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.