Financial services have so many possibilities to do so many good things.

Dr Karen Elliott on her utopian vision and why solving the financial inclusion problem is like eating an elephant.

Dr Karen Elliott is an Associate Professor in fintech at Newcastle University Business School. She has been named as Standout #35 on the Women in FinTech Powerlist for her work on the governance of fintech within the digital economy, digital society and responsible innovation. A specialist in ethics and AI, her work has included collaborations with some of the industry’s biggest and brightest minds, including the UK’s first digital-only bank, Atom Bank.

We’ve got big financial companies changing and thinking about where we need to go.

She’s also an eternal optimist and confident that a fairer, more inclusive financial services system can be achieved.

“I am optimistic because I’m starting to see different organisations come up with good intent. We’ve got big financial companies changing and thinking about where we need to go. We’ve got the Financial Inclusion Association which is pressurising and lobbying the government on the things they need to address.  We are starting to make inroads, and people are coming up with wonderful, ingenious innovation.”

A socio-technologist, Karen focuses on the interplay between society and the impact of digital technologies. As an ambassador for the Digital Poverty Alliance, her vision is one of an equitable digital society, for all, not the few. 

“It might be a bit of a utopian view by some people that we would be roughly equal. But I think if we work together, we can do it. I work with the Digital Poverty Alliance looking at stage one - how we get people connectivity. Then people like the Good Things Foundation give some free skills in the community and within a trusted learning environment. Collectively, we can do it.”

As one of the few experts working on the front line of inclusion, some of the projects Karen’s involved in are truly groundbreaking. 

“I was speaking to people this morning about trials that are in South Africa where data providers have changed their business model to provide some free data to people who really can't afford it. So that's all in the pipeline. Some of this is really emerging and cutting edge. No one's a real expert in this. People have got the expertise, and we link together to make an expert experience. There are lots of people like me who are passionate about the issue.”

If the government really want to start tackling this problem, they need to collectively attach these networks of people who are doing things and not make them fight over the same funding every year

Yet, on the Upfront podcast, she appealed to the government to do more to help.

I was on sabbatical last year and found this fragmented ecosystem of really passionate people doing great work. But guess what? What are they fighting for? Funding. The same pots of funding. If the government really want to start tackling this problem, they need to collectively attach these networks of people who are doing things and not make them fight over the same funding every year so that they get this money to do good stuff.”

As a leading authority in fintech, Karen provides insight to the UK government to help it develop policy recommendations. She was appointed as a specialist adviser to the Prime Minister’s Champion Group for Dementia Friendly Communities, where she works with partners in the group to identify the points at which those with dementia and their carers experience difficulties dealing with banks and other financial services organisations. It’s something that is close to her heart.

“I've lived with my mother's dementia now for two and a half years and seen the difficulties and how hard it is to manage - the human problem. How do we do financial inclusion for someone with dementia? If you solve it for someone with Dementia, you solve it for a lot of other people as well because the necessary safeguards and checks will be in.”

It’s this understanding of the lived experience that Karen says will help the industry get to financial inclusion.

“I was a single parent for 12 years, and that changed my financial profile. The number of times I got asked, can you still use a reference to your ex-husband? No. Oh, right. Well, you can’t have that. That’s just a small example that gave me some insights into, well, if that happens to me, what if? Tech is brilliant, but we need to understand humans first. Tech is the enabler to address some of the problems we have to face to get to financial inclusion.”

Karen remains ever-dedicated to working on what she says is one of the industry’s ‘wicked problems’.

“By wicked, I mean they’re never fully resolved. They’re always going to be there. But we can manage them in chunks. It’s like eating an elephant. How do you eat an elephant? One chunk at a time.”

Tech is the enabler to address some of the problems we have to face to get to financial inclusion.

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What I love about financial services

Financial services have so many possibilities to do so many good things. I'm really excited about what the next steps are for open banking and open finance. I love seeing the joy of people being in control of their finances, whether it's through technology or just helping as I do people who've got dementia. The financial services industry is the heartbeat of how we work. It overlaps with society and with technology. It’s got infinite possibilities used in a responsible way.