Interview with ERNIT CEO on creating the digital piggy bank of the future

As the ERNIT Kickstarter campaign is now entering its final phase, we sat down with ERNIT CEO and co-founder Søren Nielsen to shed some light on the design process.
It’s no secret that the world is increasingly if not overwhelmingly digital. But try, if you can, to remember the not-so-distant, markedly less interconnected past; more specifically the 80s and early 90s, the years leading up to the digital revolution, when the internet and the rampant digitalization of everything seemed like a far-flung, PC-driven mirage dreamt up by sci-fi nerds and frequently derided ‘computer geeks’ who allegedly spent too a little too much time in their own heads. A time when cyberpunk author William Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in his seminal novel ‘Neuromancer’ and the virtual reality portrayed on its tangible pages was widely regarded as fantastical dystopian entertainment with little to no relation to our actual, physical reality.

 

Fast forward 30 years and here we are, all set to wear our Oculus Rifts, rapidly approaching Gibson’s approximation of the future while frantically grasping at the disappearing sides of a progressively intangible reality. Communicating involves cutesy, little, virtual hieroglyphs (AKA emojis), we mainly socialize through immaterial media and money seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way. It’s still there, of course, but being the creatures of convenience that we are, it’s easier to store it in our little handheld command centers that we carry everywhere we go, so we can pay for our macchiato through a neat, satisfyingly click-y transaction instead of reaching for our lame, old pockets.

 

Call this reductive generalizations, or maybe even the ramblings of an ageing luddite if you must, but one thing’s for sure: Our conception of value is changing. And for some of us, keeping up presents certain challenges. Like, how do you, for example, make money off making music when the value of music is in flux? Or, the question that Ernit would like to think it can answer: How do I make sure my digitalized kid learns to appreciate the value and actual worth of money in a world where money is largely intangible? With regards to the first question, we can only say: good luck musicians, you’re on your own. But when it comes to question number two, the answer is a resounding: ‘Meet ERNIT the piggy bank. When it comes to teaching your children about essential concepts and healthy habits like modesty, patience and gratitude – concepts they’ll need to grasp to become well-rounded adults – ERNIT has your back.

 

Kilo had an in-depth talk with Ernit co-founder Søren Nielsen in the efforts to shed light on the design process and fully understand the implications of Ernit’s benefits and aims, which involve getting to grips with widespread financial illiteracy and turning your children’s need for instant gratification into concrete abilities they can use in their adult lives.

 

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How did you first think of the idea behind Ernit?
A lot of the thoughts started a New Years eve almost three years ago. Thomas Bjerring and I were about to become parents for the first time and we talked about parenting and how to give your children good habits. Teaching about money suddenly became a part of the conversation. Both Thomas and I had a piggy bank as children and we loved to put money into it, save for different things and poor the money out to count them. Already at that time we were both pretty digital when it came to money. None of us ever had cash. So how were we going to teach our children about this intangible object? We saw the growing problem around us with parents like Lars who had a hard time giving his own children a regular allowance and we thought: why don’t we take the best parts of the classic piggy bank and merge it with the best parts of digital money. That’s how ERNIT started as a concept. It was one of those wine conversations that actually became something.

 Why is it important to teach kids about digital money?
It’s important to teach children healthy habits like modesty, patience and being grateful. Money is a part of that. If you do not know what it feels like to wait for something that you really want then you will never learn patience and if you don’t know what it feels like to give somebody else a gift with the money you yourself earned and saved then you will not experience their gratitude.

 

You mentioned that this is also a means of battling financial illiteracy?
Yes, it most definitely is. Financial illiteracy is a growing problem all over the world and one of the reasons behind this is in our opinion and in many experts opinion the rise of digital money. The learning experience of anything from learning to read to learning how to calculate is enhanced when you can see, touch and hear. You can’t do that with digital money. It is just a number on a screen. We use all the child’s senses to teach him or her about value and thus ERNIT becomes a powerful tool in fighting financial illiteracy. I personally do not want my child Dagmar at 2 years old to become one of the growing number of students with financial debt.

 

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Could you describe the design process behind the piggy bank?
It has been a long and fun journey. Lars has taught me that you have to earn your way into using the most obvious solution. We didn’t start out with looking at the classic piggy bank. We investigated lots of other options and we most certainly earned our way into reinterpreting the classical piggy bank into a figure that bridges both the classic piggy bank of my own childhood and the future. I am a big fan of Lars. He is a hard man to work with. But I mean that in the best way possible. I don’t like working with people that just say yes. Beautiful things only happen when you disagree on something and you explore this field and this is in my opinion how our working relationship has been. We disagree on a lot of things, but use this conflict to make something better than we started out with.
Is this solely aimed at parents or should everyone else pay attention as well – and if so, why should they pay attention?
The main users are, of course, parents and children. But we have gotten a lot of response from grown ups without children who say ‘I could use one of those’. So this is for everyone who is interested in making digital money tangible. It makes it more fun to put in a goal and see you get closer to it – not just in an app, but in something physical as well. There is a reason why only 16 percent of all downloaded apps only get opened more than twice. We need something more to keep us interested. And the more digital our society gets, the greater the need for tangible things becomes. Others could use it to save for that special vacation while it could also be a tool for charities to see how close you are getting to that big donation that will make a big difference in somebody’s life.

 

Some people might say that there’s a danger that Ernit teaches kids self-interest. What would you say to these people?

I think that ERNIT does the exact opposite. It gives you an empathetic mindset as you learn about traits like patience, modesty and gratitude. When you have money you can also share that money and make other people happy. Also, if you don’t understand the concept of money you just think that it is there for the taking whenever you want. Children crave instant gratification, but with ERNIT they learn that if they want that new bike it takes time to get to it. They can’t have it now. They have to wait. I see ERNIT like teaching children about where the meat in the supermarket comes from. If you don’t take them to a farmer or talk to them about that that meat once was a live animal that ate grass and had it so and so then they just think that the meat is always there for the taking. As a parent you need to take the money talks with your children. Actually ERNIT is not the one teaching children about money. It instigates conversations about saving, giving and spending between parents and children. And that is where the learning begins. Through the conversations between children and parents.