Reuben Turner: Digital should be a why, not a how

Penny for London failed to recognise technology's potential to deliver something far more important than convenience, writes our columnist

Reuben Turner
Reuben Turner

Last month, Third Sector broke the news that the Mayor of London’s Penny for London initiative had closed down

The scheme, which enabled people to add micropayments to everyday contactless purchases like their bus ticket or their lunchtime sandwiches, aimed to raise £25m a year for good causes across London. 

However, after two years, the total raised stood at £3,394. Just £49,996,606 short of its goal, and not the "big, bold idea that will revolutionise the way we give to charity" that Boris Johnson promised it would be. 

Some claim that registering for the initiative was too cumbersome. Users had to visit a site to connect their bank details to the scheme, in contrast to rival initiatives like Pennies, where the retailer registers to take and process payments. 

But I think there was a bigger issue at stake, and it’s one that has ramifications for the way the whole sector seems to view digital. 

I think the problem is that we think digital is there to drive efficiency – to make giving easier. But it doesn’t matter how easy you make it. People won’t give if you don’t give them a reason to. No-one’s walking around wishing giving was easier, faster or more efficient. We can all give via the cash machine, every time we withdraw money. But I wonder how many of us have ever done so (have you?).

The real tragedy behind Penny for London and many other initiatives is that they fail to recognise technology’s potential to deliver something far more important to us than convenience – and that’s meaning

In a world where I can donate directly to the mobile phone of a woman in Kenya via GiveDirectly, where I can get behind a friend’s marathon using JustGiving or help pay off a stranger’s debts via the US initiative Rolling Jubilee, Penny for London feels like a sad, soulless thing – another empty transaction in a world that’s full of "one click" ordering and human-free checkout counters. 

Yes, we want to be life to be easier when it comes to the things that don’t really matter, like paying our gas bill or buying a sandwich. 

But that’s the stuff at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs developed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. Human beings are meaning-seeking machines. We want to believe. We want to connect. We want our lives to matter. Digital offers us the opportunity to do all of those things. It’s why people pour their hearts out online, why they write open letters to presidents and heartfelt obituaries for their nearest and dearest. It’s why we fall in love with each other (and fall out with each other) online. 

Would more people have used Penny for London if it was easier to register? I think that’s the wrong question. I think more people would have registered if it had given them something to believe in.

Reuben Turner is creative director of Good Agency

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