Are We Innovating for Innovation sake?

Looking back at 2014, it feels like it’s been a big year for innovation.

There are now global summits being held on innovation. Universities are setting up bespoke innovation centres. It is rumoured that there are 40 innovation incubators in London alone.   £100’s of millions are being invested by mainstream banks into finance and technology innovation.

This is encouraging on one hand – it demonstrates that culturally we are more open to change.

However, on the other hand, it is time to ask ourselves some critical questions in this new era:

  • Are we innovating for innovation sake?
  • Is our collective innovation adding up to the scale of the change that is needed in the world? – change that is about shifting deep rooted values and cultures- so that society is more democratic, fair and responsible?

During our last Finance Lab Social in November, we brought people together to engage with these very questions.

We love hosting these events as its chance to bring the whole system in the room- people who wouldn’t normally meet – bankers, activists, designers, lawyers and ecologists.   And we like to host these monthly events in a way that helps people to open their perspectives and to think differently.

Two perspectives on innovation in finance

It was a lively evening which kicked off with two provoking speakers: Malcolm Hayday – Founder of Charity Bank and The Scottish Land Trust and Abdul Haseeb Basit – Head of Finance and Strategic Projects– Innovate Finance.

Malcolm shared his story of the challenges of setting up Charity Bank in the 1990s and how ‘in order to innovate, it was essential to bypass the incumbent system’.   He also spoke about how it was important to pay attention to the changing landscape and to anticipate the needs of the customer. Charity Bank was a ‘holistic response to the needs of society’ and the values that underpinned the creation of a new type of business model were service, relationship and inclusivity.

Abdul shared his perspectives from his role at Innovate Finance – a fintech incubator based at Canary Wharf. He believes that technology has the opportunity to help finance ‘to deliver better customer outcomes’ – including financial literacy, social inclusion and access to finance.   As with Malcolm, Abdul also spoke about the need to remove system ‘road blocks’ and to meet customer’s needs. He spoke about the ‘astounding business models that shaping the future’ and he also emphasised that ‘although technology is great at running things, it is not so great at governing things’.

What did the crowd think?

The 40 participants of the evening then had a chance to reflect on what was spoken about. For 20 minutes, they clustered in small groups of 3-5 people and they talked about: What resonated in the presentations for them?   What do they want to challenge?   What key questions are they taking back into their own work?
Here were a few reflections that emerged:

  • How can we embody values into technology from the outset?
  • What is the balance between trust [e.g. a result of finance system that is beyond self-serving] and momentum [e.g. accelerated activity being experienced through technology]?
  • Can banks leverage technology to rebuild trust?
  • What are the governing principles and body that will challenge the system to ensure that we are still doing what we intend to do [transform the system].

View the pictures from the night here.

What insights we took away as The Finance Innovation Lab

These events are always useful to act as ‘feedback loops’ to inform our own work and strategy on how we can continue bring value to the world.

Here are a few things that will be important to us in our innovation efforts in 2015.
The Context of Innovation: The context of today’s challenges requires us to innovate at the highest possible context – and for us it is important to focus at a level of ‘system innovation’ – which is different to product or service innovation.   Working at a system level we are talking about changing purpose, worldviews, and values.

The Values Behind Innovation: The values that support the ‘common good’ will act as our ‘design brief’ for innovation – we will focus our efforts on innovation that supports democracy, fairness and responsibility.   We will works towards enabling a large-scale culture shift helping society move from a sense of ‘I’ to a sense of ‘WE’.

The Diversity Behind Innovation: We believe that ‘systems innovation’ is really question of changing who holds the ‘power’ in shaping the rules of the game and how the game is played. It will continue to be important to us that we challenge incumbent interests of maintaining the status quo. So, in 2015, we will continue to focus our efforts on ‘empowering the disruptors’ of the system who intend to create positive impact for people and planet.