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UK universities to research how a central bank digital currency will work in practice


Today, consumers are increasingly depending on digital payments technology to interact with the economy. This has brought numerous benefits but has equally provided ideal conditions for profiling; consumers leave behind a digital trail linking to their habits and relationships. This has only been exacerbated throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, as cashless transactions have been accelerated due to the perception of physical danger from manually exchanging cash at brick-and-mortar stores.

At the same time, the cost of maintaining an infrastructure to support cash is increasingly unjustifiable, as the variable revenues fall below the costs of maintaining that infrastructure. As a result, cash is quickly losing prominence among the set of payment options available to consumers.

Everis, a consultancy that is part of the NTT DATA Group, has said it will be working with the British Standards Institution (BSI), Bank of England, University College London (UCL), and the University of Edinburgh on Project FIRE (Future Infrastructure for Retail Remittances).

Proposed by UCL and funded by The PETRAS National Centre of Excellence for IoT Systems Cybersecurity, the project aims to understand the devices and infrastructure required to enable the use of a token-based retail central bank digital currency (CBDC) that replicates certain key features of cash; accessibility, non-discrimination, privacy, and custodianship by the owner.

Using part of the £3.6m PETRAS funding, various research universities in the UK have been tasked to create projects that facilitate engagement between research universities, the private sector, and the government, with hopes to create a new and efficient technology application within the digital payments system.

What is Project FIRE?

In this case, Project FIRE aims to conduct research on the requirements to create a viable token-based CBDC that replicates some of the features of cash, evaluating the compulsory specific technical infrastructure and design requirements. If successful, the project will provide thought-leadership in the space, with insight from key partners who will be central in designing the future forms of digital money in the UK.

Jorge Lesmes, Global Head of Blockchain Banking Practice at everis, said, “As the payments industry navigates its most radical overhaul in recent times and converges with the creation of innovative and digitally-native assets such as CBDCs, projects such as FIRE are crucial. They provide an opportunity to align potential regulatory requirements imposed by central banks with the needs of our FS clients who will ultimately put the tools to use these new forms of payments in the hands of their customers.”

Modern digital payments provide a way to efficiently conduct transactions at a distance, and they have great potential to streamline electronic record-keeping and regulatory compliance. At the same time, they also introduce new threats to privacy, accessibility, and fairness for consumers, as well as new risks to monetary sovereignty and national security for governments.

“By offering consumers a way to directly hold tokens representing obligations of the central bank on inexpensive devices, non-custodial digital currency offers a chance to realise the benefits without incurring the harms.,” said Geoffrey Goodell, Research Associate at UCL. “Through the FIRE project, we shall explore how consumers and businesses will interact with non-custodial digital currency, including the devices, the processes, and the interfaces to existing financial infrastructure and services.”

Central bank digital currencies are still in their early stages, but projects like this could pave the way to the introduction of new digital currencies that could sit between fiat currencies and the more independent world of cryptocurrencies. Central banks are obviously keen to come up with some kind of response to the growing use of cryptocurrencies, and see CBDCs as that solution for many companies and consumers.

Techniques to allow ordinary citizens to hold digital assets outside the context of accounts are still in their nascent stages: “We anticipate that this project will allow us to engage a variety of industry and government stakeholders in an evaluation of the requirements and constraints facing future retail payment technology,” said Tim McGarr, Sector Lead for Digital at BSI.

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This article does not constitute investment advice. Do your own research or consult a professional advisor.

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