A week or so before going on a business trip to Seoul in South Korea, I was talking with a friend about a pet hate of mine – which is, how primitive money is. Physical money that is, as in, coins and notes. The first coins were in use circa 650BC, so in this so-called digital age, why oh why are we still using this ancient system of currency? The fact I can’t pay for everyday items and services with the swipe of a smart device always frustrates me.
Upon arriving in Seoul, I quickly realised that even debit cards are old news. For this 66-year old country – still an awkward teenager by global standards – technology is its life blood. One of the country’s most impressive feats of innovation is a robust digital system called, T-Money.
T-Money, owned and operated by a conglomerate including the Seoul City Government and LG, has become the alternative to cash for South Koreans across the country. It is used on trains, taxis and buses, in major shopping chains, online, at vending machines, in bars and restaurants, and even at theme parks and museums. Everywhere basically.
It has evolved into a wide variety of forms, such as wristbands, keychains and dongles. You can even ride the subway, take a cab, or buy some kimbap with a swipe of your smartphone thanks to NFC technology. Perfect, and so simple.
It isn’t limited to early-adopters either. Everyone from schoolchildren to grandparents uses T-Money for purchases and transport. Rather than bolt a cashless solution on top of traditional payment methods like Square or Google Wallet, T-Money is part of the financial infrastructure of South Korea, directly linked to bank accounts and debit cards everywhere.
In a nation of 50 million, there are 71 million T-Money accounts in circulation, with the T-Money system processing more than 50 million transactions per day. And while Silicon Valley proselytizes about a cashless future on the back of technologies like Clinkle and Bitcoin, South Koreans have been living it for the last decade.
Meanwhile here in the UK, we recently celebrated the introduction of a new £1 coin and plastic notes. No really… we did. My frustration in having to use coins and notes is set to continue it seems.