Back To The Future of Innovation

Seeing the future of finance in the past

I have just arrived home from a trip to Hong Kong on family vacation. While traveling I noticed the most amazing, ubiquitous payment tool — Octopus Card. The Octopus Card is a stored value smart card for making payments in online and offline systems in Hong Kong. The card is used across the transit system on the subway, buses and trains. It is also used in convenient shops, grocery stores, parking lots, parking meters, vending machines, fast food and gas stations. Anywhere people want to quickly shop the Octopus terminal is ready to make a transaction with a simple tap of a card or bracelet. The Octopus card makes it so a Hong Kong resident could step outside for their day without their wallet only taking a single card with them. The card is identity, money and transit all in one.

I know what you’re thinking, this doesn’t sound like the future! We are starting to have services like this in America with Apple Pay or Android Wallet using new terminals like Square or Poynt. And, you’re right — what’s amazing to me is that the Octopus system has been in place for twenty years (Launched in 1997).

The First Behavioral Product

The Octopus Card may have been the first digital behavioral product. This ability for a service to integrate seamlessly into someone’s life and provide tangible value in a frictionless form-factor makes the Octopus Card the first behavioral product in my eyes. It serves as an inspiration for behavioral apps that are being developed today. Just look at the Octopus Card — 20 years and going strong.

Integrated Into Daily Life

The Octopus Card is seamlessly integrated into Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system of trains is run by a private company, MTR Corporation Limited. MTR is the cleanest subway system i’ve ever seen. The trains also run like clockwork, I don’t think I stood waiting for more than three minutes while traveling. The system is massive, I rode it from the city center to the most remote hiking trails. On a side-note, Dragon’s Back is an amazing scenic hike with beautiful coastal scenery.

MTR has partnered with Octopus Card as a payment tool in its 98 stations. These stations feel more like shopping malls than subway stations. These stations host stores and cafes that all utilize the Octopus Card. It is the ubiquity of the Octopus card within daily life that put it in the hall-of-fame of behavioral design. It seamlessly integrates into user’s lives and stimulates an action. That action for the Octopus Card is frictionless payment.

The Old Becomes New

Today, American brick-and-mortar stores are looking to compete with the ease of websites such as Amazon with frictionless checkout such as Amazon Go. We see shiny demo videos of coming retail tech enhanced by robotics and machine learning allowing users to walk out of a story as if they were shop-lifting, allowing frictionless purchasing of groceries. It all feels like a science-fiction promise here in America. On the other side of the world these frictionless shopping experiences are old news. As we push forward into this brave new world of frictionless transactions, we should look at the very first products that have paved the way for inspiration.

The Octopus card isn’t a harbinger of the future because it is a one-stop payment tool. As you’re already thinking we could port the same service onto our mobile phones and believe that the future had arrived — and we would be right! The real kicker is the piles of data that the Octopus Card is able to collect. It would literally be a snapshot of the lives of the people within an entire city.

The cards are used by 95% of the population of Hong Kong aged 16 to 65, generating over 12 million daily transactions worth a total over HK$130 million.

According to Octopus Cards Limited, operator of the Octopus card system, there are more than 20 million cards in circulation, nearly three times the population of Hong Kong. The cards are used by 95% of the population of Hong Kong aged 16 to 65, generating over 12 million daily transactions worth a total over HK$130 million. Besides being valuable data, it is very powerful — containing a fingerprint of an entire population’s daily routines.

A Photoshop mash-up of an old Back To the Future ad and an Octopus Card — enjoy!

The Future Part

Imagine having a perfect picture of someone’s day in data. What would it be filled with? You would want to see an understanding of where they went, how long they were there, what products they purchased, how much those products cost.


The future of user data management is that the data is collected by the company, but owned by the user. Companies will be allowed to leverage a user’s data as they are providing services that benefit them. It will be expected that companies will turn any data collected on users over to them giving them transparency into their lifestyles as well as choice to take their data elsewhere.

This narrative is already beginning to emerge as true, the UK Treasury has provided an open standard for customer information formats to allow data to be easily ported to new Fintechs or banks. This move will stimulate innovation in the sector and serve as an example of how open data standards are good for consumers and companies alike.


With this much data in play the first thing on all of our minds is security, I know it nags at the back of my mind as I tap my Octopus card to catch a ride or fingerprint authenticate a credit card on Apple Pay. The future of payments is tokenization. We need the ability to seamlessly turn-off compromised payment tools.

For our Octopus card example, I see it working like this, in the event a transit card is compromised a user would be able to report it lost in app or to an AI agent, severing the connection to their profile and keeping their data safe. A new transit card could even be digitally issued to them with a new token number tied to their profile allowing them to go about their day undisturbed by any inconvenience from a lost card. With this setup a user could even have multiple Octopus payment tools each linking to their profile. This would allow the service to fit even more seamlessly into people’s lives. Imagine taking a Octopus bracelet when you go exercise, a card in your wallet for day-to-day and maybe even a digital card in your smart phone in case you decide to wear your tight jeans and ditch the wallet or purse at home. Yes, in my future we still wear tight jeans from time-to-time, because it’s retro…

The Vision

Now that we have established security and transparency as our core trends for the future, how does that help build the future of frictionless payments around The Octopus Card? Using data the community could benefit in countless ways such as suggesting ordering schedules for store inventory, enhanced transit schedules based on demand trends and better understanding of consumer groups for advertising. Ads could be targeted inside the train network based on time of day.

The entire system could be orchestrated like an air traffic controller. This is the future part of the article, an AI that provides individual suggestions to waves of citizens to help them effortlessly navigate a crowded city. The air traffic controller would need to classify city dwellers into personas based on the shape of their day like when they commute, buy coffee, get lunch and any shopping on the way home from work. People would get suggestions to save them time on their commute, take advantage of sales on items they regularly purchase or even on new places to visit. Optimizing transit schedules for users will help cities feel less crowded by moving groups of people through it in a coordinated fashion. An Octopus Card app could help organize the ridership to efficiently keep the transit system running smoothly without rush-hour crowds. Discounts could be given to people who commute at the suggested times.

This idea of orchestrating someone’s day feels dystopian, stripping any semblance of spontaneity and choice from the routine. Now that we see the line of where utopian versus dystopian lies we can explore conscientiously to shape the future towards a more positive experience.

This article is the culmination of a brainstorm I had on the MTR subway in Hong Kong on vacation. I love how travel opens my eyes to new experiences, it is inspiring to see new parts of the world. Share some inspiration of ‘back to the future’ technology you’ve seen.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.