Showing posts with label Environmental Finance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Environmental Finance. Show all posts

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Finance Innovation Lab: Escape to the Country

A few weeks ago a group of wayward individuals met at Waterloo station. We hitched a ride on a train going north into the English wilderness. Bertrand was forward-thinking enough to have brought beers for the journey, a skill he learnt in his 10 years working for Deutsche Bank as a structured equity derivatives trader. Next to him was Ingo. Ingo does things that make my mind hurt, which involves channelling and managing innovation and systems design, in Sweden. Behind me was Neil. He works for the Young Foundation, helping to design things called Social Impact Bonds, ways of allowing private investors to get involved in financing early interventions that might reduce social malladies. He was chatting to David, who specialises in design, and in particular, new means of mapping and visualising the financial sector. Bertrand started talking about social CDOs, and that's when people on the train started to look at us funny. A girl sitting next to me asked me who we were. Um, how do you explain that? We kind of work in finance, but at the same time are trying to disrupt it, alter it, play with it. I gave her my card. "Come to the dark side", I said, "there are cool things going on". Enter the Finance Innovation Lab.


This is me, trying to talk on camera after three days of mind-disruption. We were talking financial reform and innovation, but most of all, the group of 21 of us were all together to discuss and map the potential future strategy and vision for the Finance Lab. The Lab was originally set up to bring people together under the common goal of finding out what a 'financial system that served people and planet looked like'. I'm a comparative newcomer to the group, but in the year or so that I've been hanging around I've seen the fantastic potential the Lab has to connect people, and to promote learning and collaboration. The next challenge though, is how to scale it up to the next level, to bring in new streams of funding, target more people, and incubate more projects. Jen Morgan, Charlotte Millar, Richard Spencer, Rachel Sinha, Tina Santiago, Maria Scordialos, Vanessa Reid and Hendrik Tiesinga set up the frameworks to help us to think about these questions, and then let it run. A particular discussion point concerned the extent to which the Lab should shift from its current role as a facilitating and connecting organisation, to an organisation with a more explicit focus on advocating specific policies. The process of shifting to a more political stance isn't likely to be easy, but that why Chris Hewett has come in to explore the possibilities for 'finance policy for a green economy', with support from the Gulbenkian Foundation, represented at the weekend by Louisa Hooper.

SPOT THE EX-GOLD TRADER
Note the beautiful setting, on the grounds of West Lexham, a fantastic enterprise on an old converted farm. Manager Edmund wants it to be a hub for community empowerment, permaculture, renewable energy and creative solutions for sustainability, so that suited us pretty well. In our crew was Niahm, a whirlwind helping to drive WWF's sustainable food initiative, Tasting the Future - concerned with issues around sustainable food systems. We had Bruce, one of the guys behind peer-to-peer lending site Zopa, and now launching Abundance, a means for retail investors to put their money directly into financing wind farms and solar energy. We had the guys interested in unorthodox monetary systems - including Ben, pushing the boundaries of the monetary reform debate, and Leander, working on nurturing the complementary currency ecosystem. I shared a room in an old piggery with Maxime, representing both France and the socially responsible investment community.

PURE INNOVATION


The Fellowship of the Ning
BERTRAND SHARES HIS FEELINGS
The Finance Innovation Lab is a great space for those looking to get involved in designing a sustainable financial system. The first point of contact for those who are interested in getting involved is the online network hosted by Ning, but the core team is working on setting up a new website with enhanced capabilities. The plans are grand. By 2013, I expect we should own a large part of Canary Wharf. Until then, we get our strength from diversity. It's certainly not just for financialismos. It's for anyone with an interest in sustainability, creative design, systemic thinking, chaos theory, food systems, climate change, social justice, and last but not least, all those who just like causing a little bit of havoc.


THE MAIN REASON TO JOIN THE LAB: HOT GIRLS

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Introduction

In 2008 I embarked on an unusual experiment in gonzo urban anthropology. I left the world of radical left-wing academia, and went to London with two goals in mind. Goal one: To break into the financial sector at the heart of one of the most powerful centres of the global economy and to see first-hand how it worked, to learn by doing, not by reading. Goal two: To shatter the complacent intellectual comfort zone I’d found myself in, and to learn to move in and out of different worlds like a chameleon. It was an exercise in critical thought, backed by real action.

ADVANCED TIE SKILLZ
That’s how I found myself on the 36th floor of the Lehman Brothers offices in Canary Wharf, four weeks before the company collapsed, and how I found myself in the subsequent financial crisis, trying to pitch esoteric inflation derivatives, property derivatives, and longevity derivatives, aboard a mad raft with an oddball crew of old rogues and young rats, fighting against the odds to stay afloat. It’s a pretty interesting story, and I hope to tell it some time.

In the mean time, I’m completely broke, in a room in Brixton, with a pile of business cards and a stack of ideas, most of which don’t add up. Sometimes I help unusual people to get to grips with conceptually challenging things, like what the financial system might be. I look at how financial concepts might be channeled creatively, through the fledgling world of social and environmental finance, and consider why all this might matter in issues of social and environmental justice.

Sometimes I look at bizarre curiosities, like new currencies and new units of time, Islamic finance, Hawala systems and financial crime. I delve into the way the financial sector tries to reconcile our views of the future in the present.

Sometimes I hang out with people who call themselves anarchists, but who are mostly just concerned about a world they perceive as offering them nothing but bland complacency and treadmill materialism. They hack conventions and set up bases in old abandoned buildings, but are still daunted by the seemingly intractable, impenetrable and arcane financial structures around them. I urge them to try engage more, to spend less time throwing rocks at things, and more time subverting their own preconceptions. They look at me weirdly, but I think there’s a lot to be said for a new activist philosophy.

I play a lot of guitar. I once busked on the New York Underground. I have a pricing model on my hardrive that can tell you what rate to charge for a bet on how long people live for. I lifted it from an investment bank, and one day, when I learn to use it, I'm going to create a rock 'n roll financial opera.

I once went to a fancy university, got an MPhil in Development Studies, wrote some papers. Sometimes I hang out with development people and talk trade policy, agricultural subsidies, and NGOs. Other times I hang out with finance peeps, and talk about things like sugar and carbon.