SOCAP11 – What I saw

Rachel Sinha (Sustainability Manager ICAEW, The Finance Innovation Lab)

Through the power of networks and great conferences (we met Kevin, founder of SOCAP at Oxford Jam earlier this year), The Finance Innovation Lab were invited to host a workshop at SOCAP this August in San Francisco.

The annual gathering of forward thinking peeps from around the world is a place to come and share what they know, think and would like to explore about the intersection of money and meaning. Here are some of the themes that I found resonated with the work we’re doing in the Lab;

1. Building a strong community & innovate

Van Jones former Green Jobs advisor to Obama and author of the Green-Collar Economy said

we need a platform for people-powered disruptive innovation in finance” and “you can build a super movement based on super good ideas.

I, of course, couldn’t agree more. The Lab is designed as an open space where people can come together to explore innovate and evolve the financial system so that it sustains people and planet. It is also a place where people can bring their ideas and start testing them out in an encouraging environment where failure is an acceptable part of the process because changing the financial system is not easy.

2. Crowdsource ideas

I want a world where the powerful people in the room are not the ones with the most money
said Penelope Douglas, Hub Bay Area & SOCAP

Quite! We believe that there are millions of good ideas out there about how to create a financial system that sustains people and planet, but that they just didn’t find a place to be heard. This is because there are only a small group of people who currently hold the power in the existing system to change it. The Lab creates a space where the good ideas can be heard, no matter who comes up with them.

3.Systems thinking is the way to view our global challenges

We can’t look at world’s problems in isolation, we need to see the interconnections between everything” said Jeffrey Hollender, Seventh Generation & the American Sustainable Business Council

Systems thinking was a strong theme at SOCAP this year. We went to see one of the founding fathers of systems thinking Fritjof Capra. He was very supportive of the Lab because it’s based on much of theory he has been promoting since the 70s- living systems, ecology, sustainability and the science of sustainable systems.


While the impact investors at the conference obviously thought addressing systems change was important, finding funding for doing this type of work is really tough. As Kevin Starr from the Mulago Foundation said “You can’t overcome market failure without subsidy. Innovation requires subsidy.” I spoke to a number of philanthropic funds who said the Lab was ‘very interesting, clearly needed’ but that they only fund projects where impact was well reported.

Starr did a really interesting session on how to secure funding. He investors were looking at   is it really needed? (check) Does it work? (check)  Is there a demand? (check)  Will it get to those who need it? (check) Will it be used well? (check) Will it really have an impact? (tricky).

If the impact of a social enterprise is hard, well measuring a systemic change project is even tougher. We are working on this and thanks to our ladies at Hara Practice Collaborative have been creating a new measurement framework for systemic transformation- but it’s a real challenge.

4.     Fixing Vs building

“How much can you succeed with tinkering with a system that’s flawed?” and “In order to get people to change, it helps to have an alternative” said Penelope Douglas Hub Bay Area & SOCAP

Innovation in the community of The Finance Innovation seems to fall into two camps; changes within the existing system (internalising externalities, building new models of risk, green economic policy) and changes outside of the system (complementary currencies, peer to peer lending platforms, asking questions like why do we need money? Why do we need banks?). .

Both are welcome within the Lab and both are present. While our community in London seems to be more focused on looking at how to fix the problems with our existing system (probably because it’s a financial centre), SOCAP is teeming with ideas about what finance in the future could look like.

This innovation is led by a different breed. Typically young, entrepreneurial, they have big ideas and don’t ask for permission to innovate. They use technology to connect with each other, to develop and cross pollinate their ideas. They spend little time analysing the past and have an infectious ‘can do’ work ethic and attitude (check out Arthur Brock, Rebecca Petzel, Lauren Higgins, Jay Standish and Saul Wainwright). They are connected to each other by ‘super networkers’ like our new friend David Hodgson (The Idea Hive) who, it seems, knows everyone and is friendly, unassuming and curious about everything. David and those like him spend their time blogging, tweeting and connecting people who share interests and ideas.

 5.     Build collective intelligence

“The greatest power we have is to see what we have in common. That will help us solve the world’s biggest problems” Jeffrey Hollender, Seventh Generation & the American Sustainable Business Council

The Lab is based on an assumption that we see more together than we do as individuals. That’s why we use world café techniques at our events and graphic recording to capture our shared vision and understanding of the system of the future.

6.Fun & Diversity are important for innovation

“We should not be seduced by the patterns of doing what we’ve always done” said Penelope Douglas Hub Bay Area & SOCAP

I noticed in San Francisco there was a respect and sharing of ideas between the older and younger generations to an extent I don’t see in London. As Penelope Douglas said in the plenary session on Day 2 “Cross generational ideas are important”, while other panellists talked of how working at the Hub was so great because it was so ‘youthful’.

You can see this even in the way the conference is organised. The brainchild of Kevin Jones Doyle who, dare I say it, is in the generation above, SOCAP is phenomenally interactive and dare I say incredibly FUN.


Alongside an online community that shows who of your Linkedin and Twitter connections is coming and vox pops of attendees broadcasted at the plenary session, SOCAP hosts open space so that participants have a chance to raise important topics they want to explore, boasts a party every night, an organic tequila sponsor (!), meals by wholefoods, temporary tattoos and installation art (including a tipi which we were invited to hang out in). It is designed to break down barriers between the people who show up and get conversation going and it really works. Kevin and his team clearly connect with the community I described above to host tracks and sessions and build interactive elements of the conference.

At the Lab we have experimented with bringing opera, slam poetry and music into Chartered Accountants Hall, along with of course using open space and word café facilitation techniques at our events, but I have been hugely by the way SOCAP is hosted and run.

7. Values & meaning

Have an integrated life. You can’t be a SOB at work & then go home & be a nice person. Be one person wherever you are” said Tom Steyer, Farallon Capital Management

The conference kicked-off with a discussion about meaning and the buzz about the conference was that it was ‘softer’ this year; more focused on why people had chosen to work in this sector, rather than on the financial side of impact investing.

A plenary on Day 2 examined ‘Making your life count’, where the astute comment was made that finding meaning through your work changes daily. You have to be constantly aware of where you can most be of service.

We have observed in the Lab that the people who step forward to turn their ideas into tangible projects are driven by a kind of cognitive dissonance; a feeling that they can’t live their values at work, or that there are fundamental problems with the system that are so glaring they feel compelled to really fix.  We are exploring how we tap into that dissonance and help participants turn it into action and our recent retreat on ‘collaborative leadership’ hosted by our friends at the Hara Practice Collaborative, was a step in this direction.

We met over sixty people and are thinking about how we could take the Lab to the states…..can’t wait to go back next year!

Rachel Sinha
Sustainability Manager ICAEW and co-founder The Finance Innovation Lab