Brett Scott: “This is an article about Open Source Finance. It’s an idea I first sketched out at a talk I gave at the Open Data Institute in London. By ‘Open Source Finance’, I don’t just mean open source software programmes. Rather, I’m referring to something much deeper and broader. It’s a way of framing an overall change we might want to see in the financial system….
Pillar 1: Access to the means of financial production
Very few of us perceive ourselves as offering financial services when we deposit our money in banks. Mostly we perceive ourselves as passive recipients of services. Put another way, we frequently don’t imagine we have the capability to produce financial services, even though the entire financial system is foundationally constructed from the actions of small-scale players depositing money into banks and funds, buying the products of companies that receive loans, and culturally validating the money system that the banks uphold. Let’s look though, at a few examples of prototypes that are breaking this down:
- Peer-to-peer finance models: If you decide to lend money to your friend, you directly perceive yourself as offering them a service. P2P finance platforms extend that concept far beyond your circle of close contacts, so that you can directly offer a financial service to someone who needs it. In essence, such platforms offer you access to an active, direct role in producing financial services, rather than an indirect, passive one.
- There are many interesting examples of actual open source financial software aimed at helping to fulfil the overall mission of an open source financial system. Check out Mifos and Cyclos, and Hamlets (developed by Community Forge’s Matthew Slater and others), all of which are designed to help people set up their own financial institutions
- Alternative currencies: There’s a reason why the broader public are suddenly interested in understanding Bitcoin. It’s a currency that people have produced themselves. As a member of the Bitcoin community, I am much more aware of my role in upholding – or producing – the system, than I am when using normal money, which I had no conscious role in producing. The scope toinvent your own currency goes far beyond crypto-currencies though: local currencies, time-banks, and mutual credit systems are emerging all over
- The Open Bank Project is trying to open up banks to third party apps that would allow a depositor to have much greater customisability of their bank account. It’s not aimed at bypassing banks in the way that P2P is, but it’s seeking to create an environment where an ecosystem of alternative systems can plug into the underlying infrastructure provided by banks
Pillar 2: Widespread distribution
Financial intermediaries like banks and funds serve as powerful gatekeepers to access to financing. To some extent this is a valid role – much like a publisher or music label will attempt to only publish books or music that they believe are high quality enough – but on the other hand, this leads to excessive power vested in the intermediaries, and systematic bias in what gets to survive. When combined with a lack of democratic accountability on the part of the intermediaries, you can have whole societies held hostage to the (arbitrary) whims, prejudices and interests of such intermediaries. Expanding access to financial services is thus a big front in the battle for financial democratisation. In addition to more traditional means to buildingfinancial inclusion – such as credit unions and microfinance – here are two areas to look at:
- Crowdfunding: In the dominant financial system, you have to suck up to a single set of gatekeepers to get financing, hoping they won’t exclude you. Crowdfunding though, has expanded access to receiving financial services to a whole host of people who previously wouldn’t have access, such as artists, small-scale filmmakers, activists, and entrepreneurs with no track record. Crowdfunding can serve as a micro redistribution system in society, offering people a direct way to transfer wealth to areas that traditional welfare systems might neglect
- Mobile banking: This is a big area, with important implications for international development and ICT4D. Check out innovations like M-Pesain Kenya, a technology to use mobile phones as proto-bank accounts. This in itself doesn’t necessarily guarantee inclusion, but it expands potential access to the system to people that most banks ignore
Pillar 3: The ability to monitor
Do you know where the money in the big banks goes? No, of course not. They don’t publish it, under the guise of commercial secrecy and confidentiality. It’s like they want to have their cake and eat it: “We’ll act as intermediaries on your behalf, but don’t ever ask for any accountability”. And what about the money in your pension fund? Also very little accountability. The intermediary system is incredibly opaque, but attempts to make it more transparent are emerging. Here are some examples:
- Triodos Bank and Charity Bank are examples of banks that publish exactly what projects they lend to. This gives you the ability to hold them to account in a way that no other bank will allow you to do
- Corporations are vehicles for extracting value out of assets and then distributing that value via financial instruments to shareholders and creditors. Corporate structures though, including those used by banks themselves, have reached a level of complexity approaching pure obsfucation. There can be no democratic accountability when you can’t even see who owns what, and how the money flows. Groups likeOpenCorporates and Open Oil though, are offering new open data tools to shine a light on the shadowy world of tax havens, ownership structures and contracts
- Embedded in peer-to-peer models is a new model of accountability too. When people are treated as mere account numbers with credit scores by banks, the people in return feel little accountability towards the banks. On the other hand, if an individual has directly placed trust in me, I feel much more compelled to respect that
Pillar 4: An ethos of non-prescriptive DIY collaboration
At the heart of open source movements is a deep DIY ethos. This is in part about the sheer joy of producing things, but also about asserting individual power over institutionalised arrangements and pre-established officialdom. Alongside this, and deeply tied to the DIY ethos, is the search to remove individual alienation: You are not a cog in a wheel, producing stuff you don’t have a stake in, in order to consume stuff that you don’t know the origins of. Unalienated labour includes the right to produce where you feel most capable or excited.
This ethos of individual responsibility and creativity stands in contrast to the traditional passive frame of finance that is frequently found on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum. Indeed, the debates around ‘socially useful finance’ are seldom about reducing the alienation of people from their financial lives. They’re mostly about turning the existing financial sector into a slightly more benign dictatorship. The essence of DIY though, is to band together, not via the enforced hierarchy of the corporation or bureaucracy, but as part of a likeminded community of individuals creatively offering services to each other. So let’s take a look at a few examples of this
- BrewDog’s ‘Equity for Punks‘ share offering is probably only going to attract beer-lovers, but that’s the point – you get together as a group who has a mutual appreciation for a project, and you finance it, and then when you’re drinking the beer you’ll know you helped make it happen in a small way
- Community shares offer local groups the ability to finance projects that are meaningful to them in a local area. Here’s one for a solar co-operative, a pub, and a ferry boat service in Bristol
- We’ve already discussed how crowdfunding platforms open access to finance to people excluded from it, but they do this by offering would-be crowdfunders the chance to support things that excite them. I don’t have much cash, so I’m not in a position to actively finance people, but in my Indiegogo profile you can see I make an effort helping to publicise campaigns that I want to receive financing
Pillar 5: The right to fork
The right to dissent is a crucial component of a democratic society. But for dissent to be effective, it has to be informed and constructive, rather than reactive and regressive. There is much dissent towards the current financial system, but while people are free to voice their displeasure, they find it very difficult to actually act on their displeasure. We may loathe the smug banking oligopoly, but we’re frequently compelled to use them.
Furthermore, much dissent doesn’t have a clear vision of what alternative is sought. This is partially due to the fact that access to financial ‘source code’ is so limited. It’s hard to articulate ideas about what’s wrong when one cannot articulate how the current system operates. Most financial knowledge is held in proprietary formulations and obscure jargon-laden language within the financial sector, and this needs to change. It’s for this reason that I’m building the London School of Financial Activism, so ordinary people can explore the layers of financial code, from the deepest layer – the money itself – and then on to the institutions, instruments and networks that move it around….”