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Wealth, funding and investment practice

Building a new asset class for people and planet

We need to go back to the drawing board on what money is and is for.

Written by:
Emma Shaw
Date published:
Reading time:
8 minutes

What is the role of capital at this point in history? How long will money still be useful? And how can it be put to use for our collective benefit in the meantime?

These were the questions I was left pondering last summer, as we wrapped up a series of 25 interviews with people across the finance system, from different vantage points including wealth advisory, tax reform and private equity. We wanted to understand what, from their perspective, would unlock the kinds of capital and financing pathways that could change our economy into one that enables people and planet to flourish. 

This research was a collaboration between two independent co-researchers (Megan Lucero and me), Gemma Mortensen from New Constellations, and the JRF Emerging Futures team. We recently published a summary of what we discovered from the interviews. Here, I share my personal perspective on where I believe we should be paying most attention, and what stood out most for me from the conversations. 

Money in the context of polycrisis 

If I am extremely lucky, I might be able to retire in 2050 when I turn 60 years old. Having started my career as an ecosystem scientist, this is a daunting prospect: almost all of the graphs on natural resource availability, habitable land and climate stability drop off a cliff by this point in time. 2050 feels wildly uncertain. So building up a healthy pension pot over my working life may not be that useful, if the state of the world I’m living in, the security of my community, and my own health and wellbeing is materially at risk when I come to need it. 

Many people recognise that we are living in a time of polycrisis: a potent combination of ecological collapse, gaping inequality, social and political instability, and rapid technological advancement. What kind of economy can serve those needs? It certainly feels different to an industrial economy that emerged in a time of abundant natural resources and cheap (or forced) labour. Now we may have an abundance of money, albeit unequally shared, but all other capital stocks (natural, social, civic) are in rapidly depleting supply.

For those holding millions or billions in their own private wealth (such as in family trust funds), people managing other people’s wealth in pensions and private/public equities, and those in charge of national wealth in sovereign bonds, this too can be a confronting realisation. “What is the capital stack fit for the 21st century?”, one interviewee posed. “How do we need to reimagine the public balance sheet … how do we understand and price for risk and value … how can global finance reconnect with the real economy?”, others conferred. 

Building a new asset class from scratch

For me, this all points to a need for a deep redesign of our financial systems. The collective need I see isn’t about incremental improvements in the way wealth is distributed or new impact funds are created, although those are certainly necessary steps in the right direction. As Gemma reflects, we need to really evaluate the underlying value systems of what we value. To look at how money is created in the first place and at whose or what expense. To open up the societal conversation and change how we talk about money, as Megan says. To be able to think squarely about “what is enough?” in the context of wealth. 

In our research, 3 prominent themes stood out to me:

1. Money as a social technology

Money is a social agreement … a social construct … a technology.


When we talk about finance, it can feel rational and clinical. Mechanistic images of pistons, pumps and pipes come to mind, a well-oiled machine transporting money around the global financial markets with industrial precision. Vats of cash bubbling away in private equity funds, syphoned off into pots of private reward. Armoured tanks of family wealth locked away on remote islands, preserved and growing out of reach from the taxman, for the anticipated future generations who may reap their rewards.

What I was struck by was how emotive and human our relationship to money is, and how inextricably linked it is to our identity, security and belonging. Also clear was the general disillusionment of people working in and across different parts of the finance system, the “factory line”, from entrepreneurs to investors, bankers, inheritors, economists and policy makers. A feeling of “what’s this all for?”, perhaps even a fading belief in the maxim of financial maximisation.

One person spoke of the “Pavlovian system” that keeps money flowing: people will do what they’re rewarded to do. 

In order to make change, you've got to look at the role of capital itself. The owners of the capital, the people allocating capital, and what all the contractual and incentive arrangements are in that … [they] are absolutely critical to understanding behaviours.


Our social system is coded into the way the financial system is engineered: “the boring wiring that the British are good at”, as someone described it. Think regulatory frameworks, accounting rules and legal structures. I am particularly drawn to interventions and ‘hacks’ that have the potential to influence massive asset classes and subvert models of shareholder primacy, such as by redesigning fund manager incentives in private equity markets, liability structures in pensions and insurance markets, and global indices like the S&P 500.

2. The challenge of scale and urgency

We’re drinking from the straw of mainstream capital … we should be drinking from the firehose.


When it comes to money, and the scale of capital that needs to be shifted to address the complex, interlocking problems of our time, it seems prudent to plot a path of least resistance and start where there is momentum already. 

The source of capital that stands out is that held by private wealth holders, especially young inheritors, whose appetite is growing to take a closer look at the origins of their wealth, the way it's invested now, and to realign it with greater congruence with their values. 

To put this in context, the OECD estimates it will cost $3.9 trillion per year to hit all the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There is currently $130 trillion held by private wealth management, expected to grow to $230 trillion by 2030. So we can afford to be tactical about how much money needs to be mobilised and where this will come from, given that philanthropy alone will be far from sufficient. 

Already, networks like the ImPact are organising 87+ families around the world to shift their investments into 100% impact (what that means needs further discussion), each with at least $100 million under their influence. 

What stands in their way is an outdated financial advisory system geared towards tax avoidance and financial maximisation: goals that are fading in their resonance with the new holders of capital. One key intervention is to redefine what ‘fiduciary duty’ means in this context, to ascertain what is in the interest of future generations (if not just financial growth), who or what are capital holders and their advisors accountable to, and how can their capital be mobilised and carefully managed to achieve that?

3. Convening an ecosystem

It is not that fanciful to set about deliberately designing a new asset class. The nascent tech sector coevolved 15–20 years ago with the purposeful introduction of venture capital, which was unprecedented in providing upfront, high-risk finance for disruptive new products and services, prior to them coming to market or even being developed much beyond prototype. 

This Silicon Valley paradigm has come to dominate our lives and social discourse with unicorn companies (privately-owned startups valued over $1 billion), young billionaires and digital platforms holding almost monopoly power. It’s certainly not contributing to wealth and power equality, quite the opposite. But it is worth remembering that this is a recent phenomenon. And it was the result, in part, of an innovative community of entrepreneurs and financiers coming together with a common purpose and careful convening. 

I believe we’re seeing the same thing now in the impact space: an emergent ecosystem of visionary entrepreneurs and progressive wealth holders who are putting everything they have into solving the big social and environmental challenges of our time. But, as our interviewees remarked, “there is a pipeline problem”: it feels as though the entrepreneurs building the new economy, and those looking to resource it, are disconnected. They can’t see or access one another. There is “no obvious convener in the UK”. 

By focusing our attention and organising around building a new asset class, I believe we will identify the work that needs to happen to allow this new market to grow. 

What now?

I’m left with a feeling of hope and impatience. There is a shared desire from people across the finance system to come together with a practical mandate. Having the freedom to think through the lens of building a new asset class with a fundamentally different purpose and logic model feels radical yet pragmatic enough to get started. What needs to happen now is some deliberate convening of those key actors; a role that JRF is well positioned to play, and that in turn will shape the course of the next 15–20 years.

About the author

This work was conducted by independent researcher Emma Shaw, who has now joined JRF’s Emerging Futures team, reimagining wealth and investment. She received the national Innovate UK Women in Innovation Award in 2021 for her work on innovative impact funding models with the social enterprise, Library of Things, of which she is a Co-founder.

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