Thursday, 20 October 2011

Suitpossum in the Guardian: On Financial Activism and the Occupy Movement

Winter is approaching and it’s looking like one of discontent. St. Paul’s cathedral has become home to a couple hundred protesters freezing in colourful tents, railing against the global financial sector. It's the Occupy London movement.

On Tuesday night I attended the general assembly outside St. Paul's. It was mostly to go through certain housekeeping protocols, like why it’s a bad idea to piss in bottles and throw them into public bins. Other items on the agenda were issues of security and maintaining good relationships with the St Paul’s clergy. It’s calmed down a lot since the first Saturday, when the cops were doing their tacky psychological warfare techniques, whispering sweet nothings like “Sir, if you enter the protest, you may not be able to leave again.” There’s a few cops left now, but they’re mostly blending into the scenery.

I was impressed by the camp food system that has sprung up, driven by kind donations, some from local chains like Pret (which incidentally are making shedloads of cash from cold protesters buying coffee from them). We even managed to get some sushi to go with our homemade vegetable soup. I was slightly less impressed by the public talks that have been occurring, a lot of (what I perceive to be) clich├ęd stuff about neoliberalism and bankers, and in general nothing particularly interesting or new. Indeed, it still seems to be much the same crowd that does all the protests. I suggested during the general assembly discussion group that much more needs to be done to translate the message to a wider audience, lest it fizzle out into a cliquey back-patting exercise.

These issues weigh on my mind a lot, and yesterday I got an article published in the Guardian entitled 'Has the Occupy movement considered subverting global finance from within'. It was pointing out that while occupying a physical space is a worthwhile exercise, I think it’s time activists started pushing the  conceptual boundaries of protest. I want progressive movements to try gain some control of the creative potential of the financial sector.

Needless to say, when you put yourself out there in a public forum (such as the Guardian), you get all sorts of ideologues that try throw knives at you. It was fun defending my ideas, but the ad hominem attacks are pretty disturbing at first. One suggested I wasn’t worthy of being in the human race. A couple attacked my professional credentials. A few attacked my grasp of socialist theory, under the somewhat presumptuous assumption that having read the great Marxian works was a prerequisite to commenting on activist techniques.

Such is the nature of public commentary though, and, on the plus side, some great people have got hold of me to discuss the ideas further. It's really rewarding to hear opinions on how the concept of financial activism could be refined, so please do read the article and post any comments on the Guardian site, or here. I'll be  sure to respond.

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.

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.


The Fellowship of the Ning
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.