The Finance Innovation Lab is a place where people can bring their good ideas about how to change the financial system and do something positive with them.
The Lab was launched in 2008, in the wake of the financial crisis, and since then has attracted over 3,500 participants from all over the world.
We increase interconnectivity between people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, to facilitate their conversations, and to incubate their ideas. We want to catalyse culture change in the financial system, encouraging one that fosters the long-term sustainability of life on Earth.
The Finance Innovation Lab was launched as a partnership between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-UK) and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
WWF has a long history of working with stakeholders from business and finance to enable the transition to a sustainable future, recognising that they are a key lever for change. For example, WWF helped to establish multi-stakeholder initiatives and organisations such as the Marine Stewardship Council, Forest Stewardship Council, the Carbon Disclosure Project and FairPensions. WWF has also been working directly to help investors and pension funds understand the carbon liabilities of their assets.
With 138,000 members, the ICAEW is the largest accountancy body in Europe. Their membership includes leaders and advisers of organisations of all sizes across every economic sector and 165 countries, providing it tremendous reach and access to expertise. ICAEW’s Corporate Finance and Financial Services Faculties give them an authoritative position with the key financial players. In addition the ICAEW is one of the leading and most innovative accounting bodies in sustainability and corporate responsibility. Working on projects such as the HRH Prince of Wales’ International Integrated Reporting Committee and UNEP’s TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) project.
In 2007, we realised that we were asking similar questions about a financial system that no longer serves us. So we came together to look for a solution and the Finance Innovation Lab was born.
After the financial crash, we saw a huge opportunity. Lots of people had good ideas about how to improve the system, but there was no place for those ideas to be heard and turned into action.
We believed that no one individual, no one organisation and no one government alone could tackle the scale of the challenges that we faced. The financial system had, and still has, a hugely complex set of interconnected problems that needed fresh insight.
Change wasn’t only going to come from within the existing system. We believed that if we brought people together, collectively we could be empowered to do something extraordinary in this time of crisis. So we designed the Lab to open up the conversation about the type of system we want for the future.
We’ve created a place where it’s the quality of an idea that matters, not the job title of the person who thought of it. We’re committed to prototyping the future, and we support participants to turn their ideas into reality.
"There are many things to do to bring about a sustainable world. Whatever you do, do it humbly. Do it not as an immutable policy, but as an experiment. Use your action, whatever it is, to experiment." (Donella Meadows, author of Thinking in Systems)
There is no blueprint for creating a systems change project so we’ve had to build one ourselves. The lab is based on the concept of emergence. Our model has adapted significantly as the context in which we operate has changed and as we’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t work.
Let us take you along our innovation journey.
HOW OUR STRATEGY HAS EVOLVED
November 2008: As the financial crisis hit and quickly snowballed, we (WWF & ICAEW) met and joined forces to host a big event at historic Chartered Accountants’ Hall. We brought together our two very different groups of stakeholders. Attendees included accountants, environmental activists, investment bankers, anti-capitalists, design students and lawyers. This event was completely oversubscribed and it was clear that this was a conversation that needed to continue.
March 2009: One of the best decisions we made was to bring on facilitation support. Hosting conversations between people who don’t normally talk to each other is difficult and requires confidence and experience. We worked with Reos Partners and Oxford Said Business School who had developed two scenarios for the future of finance, and hosted three events for our growing community. From these, we identified leverage points within the existing system where innovation could lead to real change. These have been the basis of the Lab’s work. We built an online community which quickly became populated with over 1000 people, through word-of-mouth, all attracted to our calling question “how do we create a financial system that sustains people and planet?”
May 2010: Our strategy took a different tack as we brought in the Hara Collaborative to help design the next stage of our strategy. What characterized a shift in strategy here was the belief that everyone has the potential to change the system so our growing online community were all invited to participate and create innovation groups that were deeply important to them as individuals. We helped participants to understand and uncover a sense of vocation in themselves and found this awareness led to the projects that created the most change. As a result of the work we did together, we were selected as one of the 50 New Radicals changing the UK for the better by Nesta and the Observer newspaper.
January 2012: We hired Shirlaws Business Coaching to help us further refine our business model as we gained more clarity about where we were having most impact.
WHAT WE’VE CREATED
Since we launched we have been spotting groundswells of innovation within the financial system that represent growing areas for change. Our role has been to convene people who are interested in these areas and create spaces where they can come together and have facilitated conversations that move to action. We help these groups collaborate and turn their ideas into solid projects finding the resources to make them fly.
Because we’re working with systems change, our role is often to map out current activity in a specific area, and introduce people working on the same issues who haven’t met before.
Some examples of our projects:
- The TEEB for Business Coalition. The goal of this project is to achieve a shift in corporate behaviour to preserve and enhance rather than deplete our natural capital. It is led by Pavan Sukhdev and ICAEW is supported by UNEP, IUCN, Accounting for Sustainability, WWF-UK, Defra and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, WBCSD and Conservation International amongst others.
- Disruptive Finance Policy. This stream of work looks at the most promising policy ideas that could shift the existing finance system in a way that will overcome some of the biggest barriers to a sustainable economy. It is supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
- RESPONDER. This is an EU-funded project that explores the potential political, social and economic contradictions between sustainable consumption and economic growth. The project focuses on consumption decisions made by private household finance and how those decisions impact on sustainability and economic growth. The programme is hosted in partnership with Tim Jackson at the University of Surrey.
- UnLtd* Future. A programme designed to accelerate alternative business models that connect people, planet and profit. The programme is supporting nine social entrepreneurs over a one-year period. It is hosted by UnLtd*, The Finance Innovation Lab and Shirlaws Coaching.
- Sharing Economy. We’ve hosted workshops for a community interested in building a model of what a sharing economy would look like, held in conjunction with The People Who Share.
- Mapping the System. A project hosted by Innovation MA student David Braid from Central St Martins. He used design thinking to explore how we could map the financial system in a way that could be understood by the general public.
- Positive Money. A group campaigning for monetary policy alternatives. We provided resources to support the group, for example, helping its founder to attend leadership retreats.
- Social Finance workshop. We designed and facilitated a workshop for Cooperative Financial Services and a selection of Lab entrepreneurs, helping the Co-op explore their social finance strategy for the future.
- SOCAP Anti-Hero Social Market Cards: we’ve built a series of archetypes that represent different roles played within the social capital market. We launched, played and built on this set of roles at the SOCAP Conference 2012.
New paradigm governance model
Building a systems change project requires a new model of governance. Over the years, we’ve played around with different types of governance structures. In 2009, we invited lab community members to self-select and become stewards of the Lab. The aim was that they would be ambassadors of the project and help us to discern our next stage of strategy. This group was typically made up people who were well-established in the existing system and wanted to give something back.
We eventually had to let go of this approach. The stewards struggled to stay open to the bottom-up approach we knew was so unique about the process we were using. This strategy meant we went through a difficult period between chaos and order where we had to use different ways of knowing like our intuition and spot weak signals about what our wisest next move would be. In this end this model threatened to stop the Lab growing in the way that it needed to.
We’re now experimenting with the concept of “fellows”. This is based on the realisation that the leaders of the existing system might not be the best leaders to guide a new paradigm project like the Lab. Our fellows embody the values of the Lab, and are hand-picked by us for their on-going commitment and leadership in the field of new financial systems. Some are building projects aimed at creating a better financial system, others have forward thinking knowledge and expertise. They are our peers, and act as advisors to help us design our strategy.
The Lab is a really unique collaboration between two somewhat unlikely partners – WWF-UK and ICAEW. Both have very different sets of cultures, languages, aspirations and different way of doing things. At the beginning of the partnership, this inevitably led to some challenging situations: for example wanting to host events in different ways or wanting to apply different kind of narratives to communication pieces.
To turn these differences into strengths, we invested a lot of time in finding a unique personality and culture for the Lab – one which incorporates the best of both worlds; one that is based on a flat structure with no hierarchy; and one which truly represents an equal partnership between us.
Furthermore we invested a great deal time and energy in building our relationship from one of public/private partnership to one of deep friendship. It’s this friendship that helps us get through the very difficult challenges that we come across hosting this big systems change project.
Using a bottom-up approach, working on systemic issues and not being able to easily capture the impact we were creating, it hasn’t been easy for us to find funders who understand and are willing to support the Lab. In 2009, our model was to try and raise a few million dollars to put a small number of people through a deep learning journey.
Because of the amount of uncertainty, it was impossible for us to find funding and as a result, we felt like failures. A shift came when we decided to step up to lead the process ourselves with the help of the Hara Collaborative. We invested in capacity building for ourselves and they taught us to host the conversations that were needed.
By shifting our model to work with what we had and having the confidence to embrace uncertainty as part of a systems change project, we were able to become clear enough on our intention and vision to attract funding from a foundation who support disruptive high risk systemic change programmes around sustainability.
Designing precise metrics to measure our impact from the onset would have been impossible due to the nature of the project. With a clearer idea of our model and where we have the greatest impact, we’re able to start measuring our progress. We’ve recently hired a team to do just that.
We measure our impact in the following areas:
Increasing social interconnectivity
We are witnessing strong signs of increased social bonds and trust built between diverse Lab participants who previously did not connect. We are seeing an emergent collective consciousness among participants.
Building collective intelligence
We are monitoring and sharing the unique intellectual trends and themes emerging from the Lab community. We are honing in on a collective vision for a better system, identifying the barriers to progress, the promising areas for innovation, and the areas where change is already happening.
Identifying and streamlining prototypes
Projects under the Lab are making strong progress, gaining from the input of diverse participants and peer support. Promising new business and policy concepts continue to emerge and enter the Lab process, building an emergent portfolio of prototypes.
Developing participant capacities
Through our Lab process we’re strengthening the capacity of individual participants to lead, collaborate and create new solutions. We’ve helped increase their networks, deepen their relationships and accelerate their learning.
Connecting to values
The Lab has created a safe space for participants to explore and express their deeply-held values. Strategic retreats have given time for individuals to reflect on deeper goals and align their projects with these values.
Communicating, influencing & spreading
We share the facilitation process we’ve created and use it to inspire and support similar projects all over the world. Lab models are emerging in Singapore, the US and Sweden. The Lab appears in the press and is developing a strong online presence, building its capacity to champion a financial system that supports people and planet.
The need to find balance between emergence and orchestration
We when started the project, we had no idea what would work. Our architecture was very open. However with experience, we’ve begun to understand the conditions in which a group of people can move from idea to action. With this, we have moved from an open invitation to everyone for everything, to a clearer idea where we can have most impact by focusing on certain groups of people at certain times.
This strategy has emerged from the process of staying open and a total commitment for action learning as we experiment with different innovation projects and processes.
Emergence and orchestration are also a very important part of our events. We use participatory processes at them all and they are designed so that people can really discuss the issues they care deeply about. It’s important that we provide just enough structure for the conversations that matter to take place and think about the psychology behind what makes people feel like they can speak honestly and with confidence.
There is a fine line between emergence and orchestration. The latter is common place in the strategies and panel sessions of our existing business world. Too much orchestration does not allow for creativity and innovative solutions to arise. Emergence allows ideas to be heard but too little structure creates chaos and frustration. We try to create what we call liberating structures in both the core strategy of the Lab and in the design of our events.
The need to find balance between diversity and homogeneity
One of our key assumptions is that innovation happens when you get very different groups of people with different perspectives coming together to tackle problems. Yet with experience we’ve discovered that there are times when diversity is not conducive to getting work done. This is mostly true when a project moves from the exploratory phase to that of proof of concept. At this point, where ideas need to become concrete, working with people with shared values and ideas becomes essential.
The importance of friendship in transforming the world
We have moved way beyond the normal call of expected in a business partnership. The Lab’s core team have developed very strong bonds. We got to this point by investing heavily in working on self-reflection and sharing our deepest strengths and weaknesses. This level of understanding of each other allows us to remain strong and resilient to the challenges that we face on a daily basis hosting this kind of project where we’re trying to build something entirely new.
The importance of iterative learning
We rely on action learning to inform our next stage of strategy. With everything we do, whether a presentation or a meeting, we take the time to reflect on what went well, what went wrong and what could have gone better. This means we are learning from our mistakes (which are many), helps facilitate our growth, and ensures that we remain adaptable enough to our changing environment.
While collaboration for change is important, it’s the nature of that collaboration that matter most
If we are going to tackle the scale of change needed today, it is evident that no one organisation or individual will achieve this alone. So for our vision of changing the financial system, we’ve had to collaborate with and build a huge network of people who work together. But this requires strong relationships and an openness to hear perspectives that aren’t always easy to hear. Our focus on positive change rather than a critical analysis of the problem helps create a feeling that people move beyond their differences to a shared understanding.
The importance of depth and values in taking action
We discovered that people most likely to act are those that have a sense of vocation about the work that they do. We help our community become authentic leaders – meaning leading from a place of service to something bigger than oneself. They reflect deeply on what gives them meaning, what they’re good and what gives them pleasure. All of this requires a high level of self-awareness, an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses that we have found is a unique and vital part of the work we are doing.
We are so grateful to those people and organisations who have provided initial resources to help lay the initial foundations for The Finance Innovation Lab - those include the Hara Collaborative, Shirlaws Business Coaching, Tellus Mater Foundation, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Sarasin Partners, Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey, Bostock and Pollit, Mishcon de Reya, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Reos Partners, Mr Will Oulton and Doughty Hanson. We also really appreciate all the people and organisations who have believed in the Finance Innovation Lab's ambitious vision and intention, and hundreds of people have contributed their time and energy to the Lab since we launched.
Our website: www.thefinancelab.org
Our online community: thefinancelab.ning.com/