At the intersection of fintech and academia | Interview with Prof. Karen Elliott

Monday 21 November 2022 07:47 CET | Editor: Oana Ifrim | Interview

Professor Karen Elliott, Chair of Practice in Finance/FinTech, discusses the key role academia plays in accelerating the development and growth of fintech innovation

Can you please introduce yourself and your background? What made you interested in fintech?

I refer to myself as a ‘pracademic’ to reflect that I do not have a traditional academic background.  Rather, spending 16 years in industry as a project, programme manager and consultant across private, public and third sector organisations prior to joining Durham University. I completed two degrees whilst working and when on maternity decided to look for a part-time role which emerged as a research assistant at Durham University and serendipity took over to result in a second Masters and PhD.  Next, I moved into the Business School lecturing in project management and entrepreneurship, and it was at Durham that I started exploring Fintech with Prof Williams before moving to Newcastle University six years ago.  Here, I partnered with Prof van Moorsel (Computer Science) to examine the socio-technical challenges facing the digital transformation and adoption of technologies in financial services, vulnerable consumers, and responsible innovation using digital technologies, we continue this research partnership at the University of Birmingham. 

Please tell us about how the University of Birmingham’s (UOB) Business School fintech course started. Why the University of Birmingham Business School and why fintech?

This fintech course emerged in response to the growth of this sector and targeting by the government to develop a talent pipeline to fill the new positions created in this sector, which require a fusion of business and computer science knowledge and skills. UOB is well-positioned within the National Fintech Network and regional financial services and fintech providers situated in the Midlands. Hence, the course is relatively new, but I am consulting with industry to co-create content, improve the modules, and draw on their expertise and participation (i.e., lectures, workshops, etc.). This is essential to ensure that graduates are fit-for-purpose upon graduation and are ready to enter the sector.

What are the main takeaways you hope students will gain during the course?

A key element is placing responsible innovation as the heart of decisions to adopt digital technologies across the fintech supply chain.  For instance, at the development stage, garnering diversity of thought on how to offer services to vulnerable groups, a focus area of The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in introducing the Consumer Duty Standards between 2022-24. Furthermore, checking that data sources do not, through automation, introduce existing inequalities and bias into the algorithms and models rather, push towards responsible and inclusive finance. Technology should therefore be deployed to the appropriate tasks, for easy and quick transactions, open data APIs to permit real-time insights into human financial behaviours and so forth. Conversely, where empathy or judgement of multiple factors is required to reach an accurate decision for lending, or access to basic bank accounts, then data-driven insights require human oversight to ensure erroneous exclusion from financial services is avoided. Technologies are not best suited to such tasks unless ethics-by-design is a core feature of the design process.  Such topics will be taught during this course to provide students with a holistic appreciation of the socio-technical challenges facing financial services and fintech now and in the future.

What are your suggestions for career success? What is the number one lesson you always share with your students at the University of Birmingham Business School for their future success?

That you do not need to be a STEM subject or computer science expert to understand and excel in fintech.  Simply put, be curious to understand the challenges of operating in a socio-technical and highly regulated landscape where the latter seeks to protect citizens but not stifle innovation. Recognise that technology starts and ends with people i.e., the developers are human, and the machine learning models, or basic algorithms are only as capable as the data on which they are trained, forming one part of the solution to delivering responsible and inclusive financial services facilitating profit but with the purpose of benefiting society.

You were included in the Innovate Finance Women in FinTech Powerlist. What are the important shifts you’ve seen in this space as more and more women play leading roles in shaping the fintech sector?

There is a noticeable increase in access to initiatives aimed at encouraging women to appreciate or study STEM subjects that traditionally have been socialised into being male only domains i.e., CodeFirstGirls, Tech you Can, STEMETTES, Women in AI, etc.  This male dominance perception is changing, although more development is required if you examine the statistics in creating a balanced female representation in fintech i.e., 4% of fintech start-ups are female-led outside of London and 11% in the capital itself (see Innovate Finance reports). Moreover, with Powerlists, the media attention on the female voice, highlighting role models for younger women to recognise the art of the possible, is now more common.  In addition, recognition that diversity of thought and perspectives across society is required to inform and shape digital technologies that impact our daily lives. As a socio-technologist, I use this term having decided to study machine learning to understand the topic linked to the sociology of business and technology, one subject without the other loses focus on the reality of tackling real-world problems facing finance and fintech. I will keep championing and encouraging more women like myself from non-typical backgrounds to explore fintech and be part of its evolution, premised on mine and others’ beliefs that without access to basic financial products and services, segments of society will continue to reside in a social and digital divide. Nest this divide in the current world’s social, economic, and environmental wicked problems, making inclusive and responsible fintech must be a priority, and the knowledge spillover effects from fintech can assist in the develop of other sectors progressing through digital transformation.

What do you think are the greatest disruptions we’ll see in the coming months at the intersection of finance and technology, and how will they affect traditional financial services companies? When you think about the future of fintech, what are you most excited about?

The greatest disruptions are happening now with the emergence of Metaverse and the transitioning to a potential hybrid existence and society. Traditional financial services suppliers are buying assets where fintechs are and will also operate in this cyber space.  Here, I think it is exciting to learn from students and younger demographics how this impacts their lives and what are their perceptions about the future of Meta.  In the current digital society, that will transfer to Meta, we must be responsible and ensure citizens are aware of what they are consenting to, and we do not repeat or open the gateway for exploitation in Meta as we have witnessed in our current environment.  For example, I was privy to the practice of uploading your DNA via NFTs into Meta, where is the ethical consent?  Who will have access to global DNA and for what purpose?  These must be questions we explore via such mechanisms as Corporate Digital Responsibility that explores how we garner this equilibrium between utopian and dystopian futures thus, considering technologies that do not cause unintended consequences, wrongs, or harms to people as they engage in Meta, online or via digital devices.

Could you please share more details about UKFin+ and its mission and vision?

UKFin+ Network is linked to the prior discussion in recognising that the financial services (FS) industry has experienced unprecedented technological innovation in recent decades, as illustrated by the emergence of distributed ledgers and cryptocurrency, automation based on AI, Open Banking, self-sovereign architectures, high-frequency trading using machine learning, etc. Reliance on digital technologies is accompanied by risks surrounding ethics, transparency, fairness, use and reuse of data (e.g., privacy and cybersecurity). Moreover, there are pressing societal concerns about financial exclusion, business pressures from shareholders, regulatory involvement to protect citizens and, increasingly, the need to fulfil environmental sustainability goals. In other words, the combination of the above factors represents wicked problems. Wicked problems cannot be solved but they can be managed through real stakeholder involvement. UKFin+ Network provides an environment to build synergy between financial service (FS) professionals and researchers in tackling wicked problems in FS via collaboration, coalition, and co-production communities. It does so by creating a network that is highly inclusive and sensitive to regional and national concerns, which will fund 41 projects with monies provided by UKRI (EPSRC), including seed, agile, feasibility, educational and impact projects over the next 5 years. UKFin+ will hold a series of events and workshops to facilitate knowledge exchange and address a key wicked problem of industry and academia working collaboratively whilst becoming a trusted place for the advancement of co-created research in wicked finance, and a conduit between regional and national efforts, as well as between academic researchers, developing a fit-for-purpose talent pipeline, and FS partners.

What is a timeline roadmap for the organisation? What are the next steps?

UKFin+ launched the website on 1st October 2022 and a media announcement is forthcoming which will be a ‘soft’ launch.  In 2023, UKFin+ will tour the UK regions to raise awareness of the Network, what a project should contain, how you contact academics in your area and when the funding calls will be periodically released over the coming years, see for the timeline and updates. Our vision is that we raise awareness and demand for the funding calls which will permit our team to seek further funding to support the growth of the UK financial services and fintech sector. 

About Professor Karen Elliott

Professor Karen Elliott is Chair of Practice in Finance/FinTech at the University of Birmingham Business School and Co-Director of the FinTech MSc Programme. She has been named as ‘Standout #35 Women in FinTech Powerlist by Innovate Finance’ for Policy and Governance 2019/ 2020/2021. Karen co-leads FinTrust, Finclusion, Agency, and the UKFin Network+ projects (GBP 8 million) with Prof van Moorsel to optimise trustworthy/ethical AI. A member of the Prime Minister’s Champions Group for Dementia, Corporate Digital Responsibility, Radix, IEEE Global Initiative Planet Positive and a Digital Poverty Alliance Ambassador, Karen seeks a balance between academia and practice towards an equitable digital society.

About UOB

University of Birmingham (UOB) is a major technology hub collaborating with organisational stakeholders and ecosystems to transform talent, skills, and expertise in digital technologies and data. UOB is a member of the Turing Institute, Rosalind Franklin Institute and Diamond Light Source addressing real-world challenges of sustainability, equality, innovation, and data-driven science. The Sustainable Financial Innovation Centre (SFiC) conducts interdisciplinary research and hosts degree programmes in financial innovation, FinTech and sustainability. 

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Keywords: fintech, financial services, metaverse, financial inclusion
Categories: Banking & Fintech
Companies: University of Birmingham
Countries: United Kingdom
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Banking & Fintech

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