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Heads, tails, polymer and tech.

Tue Feb 21 03:00:00 EST 2017

The pound as we know it won’t be around (or round) for much longer. Waiting patiently in the wings, a shiny new pound coin is set to enter circulation in March.

Why the makeover? In 2015, a Royal Mint survey found that one pound in every 30 or so was a fake. With three years in the making, the new coin is intricately designed to be more secure and to tackle forgery.

Considering the widespread popularity of digital payments, and the growing acceptance of contactless innovations, it seems like these developments to upgrade the humble coin could be a bit late in the game. With the prospect of being able to go completely cashless if we choose, and the convenience of cash being outshone by contactless, it looks like the new pound is sterling’s way of assuring us it’s not backing down just yet.

Before we dig deeper into the snazzy security features of the new quid, we look at how coins and cash in general have taken some big steps over the centuries, and how things could be looking for the future.

Out with the old, in with the new…

On 15 February, 1971, the UK and Ireland converted their currencies to a decimal system. This saw the pound’s value change from 240p to a more logical 100p, and a new 5p coin take the place of the shilling. Replacing the £1 note, the pound coin was introduced in 1983 as a practical alternative. From oak trees to bridges, we’ve since seen many changes to its reverse face, but there’s been nothing in the way of shape changes – until now.

More than just pretty pennies

Whilst design changes on the faces of coins have been quite regular, and structural changes have been less frequent, coins have come a long way in terms of their architecture over the years. It’s the reasons behind these architectural changes that get our attention, and how they themselves are evolving to keep up with the times.

In times when paying in cash was the only viable option, constantly carrying change could end up taking its toll on the seams of your purse. Coins have reduced in size and weight for practicality, making having cash on you more ‘user-friendly’. But what we’re seeing now is a shift from changes related to user experience, to alterations that improve the functionality of physical money.

Cash you can depend on

The new plastic £5 note caused a stir in 2016; making it through wash cycles and even playing vinyl records, it was welcomed as revolutionary. Aside from novelties, the new polymer note boasts an array of practical improvements on the paper alternative. Paper notes eventually give way to repeated folding and back-pocket shoving, whereas polymer banknotes are expected to last at least two-and-a-half times longer. The new fiver features an increased anti-counterfeiting design, which will no doubt become more technical when other banknotes switch to plastic, expected to happen by 2020.

New quid on the block

Aiming to tackle the widespread counterfeiting of the pound, the cutting-edge new £1 coin has been intricately designed to be extra secure.

Far from the circular familiarity of the current coin, the new pound has a 12-sided, dodecagonal shape. Holding a curved appearance, but harder to replicate, there are also grooves on alternate edges for added uniqueness. Beneath the Queen’s portrait sits a hologram-style image. Depending on the angle you look at it from, either the number 1 or the £ symbol appears

Moving away from aesthetic changes, the new £1 coin has a technical, hidden security feature. Understandably, the full details have been kept under wraps, but what we do know is that it adds a big anti-counterfeiting barrier.

What’s on the flip side?

With going completely cashless getting closer to being a real option for everyone, people are increasingly carrying less and less money on them. So it’s logical for the cash we do have on us to be reliable and safe, and the new fivers and pounds represent this more functional approach to durable, secure spending.

Despite the ultra-secure advances in protecting sterling from fraudulent tendencies, physical cash is still subject to being lost, stolen, or getting stuck in a vending machine forever. With card payments, things are quite different. In the time that they’ve been around, things have developed rapidly and majorly. Since the first introduction of card payment terminals in 1979, security and reliability have progressed alongside technology, to get to where we are today.

From Chip and PIN becoming the norm in 2006, to contactless accessories in 2016, digital payments are advancing speedily, becoming increasingly secure and functional. Will cash continue playing catch-up, or call it quits?