Anna Laycock, The Lab’s new Lead Strategist, explains why The Lab is expanding its work to build a better financial system.
Since our beginnings in in 2009, The Lab has grown into a globally recognised systems change pioneer. More importantly, we’ve made a big contribution to the transformation of the financial system. We’ve connected thousands of people working for change, cultivated a new generation of civil society leaders, built thriving networks of financial innovators and advocates for reform, and played a key role in the development of regulation for alternative finance.
Six years of success might be a good point at which to wrap up a project, congratulate each other and take a long holiday. But The Lab isn’t about comfort zones. When the aim is complete transformation of the financial system, every success is a stepping stone to the next challenge. Progress usually leads to another level of the system that will resist change.
That change is needed now more than ever. Despite increasing evidence of irreversible damage to natural environments, mainstream financial businesses still fail to integrate environmental risks or returns into their decision-making. The resulting ecological damage is vandalism on its own terms, but also a foolish long-term investment strategy. The financial system facilitates the unsustainable growth of the fossil fuel industry, risking not just catastrophic climate change, but an asset bubble which could damage the financial wellbeing of millions of ordinary savers and investors.
The damage is social, too. The financial crisis is estimated to have cost $2,000,000,000,000 across the UK and EU alone – money which could have provided basic education, water, sanitation, health and nutrition for all with $1.9tn to spare. Commodity speculation pushes up the price of essential goods such as food, while the UK housing asset bubble makes owning or even renting a home unaffordable for many. Those excluded from the banking system are exploited by payday lenders, while tax avoidance facilitated by offshore accounts enables the richest to shirk their contribution to society.
Our work is far from done. So instead of wrapping up, The Lab is stepping up: we’ve become independent, with a new home, some new faces (including me), a plan to scale our work, and a renewed sense of urgency. We may have seen some important early signals of change, but the power relationships in the financial world mean every victory must be seen as temporary until the whole system has shifted.
In today’s financial system we see a tension between the existing regime and the forces of positive disruption. It’s the Lab’s role to connect and support those forces for positive change.
Our landscape – the social and political context of the system – is increasingly polarised. Consumerist values still dominate, with money equating to wealth and status. Those on low incomes bear the brunt of austerity measures, socialising the losses caused by the financial crisis. Despite growing unease, high pay and excessive profits are still socially acceptable. Yet more and more businesses are breaking the mould and putting a social mission at the core of their model. New political voices are challenging the austerity narrative and calling for a different approach to finance. And the rapid spread of the concept of divestment suggests an appetite for greater engagement with the impacts of our investment decisions.
At the level of the regime – the rules and power relations that perpetuate ‘the way things are’ – we see the continuing dominance of the big four, with the privatisation of RBS a missed opportunity to create a network of local stakeholder banks. The banking lobby is pushing for a rollback of post-2008 legislation and a return to ‘normal’: the opaque, overgrown, self-serving financial system that got us in this mess in the first place.
But there are niches of radical innovation within the system with the potential to significantly disrupt the regime. While some innovations simply offer greater efficiency within the existing model, others redefine the relationship between business and customer, or, better still, between the system and society. Crowdfunding platforms that enable people to take direct control of their money and invest in line with their values, local currencies that bring economic power back to the community, apps that help the unbanked manage their money – all offer glimpses of a new financial ecosystem that grows in the gaps between mainstream finance and the needs of people and planet.
The picture is messy, but that’s the nature of complex systems. The opportunities for change exist, if we have the courage to act on them. We need to cultivate the niches of positive innovation, challenge the rules of the game, and shift the social norms that say finance belongs to the ‘experts’.
It’s a big job – bigger than any one organisation, campaign or coalition. Transforming the system requires multiple change efforts, at multiple levels, over a long period of time. That’s why The Lab focusses on bringing together the people disrupting the system, growing their capacity to create change and building a powerful, resilient community of changemakers.
I joined The Lab because I believe our vision is achievable: a financial system that’s democratic, responsible and fair. There is no natural law that dictates the opposite. People created the system and people can change it. And we must change it – because we won’t find a lasting solution to our social and environmental problems if we don’t. Will you join us?
 The framework below is taken from the Transition Theory model of change. You can find out more about the model in our latest publication, A Strategy for Systems Change.