Showing posts with label The Finance Lab. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Finance Lab. 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

Sunday, 22 May 2011

How to get involved in disruptive finance: The Finance Innovation Lab


Trading floors and paneled offices in Canary Wharf look profoundly hi-tech, and yet they are built on blueprints inherited from the past, in some cases the very distant past. Modern financial institutions like to use the language of innovation, and yet they endorse only a narrow conception of innovation, focused on product innovation. There’s very little tinkering with the base level assumptions from which they are created.

To challenge the deep-level normative status quo requires one to move out of the mainstream salons, and into the fringe coffee shops and covert speakeasies. Close to Moorgate station is one such safehouse, down a small alley, behind an austere wooden door. Enter the Finance Innovation Lab.

The Finance Lab initially started as a joint project by the WWF and ICAEW, asking the question “What does a financial system that serves people and planet look like?” It’s now a forum for an assortment of financial heretics, some outrightly so, others more subtly so. The community is partially centered on an online platform hosted by the Ning social networking architecture, and partly on monthly meetings where ideas are presented and workshopped.

On Friday, I attended the monthly brainstorm. The setting is old English, in a meeting room with gilded portraits, but the content was anything but traditional. The session focused on work by David Braid, showcasing his graphic design visualisations of the financial sector as a tool for altering the way people perceive the sector. Ben Curtis was also there to discuss the PositiveMoney campaign that seeks radical monetary reform. The atmosphere is part collaborative, for people to throw around wacky ideas, and part critical reflection, to bring attention to shortcomings in proposed innovations. Friday’s session saw both impulses in action. For my part, I wanted to see David’s financial maps interpreted by graffiti artists on the walls of the urban downtown, and I wanted to see a more robust proposal by the PositiveMoney guys.

In the end, the sessions are not designed to be prescriptive. Presentations are used to set up loose themes as a backdrop for open-ended explorations. Key topics that have developed over the months include complementary currencies, social finance innovations, methods for dealing with complexity in finance, building resilience and dealing with risk, grassroots finance and mutual credit systems, social enterprise and community investment, behaviourial economics, environmental economics and the art of dealing with externalities, crowd financing, religion and philosophical aspects of finance, alternative conceptions of value, alternative metrics of economic wellbeing, and alternative goals for economic systems.

In part, the specifics of what is discussed doesn’t necessarily matter. More important is the fact that you’re able to do it, and to meet others who are doing it. Ideas have a way of fertilising other ideas and creating mutations. It’s the Silicon Valley effect. You hang out with people like Bertrand, Eli, Tav, Nick, Mary, Timothy, Max, Deeti, Giles, Rachel, Jen and loads of others who are doing similar things, and your own ideas get sharpened and informed in light of theirs. 

There’s also no single objective. Some have a particular agendas. Some frame their goals in utopian or moral terms, whilst others are more hard-edged or pragmatic. There's a general sense of trying to make the financial system better. For me though, the objective is disruption, change for change’s sake. I think the true value of these forums is to workshop ideas that can cause shit, for better or for worse, and see if the resultant disruptions, outcomes not strictly known, could potentially lead somewhere worthwhile. I like the idea of a creative dialectic to keep the system on its toes.

Over the next few months I’ll profile some of the movements I've encountered at the Finance Lab in this blog, some of the fascinating thinkers and some of the shit-stirrers. Keep tuned, and sign up.