Sunday, 30 March 2014

LSFA: Building a financial hackerspace in 3 phases

Over the last 5 years I’ve been working on ways to break down the oppressive wall of mystique that shrouds global finance, and to experiment with methods of 'hacking' financial systems. At first this took the form of my own ‘gonzo’ anthropological explorations of the world of derivatives trading. It has since merged into me working with campaign groups like ActionAid, MoveYourMoneyUK and the World Development Movement, and getting involved in the alternative finance community via initiatives like the Finance Innovation Lab.

In 2013, whilst writing The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance, I decided to start developing an experiential workshop series to help London's diverse array of activists, artists and alternative economists grapple with the financial sector in their midst. I decided to call this London School of Financial Activism (LSFA).

Phase 1: Seed-funding

In 2013 I ran a crowdfunding campaign to provide me with initial seedfunding to develop the idea. I raised £5014 from 168 funders. That was never going to be enough to set up LSFA in its entirety (with a website, logo, venues etc), but it has been vital in giving me some breathing room to develop the idea, as well as helping to build an initial base of supporters and press coverage. As I discussed recently at the MoneyLab conference in Amsterdam, I somewhat miscalculated the costs of the crowdfunding rewards and the time it would take to deliver, but on the upside I learned a whole lot about how to do crowdfunding (and have turned into something of an informal crowdfunding consultant to a fair amount of people since then).

Phase 2: Developing workshop content

In May 2013 my book was released, and generating publicity for the book subsequently took up a large amount of my time. The upshot of this is that I’ve been asked to do a wide range of talks and workshops off the back of it, which has both increased my experience in teaching, and has helped me to generate and test a range of workshop ideas. I’ve thus been able to develop the following list of workshops over the last several months.

Workshop Series 1: A hacker approach to demystifying global finance

I’ve been giving a range of interactive lectures on demystifying the financial sector, and the use of hacker approaches to exploring, jamming and rewiring 1) money 2) the financial intermediaries that steer money around the world and 3) the financial instruments they use to do that. This has including talks at Wilderness Festival, Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh World Justice Festival. The next step is to turn them into experiential adventures within the physical space of the financial sector. I'm in touch with the team at Occupy London Tours who have been doing great guided tours of Mayfair, Canary Wharf and the City, and see some great potential for partnerships.

Workshop Series 2: Hot topics in financial activism

The broader workshops aimed at generally demystifying finance are ideal for opening the door to more specific and in-depth workshops on the problems of the financial sector. These include:
  1. Tax Justice: Exploring the offshore world: Offshore financial centres are an incredibly important element of the global financial system and international trade system, and are deeply intertwined in corporate operations. It's a crucial area for campaigners to engage with, and one which I have spent time actively exploring. I've worked on tax justice (for example, with ActionAid), spoke at the Action Aid tax justice conference in November, and have been forging relationships with campaigners, academics and even artists who are working in this area (for example, Paulo Cirio who started the controversial but awesome offshore company hack Loophole4All).
  2. Commodity speculations: Exploring commodity markets: We are constantly surrounded by commodities, and yet very few of us have any idea about the supply chains, giant commodity traders, and the financial players involved in them. I have worked with WDM on their commodity speculation campaign over the last few years, and I’ve also built experience investigating groups like GlencoreXstrata (see my article here for example), informally collaborating with groups like Global Witness, Greenpeace and others
  3. Dirty Detective Work: Tracing fossil fuel financing: It's becoming increasingly crucial for campaign groups to understand and challenge the investors who support major fossil fuels companies and who have entrenched interests in keeping us in the fossil fuel dark ages. That's why I've been getting involved in helping student divestment groups, giving talks at Cambridge, Oxford, Kings College London, University of East Anglia and Surrey University. I piloted a workshop on tracing fossil fuel financing at People & Planet’s Shared Planet Conference in November, and have been establishing relations with the team, and with other groups such as Market Forces Australia.
  4. Culture-Hacking: Anthropology as activism: I recently gave a talk at Sussex University Anthropology department on the concept of activist anthropology and culturehacking, using anthropological tools to gain access to and challenge powerful industries. There’s a lot of interesting work being done on financial anthropology and social studies of finance, but it all tends to be locked up in academia, rather than publicly accessible. Figures like David Graeber have raised the profile of economic anthropology as a progressive, engaged discipline, but it would be great to have a space for people to actively develop this.

Workshop Series 3: Open Source Finance

Using Open Source culture as the backdrop for alternative finance is an idea I initially sketched out at a talk on open source finance I gave to the Open Data Institute. I then developed it further in the model I sketched out on my blog and in ROAR Magazine. To me, this provides a very useful framework with which to explore current alternatives to mainstream finance (which, in contrast to open source, is closed and exclusive). Here are three workshops that could fall under this broader heading:
  1. Alternative economic design: Building alternatives to mainstream finance requires a pragmatic, yet creative, design mindset. This is something I’m really keen to develop with people who have a passion for design. In August I piloted a workshop at Shambala Festival entitled 'Build your own pop-up currency', and then collaborated with Cecilia Wee and Leander Bindewald (from New Economics Foundation) on a similar workshop for the Royal College of Art. I’ve done further talks on this topic at Fierce Festival and Central St. Martins design school, and then spent a term as an assistant lecturer in the Expanded Designer course at Camberwell College of Art, getting students to explore hacker culture and alternative currency design
  2. Anthropology of alternative exchange: It’s only through exploration of alternative forms of exchange that we really get to grips with mainstream forms of exchange (which in turn form the basis for the mainstream financial system). It's an area that I've been actively exploring. It started with a big article for Aeon Magazine about monetary cultures and since then, I’ve talked on gender dynamics of Bitcoin at the London Bitcoin Expo and cultural elements of cryptocurrency at LSE sociology department.
  3. Ecological / Permacultural design principles and finance: Ecological design principles provide a great framework for thinking about building an economic system that stays within planetary boundaries. My explorations into this topic started with me writing a piece for Transition Free Press on permacultural finance. I was then invited by Schumacher College and Transition Town Totnes to give a talk on permacultural design principles and finance (and I was also recently interviewed on by 21st Century Permaculture on Shoreditch Radio about this).
  4. Building Noah’s Ark: Exploring the DNA of pension funds: Pension funds are often overlooked behemoths of the financial world, helping to define the future of our economies through their investment decisions. That’s why it’s so important to reform the way that they work, and to re-engage people with how they work. I recently completed a series of 3 articles for Guardian Sustainable Business, breaking down the problems inherent in mainstream investment, what’s keeping them in place, and potential alternatives. The basic framework I sketched out could be a great basis for an in-depth workshop in which we explore investment culture, and this can also be tied into other workshops around fossil fuel divestment

Phase 3: Building the hackerspace

Now that the outline for the initial workshops has been established, there are series of steps that need to be taken to formalise LSFA a bit more. Some that I'm currently working on include:
  1. Logo & Website: I'm in final stages of developing a new logo for LSFA, working with designer Dimitrios Stamatis (as part of a bitcoin/barter exchange). A dedicated website will be up soon
  2. Physical location: I've identified a series of potential venues, and now trying to negotiate a space. If anyone has any proposals or ideas for appropriate spaces, do let me know
  3. Company structure: I'd like to develop an experimental company structure for LSFA, so some legal advice is required
I want LSFA to go beyond simply being a place where lectures are delivered. I want it to develop into a dynamic open space where members can come and hang out, use communal facilities and work on creative projects that 1) help them understand the financial sector whilst 2) building useful tools that challenge it. We do adventurous exploration of powerful systems, develop creative, mischievous ways to jam such systems, and experiment with ways to rewire them. In essence I'd like to create a financial hackerspace.

LSFA is thus not a 'school' where people are passive receivers of training, but rather a place for active participants who wish to develop practical or conceptual experiments in financial activism (e.g. shareholder activism / activist hedge funds), arts, (e.g. films, theatre, performance art), anthropology (e.g. ethnographic research projects), education (e.g. immersive tours, phone apps, mapping projects) and alternatives (e.g. alternative currencies / P2P systems / co-operative models). The school ideally becomes a site for the ‘beta-testing’ of alternatives form of economic life.

The aim is thus both educational and practical. People get involved in creative projects as a way to learn about a system they might otherwise feel alienated from or avoid. They subsequently create products, artefacts, processes or installations that the public can interact with too. I’d also like the school to operate on Creative Commons principles, in that outputs from one cohort of participants can be used as inputs for the next cohort, who are free to build on the work of others. The idea is to create a vibrant community with a sense of communal ownerships over the work being produced.

If you'd like more information, or would like to get involved in some way, my contact details are in the right hand panel. Watch this space for updates.