Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Fun things to do in London's Financial Heartlands: Fusing Canary Wharf with the Real Economy

The financial sector is frequently contrasted to the ‘real economy’. The ‘real economy’ is seen to involve the production of goods and (non-financial) services, while the financial sector is seen to act as a facilitator of, and gatekeeper to, investment flows into those industries. Banks and funds are in the business of predicting which businesses to back, steering debt and equity based on future perceptions of the real economy. The financial sector runs ahead of, or parallel to, the real economy. In some conceptions, it isn't connected to the real economy at all.

The usefulness and accuracy of the traditional distinction can certainly be questioned, but if ever there was a place in the world where the distinction made visual sense at least, it would be London. London is one of the few cities where the financial sector can literally be seen from a distance, most notably in the stark concrete and glass of Canary Wharf. London is also home to many decaying remnants of the old manufacturing economy, with monuments such as the Battersea Power Station a testament to both abandonment by the financial sector, but also attempts to re-connect to financial flows through regeneration proposals.

Visual mediums often tell stories a lot more effectively than words and pundits do. That’s why I'm an enthusiastic supporter of financial visualisations and infographics. A walk along the South Bank of the Thames though, offers some interesting opportunities to experience the visual divide between the financial sector and real economy directly, especially as one approaches Canary Wharf. Arranging the views to tell a story, and then capturing those stories on camera is a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The abandoned pub

Here’s a simple scene that I found quite poignant. The pub was abandoned and boarded up, with the towers of finance looming behind. I don’t know exactly what one would want to read into it, but to me it could highlight the stark divide between an old English working-class docklands culture, and a new international financial culture gradually pushing it out.

The construction yard

This was one of my favourities: A construction yard just past Greenwich on the Thames Path. If you find it on a Sunday you can climb over the broken fence and play in the rubble. Again, there are a number of stories to be told. The construction site could be seen as a product of the financial sector - only existing through the provision of capital - or as the real underlying activity that the financial sector relies on to survive. Perhaps this rubble is a future financial centre. I personally just liked the visual contrast.

The spontaneous garden

Here’s a fun one. If you pay attention along the way, you can find fresh wild tomatoes growing in the industrial zone approaching the O2 arena on the Thames Path. The interpretations are endless. The financial sector connection to the farming industry? Small scale organics vs. large scale synthetics? The ancient agricultural roots of society holding out like a renegade against the ultra-modern world of derivatives and virtual food speculation?

The barbed-wire fence

A visual arrangement need not be literal. This just looked really cool to me, but maybe it could be seen as a play on entry into the financial sector. Is the financial sector guarded by barbed wire and a giant river moat? Not if I have my way about it.

The reclaimed pier

This old pier has been transformed into a mini ecological sanctuary to be used by nesting river birds: We arrived here as the sun was setting, but I’d like to read into it a message of future sustainability in finance and  the creative use of the old to make a new dawn. Damn, I got to get out my notebook now and write poetry...

Just do it
It’s going to take a lot more than arranging images to build financial sustainability, but it’s an interesting exercise in the mean time, and a potentially thought-provoking one. There are hundreds of opportunities for this. How about starting at Stave Hill in the Rotherhithe Eco-Park, a great place to juxtapose the green with the blue-grey of global finance. I’m sure there’s a photographer out there who can do this a bit better than my HTC mobile phone camera can. Anyone want to collaborate? Please do send photos of your docklands journeys, along with possible interpretations, and I can put them up.

The Thames Path area between Deptford and North Greenwich and is also a hotbed for graffiti artists. It would be great to use the site for the development of financial graffiti - a living exhibition reflecting on the huge skyscrapers across the river. I’d personally like to stencil a QR code on one of the walls (p.s. these codes require a  smartphone barcode-scanner app to read). I kind of had this one in mind...



  1. Fantastic! I've walked along that path numerous times taking in all that surround the area but I love the approach you've taken in turning the financial sector into a contrasting backdrop with which we can focus on a variety of things and how they are influenced by the ebb and flow of monetary society.

    I hope your suggestion of financial graffiti takes off in the area you've suggested. It would certainly be a testament to the thinking of the people living in that area if it did.

  2. Samiam12, Really glad you like it! Watch this space for more financial walks and ideas.