Financial crisis as a large system change challenge

If you were given 10 million euros and three to five years, how would you go about “changing the role of the financial system to better serve economic, social and environmental objectives”? The EU is asking that question. And that’s something that I’ve been answering with a consortium of more that 20 European universities. Our proposal went in last week.

For me, all this builds on the work of the Global Finance Initiative that I led. Scaling Impact’s Sanjeev Khagram and I were convinced of the need for a multi-stakeholder Global Action Network (GAN) in the global finance arena that would take on the very issue the EU is asking with an EU focus. Starting in January 2008 – just before the financial crisis and with $185,000 from Ford Foundation – we analyzed the global financial arena by further developing mapping methodologies and putting together a stewardship team that came up with a clear action strategy.

But we couldn’t get money for the next phase…because the financial crisis shrank foundations’ budgets and visions!

One exciting aspect about the EU Call is that they clearly want what I’d call a societal learning and change strategy…where financial system stakeholders will work together to (1) gain important new knowledge and perspectives that will change the way they think about the financial system, and (2) develop new social ties that provide for on-going development of new ideas, strategies, structures, and processes with regards to the financial system.

In other words, the goal of the Call is not simply to produce new reports, books and ideas…it’s about making sure the new knowledge is “held” by stakeholders and that they have the vision and relationships to further it.

The Proposal

The proposal to the EU was put together with leadership of the European Academy for Business in Society and Maurizio Zollo, Director of the Center for Research on Organization and Management at Bocconi University in Milan. It proposes conventional research by an inter-university faculty to investigate from a multi-disciplinary perspective the historic financial system dynamics with comprehensive analysis of the reasons for the financial crisis.

But the project also proposes an action research strategy that includes:

  1. Mapping social structures and developing a holistic computer model that simulates cross-system (finance-environment-social-economic-political) and cross-level (local-to-global) interdependences. This contrasts with the narrow product- and firm-level simulations used by finance that contributed to the financial crisis.
  2. Engaging stakeholders. A stakeholder council will include financiers, policy makers, regulators and social-, labor-, consumer-, and environmental-activists working on finance issues. With the researchers, the councillors will co-lead the project and engage their respective constituencies. This will be supported by an innovative social media strategy.
  3. Scenario-building. Through stakeholder engagement with small focus groups around the world and larger European ones, plausible alternative futures will be developed.
  4. Experimenting. Working with financial firms and other stakeholders, new approaches to such things as decision-making and product development will be tested.

Each of these four actions will further develop methodologies that will be very helpful to other network change strategies.

This approach, like the strategy proposed by the GFI, builds on the experience of GANs and the World Commission on Dams in particular. The WCD was a 1997-2000 multi-stakeholder process to create comprehensive guidelines for the building of large dams in response to environmental and social disasters associated with large dams funded by the World Bank. Although the diverse Commissioners reached consensus in a final report, it did not translate into agreement among the broader stakeholders‘ community, and responsibility for next steps was delegated to the UNEP that proved incapable administratively or authoritatively to effect pursuit of the Commission‘s work.

The response to the EU Call aims to overcome the WCD short-coming with its more comprehensive activities and explicitly creating stakeholder connections that can carry on the work.

How would you address the financial crisis as a large-system change challenge

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