a cashless economy. Its “Cashless India” programme aims to transform the country into a “digitally empowered society and knowledge economy” and uses the strapline “Faceless, Paperless, Cashless”.

In 2016, India’s controversial demonetization of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes led to mass adoption of mobile wallets. The share of total transactions is expected to reach 57% by 2022, up from about 20% in 2016.

And in other countries, online shopping and payments are on the rise.

Consumers are shifting to shopping online instead of in stores.
Image: World Economic Forum, Beyond Fintech report

Large multinational companies have come to dominate the online payments space and uptake is set to increase, according to the Forum’s report.

“The incompatibility between cash and digital marketplaces means that payments will only continue to move towards cashless solutions,” the Forum’s report said.

With the trend away from cash set to continue, perhaps the debates over note design will become less heated. Alternatively, the symbolism of banknotes may increase as cash becomes less of an everyday feature.