How can smart cities become greener?

Professor Effie Kesidou, Dr Despoina Filiou and Professor Lichao Wu

Dr Effie Kesidou is Professor of Economics of Innovation and Sustainability at Leeds University Business School. Her research includes eco-innovations, the impact of international sustainability standards, and the role of city-regions and local knowledge spillovers upon firms’ eco-innovation and productivity. Dr Despoina Filiou is a Senior Lecturer in Strategy at the Open University Business School. Her research focuses on knowledge sourcing and exploitation across organisational boundaries, firm innovation, strategic alliances, collaboration and open innovation. Dr Lichao Wu is Professor of Economics at the School of Economics at Xiamen University. Her research interests are at the intersections of innovation and international business.

It is widely accepted that introducing environmental policies is essential for achieving Net Zero. More recent research, however, suggests that digital policies within the spatial context of smart cities (cities that use information and communication technologies to improve efficiencies and solve city-specific problems) are also crucial in helping countries in their mission to nullify carbon emissions and reach Net Zero by 2050.

Typically, firms do not absorb all the costs of the environmental harm they may potentially and inadvertently cause with their operations. Environmental policies that target emissions and penalise polluting firms are required to achieve greater fairness in an economic system. So, environmental policies can be effective in motivating firms to reduce waste and emissions. But such policies could lead to superficial investments in sustainable solutions jeopardising business competitiveness.

Our research reveals that digital policies in the context of smart cities can be aimed at motivating firms to adopt technologies that can instigate investments in substantial sustainable solutions, such as eco-innovations (innovations, whether they be products, processes or institutional structures, that promote sustainability and improve environmental performance). Digital policies include access to infrastructure for the collection, sharing and sophisticated data analysis. Access to such infrastructure supports firms to monitor resource use and waste management more efficiently.

Smart cities can embed the development of distributed energy grids, optimising the use of renewable energy. For instance, embedded in artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), distributed energy grids can improve the efficient use of energy and water, stimulating process eco-innovations, and improve production and distribution efficiencies.

Between 2006 and 2018, we undertook observations in 167 cities in China and looked at variations in green patenting performance (eg the number of successful patents for technology that address environmental challenges) of firms in these cities to capture their eco-innovation performance. We examined changes in these cities that took place over time after implementing the smart city policies and compared smart cities with cities that did not implement such policies. Our focus was particularly on the differential impact of digital policy over and above the impact of environmental policy instruments.

Our results show that both environmental and digital policies encourage eco-innovations. The impact of the dual policies acting in tandem also has a positive effect: environmental and digital policies complement each other and drive eco-innovations. 

The role of environmental and digital policies

Policymakers can use environmental and digital policies together to alleviate different types of barriers, such as the high cost of investment in eco-innovations, to a firm’s transition to sustainability. Using both policies could lead to an even bigger impact on eco-innovations compared to implementing the two policies separately. This is because the two policies complement each other, and their joint use can lead to synergistic effects.

Digital policies and technologies integrated within smart cities can facilitate accurate and efficient measurement and monitoring of pollution levels by the government. This enables regulators to increase compliance of firms to environmental regulations. Furthermore, firms seeking to avoid the costs of environmental fines and penalties will have greater incentives to invest in green technologies stimulating green patents.

For example, smart cities with stricter environmental regulations benefit from more efficient atmospheric pollution monitoring via sensor networks compared to ground monitoring stations. Emission data analysed with AI aids better forecasting and optimisation of resource use (eg energy, water etc). As a result, regulators can make more accurate decisions, identify firms that deviate from desirable environmental standards, and enforce penalty regulations. 

Our results highlight the long-term impact of environmental and digital policies on eco-innovations. Combining the two policies can steer cities to a path for sustainable development. Our analysis focuses on eco-innovations as they are captured in patents, which are highly relevant for manufacturing industries. It is worth noticing that focusing on manufacturing may miss out the impact on the sustainability of any other changes instigated by smart cities, such as smart governance and any changes in consumer behaviour (eg energy choices within households).

An effective avenue for achieving Net Zero is the creation of public digital infrastructure (such as AI and IoT) and building the expertise to overcome implementation barriers. Future policies can focus on building sophisticated AI to facilitate the process of innovation and problem-solving.

AI can offer tools to perceive solutions that exceed the capabilities of existing cognitive search tools, eg Natural Language Processing (NLP) focuses solely on linguistics and is used to analyse data produced by social data sources. Cognitive search is based on AI and uses a language-independent approach to analyse structured and unstructured data from different sources, which is very important, particularly for addressing complex problems such as sustainability. (Sustainability is so complex due to the intricate and interrelated nature of social, economic, and environmental factors that must be considered simultaneously.)

In conjunction with environmental policies, digital policies can play a critical role in achieving sustainability by helping to balance and optimize these factors in a way that supports long-term viability. By leveraging digital technologies, it becomes possible to monitor and manage complex systems, identify areas for improvement, and implement more effective solutions.

Read the paper: “Are smart cities green? The role of environmental and digital policies for Eco-innovation in China”, Despoina Filiou, Effie Kesidou, Lichao Wu, World Development Volume 165, May 2023, 106212        

IoD women’s leadership conference 2023 piece: You can’t be what you can’t see

From left to right; Dr Lynsey Quinn, Senior Manager – Skills and Partnerships (Ireland), The Open University, Lisa McLaughlin, Partner, UK & EMEA, Alternative Legal Services, Herbert Smith Freehills, Ashleen Feeney, Partner – Markets, KPMG in Northern Ireland, Rachel Steenson, Business Development Manager, Civica, Kirsty McManus, National Director, IoD Northern Ireland, Annette McManus, Group Marketing & Communications Manager, The Irish News and Q Radio, Cara Woods, CPsychol, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Advisor, Translink, Aine Condron, Marketing Executive, Charles Hurst Group, Edel Creery, Head of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement, NIE Networks

The challenge we face today at work and across our lives is the modern pace of change. There are many reasons why the world has changed. Our ageing workforce; technology advancements; COVID and the increased awareness of mental health impacts following the pandemic resulting in a mind shift change in how we live and work. In the face of business uncertainty; one thing that is certain – we’ve entered new territory.

Seismic change requires a new approach to people and skills development increasingly where sense of purpose and flexible ways of working are top of the agenda to drive a shared focus among policymakers, employers and learning providers about the importance of investing in lifelong learning for both companies and employees.

At the recent Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland Women’s Leadership Conference in March, over 500 accomplished women (and men!!) celebrated International Women’s Day including a number of Open University colleagues who work with industry. The one-day event, featuring world class speakers, was a welcome reminder of the importance of “keeping our minds OPEN to learning”. My mind was drawn to three key takeaway messages.

First, an open mindset. What got you to the position you are in isn’t necessarily what you will need to be successful in the role. Investment in self is key.  The benefits of investing in self / investing for the future through upskilling have been well documented.  There is a strong economic case for reskilling current employees or promising new hires including return on investment and retention management. Building key workforce skills now, for the future,  as well as confidence building for adult returners, developing skills to adapt to different jobs, across sectors for the new distance economy is paramount to cope with future challenges and aspiring to increasing levels of performance, ability and thirst to keep learning.

COVID has re-emphasised the importance of key life and work skills. For instance, resilience, critical thinking, adaptability and doing different with less in these leaner times, are all fundamental leadership skills, irrespective of an employee’s role, and can be considered a “no-regret” investment by employers; encouraging people to think different, act different, do different in the workplace, helping to develop high level work practices and competitive advantage. As educational leaders, we must take note of this trend in line with our values of being innovative, responsive and inclusive.

Second, role modelling the way.Colleagues role modelling the way for behaviours to be created – participating in learning and development and, critically, sharing the wins, as well as the challenges, along the way: essential yet engaging conversations, storytelling, mentoring, the power of case studies which very much speaks to the theme of the conference this year “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

I strongly encourage colleagues to undertake learning and allocate some time in their diaries for this regularly. Lifelong learning gives people the currency to support their own professional and personal development and autonomy to manage their development with increased confidence in what they’re doing and in what they can achieve.

Third, and, for me, my favourite quote of the day was “Education is your passport for life”. This speaks so well to our work at The Open University where accessibility is core to our mission, empowering as many people as possible, from a diversity of backgrounds to undertake learning with our no formal entry requirement criteria and early-stage confidence building through access modules study.

Last November we hosted a policy roundtable with the IoD Northern Ireland featuring senior female leaders from Deloitte, Manufacturing Northern Ireland, Young Enterprise Northern Ireland,  a former Further Education CEO / Principal and current non-executive director. At this session my call to action was to apply a genuine “learn and live” ethos across the age spectrum, eliminating the idea that learning is a youthful activity, making lifelong learning the norm beyond leaving school.

Undoubtedly  “You can’t be what you can’t see” boils down to the belief we have in ourselves. We need to see other people who succeed and the gentle reminder that “I can too”. Through the power of learning lives can be transformed. At The Open University through our rich suite of Openlearn content, a comprehensive range of under and post graduate modules in key subject areas, short accredited and non-accredited courses, isn’t that what we are all about?

Dr Lynsey Quinn, Lead Manager for Skills and Partnerships

Does being an introvert hamper your chances of making senior management?

Leaders don’t always have to be loud and bombastic. There is value in being an introvert, says Dr Jacqueline Baxter, a management professor at The Open University Business School.

There have been countless articles on extroversion and its links to senior management. One article showed 98% of top executives scoring high or very high on the Briggs Myers scale, the most common test used to evaluate your tendency to extroversion/introversion. But does being an introvert hamper your chances of making senior management?

Introverts and management

The traits of extroversion and introversion, first introduced by the famous psychologist Carl Jung, are generally characterised by extroverts’ garrulous outgoing and energetic behaviours, whereas introverted characters are more likely to be calm, reflective and often prefer the written to the spoken medium.

According to research, introverts bring a great deal to the table: they are generally willing to let their teams take credit for innovations and have not been found to be so motivated by money and power as extroverts, taking the long view, which is great for fulfilling long-term strategy.

They are also more likely to appreciate fellow introverts, and ambiverts (those that fall in the middle of the extrovert/introvert continuum). This is pretty important given that around 50% of the population tend to be introverts.

Better leaders?

The perception that extroverted individuals make better leaders is influenced by the fact that there are more extroverts in leadership positions, combined with the fact that extroverts are much more likely to tell you how good they are.

They are better at thinking on the spur of the moment and react quickly to on-the-spot questions often thriving in meetings and other forums where they are likely to be noticed and earmarked for promotion.

Research has found that extroverts’ positive outlook can make them more resilient to stress and more likely to bounce back from failure, both prized qualities in senior leaders.

Psychologist, Robert McCrae created a map of the world, showing the extent to which different countries favour introverted or extroverted qualities. Asian /oriental societies erred on the side of favouring introverted qualities in their leaders whilst Western cultures revealed the direct opposite.

Recruitment conundrum

Although it is generally accepted that recruitment in your own image is not the best strategy for leaders, all too often this is the case. Given the disproportionately high numbers of extroverted senior executives, this might explain their domination of the senior management levels.

In addition, some research indicates that  21% of extrovert leaders at senior and middle levels believe that extroverts make better senior leaders, and the percentage rises to 33% of ambivert leaders who believe this.

We’ve moved on since the days of Dale Carnegie

According to Susan Cain, who has looked at the history of introversion in her book, ‘Quiet leadership,’ the beginnings of the extrovert ideal in senior management came from the development of ‘the cult of personality,’ which began with Dale Carnegie in the US, way back in the early 1900s, when he sowed the first seeds of his now famous public speaking course.

The subsequent seismic shift in the ideals for leadership, resulted in a new set of qualities that added up to create the extrovert ideal, negating formerly prized values such as duty, morals and manners that had dominated public thoughts about the successful individual, replacing them with qualities such as: magnetic, forceful, energetic and have continued to do so.

Because of this, recruiters often imagine that an introvert would be poor at public speaking, be a poor networker, and lack the confidence to put their own opinions forward. Successful introverted leaders such as Bill Gates and Andrea Huffington prove that this is far from the case.

Extroverted skills may not come naturally, but they can be learned, as Dale Carnegie proved. In terms of networking, with great observation skills and natural ability to really listen to people, introverts can quickly establish interpersonal resonance and trust-sharing information in a one-to-one conversation. A very useful ability for leaders.

Business leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to predict if their business models will still be fit for purpose in three or five years time and the thoughtful qualities of the introvert can help them to more effectively scenario plan.In addition, introverts are more likely to value both introvert and extroverted skills on their team, giving both, opportunities to thrive.

With this in mind, it is probably high time we abandoned the extrovert ideal of senior management and looked at recruiting for different skills, those aligned more closely to introversion, or find ourselves stuck with an extrovert ideal of senior management, that may have had currency in Carnegie’s time, but is no longer fit for purpose in the business world of today.

Dr Jacqueline Baxter is professor of public policy and management at The Open University Business School

The role of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in developing practitioner/academic identities

Based on her research and experience as a practitioner turned academic, Professor Jacqueline Baxter, Director of the Centre for Research and Innovation in online learning at the Open University, talks about potential contribution of scholarship research on the professional identities of practitioners that cross over into academia.

All faculties employ individuals who have made the move from practitioner, to academic – whether teacher, business leader, lawyer, social worker or nurse – very often these individuals have attained seniority in their professional lives. Yet the literature on this transition illustrates that it is rarely straightforward. The move has implications for values and purpose whilst prior assumptions on academia can create a great deal of cognitive dissonance for the individual.  

Pedagogical research, or the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) is now a feature of the higher educational landscape, brought about in no small measure by policies that place a premium on evidence-based practice and knowledge exchange. Having employed SoTL as a mechanism to craft my own professional identity, here I discuss how SoTL can aid practitioner/academic transition, helping individuals make sense of their work and feel part of valued communities of practice.   

Hankering for the past when the present doesn’t satisfy

Concepts and beliefs about professional identity are wide ranging – from the arguments that identities are relatively fixed, to those that regard them as work in progress, malleable and adaptive. My own work over the past 15 years on this adopts the narrative perspective (Connelly, 1990), in which individuals make sense of their environment by carrying out identity work and creating and re-creating a rhetorical history that suits their purpose (Suddaby et al., 2016; Taylor, 2005). This approach also considers the field of organisational identity creation and the ways that individuals establish credibility within a field or role (Baxter, 2010, 2011; Baxter, 2012; Baxter, 2013). 

Transitions in HE are further complicated, due to the fact that there are so many ways to become and be, an academic – many practitioners even chafing at the term ‘academic’ as being a role that is divorced from the ‘real world’. In addition, we all enter HE complete with assumptions about what it means to be an academic. Once in post the challenges are myriad, ranging from the adaptation of value systems and norms (rarely explicit) to different status, authority, and accountability to that experienced in former roles. Bruce Macfarlane’s recent paper, offers a tongue in cheek account of some of the drivers and beliefs underpinning academic identities (Macfarlane, 2022). His diagram (figure 1, page 108), illustrates islands of practice on which the academic may find themselves, and the numerous different priorities and beliefs that drive and shape this nebulous role.  

The cost of identity failure 

The cost of not being able to find a way to ‘be’ in HE is high, and can result in lack of team spirit, mental illness, and finally attrition, as individuals return to former comfort zones in order to retain their equilibrium and sense of ‘self’, and autonomy (Chen et al., 2022). This autonomy, or lack of agency is characterised by low motivation, and can easily overlap into an individual’s personal life and worldview. As Boyd and Harris put it, ‘new lecturers are seeking credibility through knowing and constructing their pedagogy, but they pursue this within a complex and confusing context that involves a considerable amount of boundary crossing and uncertainty’. So how can SoTL help with this identity work? 

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) 

Individuals crossing over from any field, to academia often report they find it easier to create identities in relation to teaching and interface with students, this is particularly so for those on teaching contracts only who may come into academia without doctorates or much experience of research (Handley, 2005) Even if they have no research within their contracts, their natural curiosity can drive them to carry out SoTL research. So what can this offer them in relation to their professional, academic identities? 

SoTL explorations can range from investigations based on a ‘what works’ approach, straddling quality assurance/research, to theoretically robust scholarship which draws on theories and concepts of learning and engagement. For teachers, this allows them to investigate their own practices and concomitantly themselves, by exploring their area of interest in relation to other practices, other research accounts, other pedagogies and fields of thought.  

Crafting and creating academic credibility 

Teaching is a rewarding but sometimes frustrating occupation and despite our best efforts, students can and do disengage. Carrying out SoTL permits individuals to become more empowered by their research, engaging with others and creating narratives inherent within professional interest communities (Brown, 2006). This not only has the power to make them feel part of communities of practice, but moves them from the periphery to centrality, within these communities, a move known to contribute to both professional agency and expertise (Lave et al., 1991). 

Sadly, in many HEIs this research is often thought of as somehow not as powerful or transformative as traditional research. In my view, institutions need to think more creatively about this research and how to incorporate it within their practice, or risk lack of professional job satisfaction and attrition amongst ex practitioners. In addition, in light of the recent policy agenda on impact, engagement and knowledge exchange, failure to do so threatens not only the academic community within the organisation, but the very organisation itself.  

Professor Jacqueline Baxter is Professor of Public Policy and Management in the Department of Public Leadership and social enterprise at the Open University Business School. She is Director of the Centre For Research and Innovation in online business and legal education in the Faculty of Business and Law, lead author of the forthcoming edited collection, Creativity and critique in digital teaching: Exploring innovations in pedagogy in business and law (Baxter et al, in press). Her research interests lie in the areas of identity, trust and strategy as learning. You can find her on LinkedIn and read her blog here. She tweets as @drjacquebaxter


  • Baxter, J. (2011). Public Sector Professional identities: etiolation or evolution; a review of the literature, from 
  • Baxter, J. (2012). The impact of professional learning on the online teaching identities of higher education lecturers: the role of resistance discourse European Journal of Open,Distance and E-Learning, 1(2).  
  • Baxter, J. (2013). Professional inspector or inspecting professional? Teachers as inspectors in the new regulatory regime in England Cambridge Review of Education, 43(4), 467-487.  
  • Brown, A. D. (2006). A narrative approach to collective identities. Journal of Management Studies, 43(4), 731-753.  
  • Chen, Y., Currie, G., & McGivern, G. (2022). The role of professional identity in HRM implementation: Evidence from a case study of job redesign. Human Resource Management Journal, 32(2), 283-298.  
  • Connelly, M. a. C., J. (1990). Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5 (Jun-Jul 1990)), 2-14.  
  • Handley, D. M. (2005). The Best of Both Worlds: A Former Practitioner Transitions to Life as a Full‐Time Academic. Public Administration Review, 65(5), 624-627.  
  • Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation: Cambridge university press. 
  • Macfarlane, B. (2022). A voyage around the ideological islands of higher education research. Higher Education Research & Development, 41(1), 107-115.  
  • Suddaby, R., Foster, W. M., & Trank, C. Q. (2016). Re-Membering. The Oxford handbook of organizational identity, 297.  
  • Taylor, S. (2005). Self-narration as rehearsal: A discursive approach to the narrative formation of identity. Narrative Inquiry, 15(1), 45-50.

Can your habits and attitudes make you wealthy?

You don’t get rich by what you earn.
You get rich by what you don’t spend.

(Henry Ford)

Why are some people wealthier and better off than others? Given similar income levels, what predicts who will build greater wealth? Why are people of the same age and similar background factors so different in their wealth in later life? Well, Henry Ford was half right, what you don’t spend, and the factors that influence that, are important, but what you earn matters too.

We examined predictors of wealth accumulation in a large research study (over 90,000 UK adults). The variables that showed the strongest overall relationship to wealth accumulation were (largest relationships first): age, planning ahead, income and associating money with security. Income provides a base from which to save and invest and age represents the time in which to save and invest. However, the skills and habits of planning ahead and the emotional sense that money represents security rather than freedom, love or power helps determine ‘what you don’t spend’.

We know a great deal about the economic and social factors that influence higher wealth, for example, having the luck to be born to well-off parents and being part of a social group with good money skills. However, rather less research has been done on the individual differences in attitudes, financial capabilities and predispositions that influence wealth accumulation.

I collaborated with Adrian Furnham in a research study that drew on data from over ninety thousand UK adults1. We looked at three types of personal wealth: property wealth, savings and investments, and valuable items2. We first examined demographic factors (age, income, gender, and education). Then, controlling for these we looked at the additional influence of financial capabilities, the tendency to buy impulsively, and money attitudes.

What did we find?

First, the variables we looked at explained quite a lot of the variability in accumulated wealth; around half for savings and investments, two thirds for property wealth and about a quarter for the value of physical items.

The variables that showed the strongest overall relationship to wealth accumulation were (largest relationships first):

  • Age;
  • Planning ahead (one of the financial capabilities);
  • Income; and
  • Associating money with security, rather than freedom, power and status or love (the four money attitudes we looked at).

For the different types of wealth there were some interesting differences. For example, associating money with security predicted higher savings and investments but lower property wealth and valuable physical items. One explanation may be that those who associate money with security may be less inclined to take the risk of stretching their capacity to service a loan to purchase property, or to buy expensive items impulsively.

Although we did not find important direct effects on wealth for impulsive buying behaviour or education, there are indirect effects. Higher education levels are associated with greater income, which, in turn, influences wealth accumulation. Impulsive buying has a strong negative relationship with financial capabilities, especially planning ahead which is strongly related to wealth accumulation.

Why does it matter?

The results should be useful for those involved in financial advice, planning , counselling, and education, as well as those interested in building their wealth. Too much attention has been paid to the single variable of client risk-appetite within personal finance and not enough to other related attitudes and behaviours. These results also give insights for financial education, which needs to be not just about numeracy and basic financial knowledge, but also to engage learners in thinking about their attitudes to money and developing the habits that underpin sound financial capabilities.

by Mark Fenton-O’Creevy


  1. Fenton-O’Creevy M, Furnham A (2022) Money attitudes, financial capabilities, and impulsiveness as predictors of wealth accumulation. PLoS ONE 17(11): e0278047.
  2. We did not look at pension wealth since it is difficult to estimate for many survey respondents. However, we suspect similar results may apply to those for investments and savings.

How interest-free loans are helping the floods victims of Pakistan

“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)

On August 26, Pakistan declared emergency in the face of calamitous floods. According to the United Nations (UN), more than 1,300 lives have been lost, tens of millions of people are now homeless, one-third of this vast country is submerged under water, over a million livestock is dead and crops of this agricultural country have been wiped out. The UN chief was overwhelmed when he visited sites that are affected by floods on September 10, 2022, and labelled this natural disaster a ‘Climate Carnage’. The government of Pakistan has estimated the financial damage of over $30bn (£26bn), with the country’s most marginalised groups have been hit the hardest and least able to recover without help.

While all of this was unravelling, a Pakistan-based NGO (Akhuwat) begin offering interest free loans to the citizens of Pakistan to build-back. In fact, Akhuwat has been offering interest-free loans to the most marginalised groups of society since its inception in 2001. Their not-for-profit financial model enables interest-free borrowing without benchmarking a particular credit score or collateral.

A peculiar mind would wonder how this micro-credit financial model works, what is the rate of loan defaults and how it is sustainable? Interestingly, Akhuwat started with two small interest-free loans in 2001, and today it is one of the most prominent and inspiring microfinance organisations in Pakistan. It has witnessed exponential growth from a small-scale NGO and demonstrated some impressing figures with over 99 percent recovery rate on all of its loans.

In exchange of financial form of capital, Akhuwat relies on, and gains other forms of capital such as trustworthiness, community-building, volunteerism and “brotherhood” that has allowed Akhuwat to redefine the principles of micro-financing and wealth creation. Akhuwat’s success lies in its ability to build trust and its courage to place trust on the beneficiaries.

The aim of Akhuwat’s is to provide opportunities to the marginalised groups to become self-sufficient. The purpose of lending loans is to lift individuals out of financial poverty and to make them sovereign individuals. Akhuwat operates just like a kickstarter or a crowdfunding firm and is highly dependent on donations from the individuals and groups who trust in Akhuwat’s ability to provide opportunities to the marginalised.

Why Akhuwat matters in the face of climate change and falling capitalism?

Ravi Navalkant intellectually pointed out that capitalism is not something we have invented or discovered, it is intrinsic to human species – it is embedded in the art of keeping track of debits and credits for every exchange that we have as a flexible social animal. However, it has been hijacked by an unquenchable thirst of profits at the expense of the society, without much regard to traditional values, trust or moral and ethical considerations (but let’s not get into that debate).

One important aspect of Akhuwat’s operationalisation is its attention to local values and the ideas of mutual trust from ancient knowledge and religious principles. For instance, Pakistan is an Islamic country and interest is prohibited in Islam – the facilitation of no-interest loans gives confidence to the local grass-root communities to form partnership with Akhuwat, similar to the model of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh but without incurring interest charges. More importantly, the understanding of local values/knowledge and using sacred mosques and religious sites to disperse loans builds a form of self-accountability to the beneficiaries and their faith which might be irrational or unpragmatic to some Bank managers.

From the perspective of the West, where trust is rationalised through the mobilisation and institutionalisation of financial technologies, what’s unique about Akhuwat’s (re)distribution of wealth is its desire to re-build communities through beneficiary-centric accountability and self-determination (of its recipients) within its operations, rather than merely focusing on financial profits.

The underpinnings of Akhuwat’s unique and distinguished operational model reflects the broad meaning and possibilities of wealth creation other than financial form such as trusting relationships, community-good, paying attention to cultural values, self-determination, individual freedom and women empowerment to point a few.

In the age of accumulating debt, it is refreshing to see Akhuwat’s reliance on forms of capital other than financial and co-construction of a unique relationship with its beneficiaries that reinforces a sense of personal accountability to create more sustainable and long-term solutions to build back better with self-determination and compassion at its core.

Challenging current norms through trust

At a time of significant intellectual crisis in economics, the departure of Akhuwat from the traditional market-based approach of micro-credit schemes showcases how a high trust society can open new doors to redefine what is meant by wealth and capital and the notion of what it means to be rich in a context of climate change where human civilisation is at stake.

While some find purpose in ‘colonising’ Mars, other find peace in giving and philanthropy, the challenges related to sustainability can only be addressed through collective action, shared vision, supporting creative ideas, and identification of values that bring good to the society.

A mode of operation that is deeply contextualised and embedded in community values and trust has the potential to challenge the unsustainable norms of status quo and empower the marginalised.

While it has been pointed out that addressing climate change requires courage not optimism, it is crucial to recognise alternative ideas on political-economy that accumulates values embedded in social, human, natural and relationship as forms of capital, rather than just financial. Hence, poverty elevation, equal opportunities, education and self-determination were some of the key features to invest in Bjorn Lomborg’s “how to spend $75 billion to make the world a better place”. These values are extremely significant today in the context of eroding public trust on sustainable interventions by corporations and governments.

There is a lot to learn from organisations like Akhuwat and its importance in our society, not least to those who are in urgent need of financial, moral and humane support to rebuild their livelihoods following the floods in Pakistan.

A special thanks to Dr Anees Farrukh for useful feedback, important discussions, and suggestions on an earlier draft of this blog.

Anwar Halari 19/10/2022

Artificial Intelligence, Algorithms and Antitrust

Written by: Professor Suzanne Rab, Associate Lecturer at The Open University Law School, Faculty of Business and Law.

The debate around artificial intelligence or “AI” has attracted antitrust interest among academics, practitioners and regulators. In their book, Virtual Competition Professors Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke postulate the “end of competition as we know it” and call for heightened regulatory intervention against algorithmic systems. Reflective of the fast-moving pace of development in this area, Professor Suzanne Rab has recently authored chapters on Competition Law and Telecommunications in a book Artificial Intelligence Law and Regulation (Edward Elgar Publishing, March 2022). The book provides an extensive overview and analysis of the law and regulation as it applies to the technology and uses of AI. It examines the human and ethical concerns associated with the technology, the history of AI and AI in commercial contexts.

The AI antitrust literature reflects three broad themes or potential areas of antitrust concern. First, it is said that AI can widen the set of circumstances in which known forms of anticompetitive conduct, and particularly conscious parallelism or tacit collusion can occur. Second, it is said that use of algorithms will bring newer forms of anti-competitive conduct which challenge traditional antitrust orthodoxy with new (non-price) elements such as price discrimination, data extraction and data capture. Third, it is said that exploitation and deception are a feature of algorithmic markets which nudges consumers to engage in unfair transactions which call into question ethics and fairness but with which conventional antitrust regimes are not best equipped to deal.
The competition law implications focus on the facilitating role of algorithms and whether they may contribute or lead to anti-competitive outcomes. It considers (1) whether AI leads to anti-competitive outcomes or other concerns, (2) whether there might be another (not anti-competitive) outcome, and (3) views from the regulators on attribution of liability for AI decisions.

The main concern in the context of antitrust or competition law is that a specific type of AI – pricing algorithms used by firms to monitor, recommend, or set prices – can lead to collusive outcomes in the market in two main ways. Firstly, pricing algorithms may help facilitate explicit coordination agreements among firms. This is because the use of algorithms may make market conditions more suitable for coordination. For example, monitoring prices of other firms could be easier when algorithms are deployed. Secondly, under certain conditions, the use of pricing algorithms can lead to tacit collusion even without agreement to coordinate. This concern is founded on the principle that when many or all firms in the market use some similar and simple algorithms to set prices, their strategies can be anticipated by each other, making it easier to reach coordinated outcomes.

Mehra has focused on the facilitating role of algorithms stating that: “…to the extent that the effects of oligopoly fall through cracks of antitrust law, the advent of the robo-seller may widen those cracks into chasms. For several reasons, the robo-seller should increase the power of oligopolists to charge supracompetitive prices: the increased accuracy in detecting changes in price, greater speed in pricing response, and reduced irrationality in discount rates all should make the robo-seller a more skilful oligopolist than its human counterpart in competitive intelligence and sales…the robo-seller should also enhance the ability of oligopolists to create durable cartels” (Mehra, S. K. (2006) Antitrust and the Robo-Seller: Competition in the Time of Algorithms, 100 Minnesota Law Review, 1323-75.)

This suggests that algorithms can be a ‘plus factor’ which renders tacit collusion more likely, stable, durable and versatile by facilitating detection and retaliation at lower levels of concentration. However, this claim is not straightforward. Firms would still need to choose whether to use and stick to the same algorithms. The incentive to coordinate is not automatic just because of the existence of algorithms. Firms could still choose to undercut rivals for short term gain. Indeed, smart algorithms might try to cheat without being caught.

Contrary to the claims that AI is likely to lead to anti-competitive outcomes AI in general generates a wide range of efficiencies. For example, AI can be used to predict demand using past data and help firms to improve inventory management. In some areas, AI may be effective in replacing human labour for simple and repetitive tasks. Because of these efficiencies, the use of AI may have impacts on the demand for labour. To improve the performance of algorithms, more computer scientists may be required, while the number of manufacturing jobs may decrease as more tasks can be performed by machines. This is one example of increase in demand for goods and services complementary to the use of AI (e.g. servers and computing hardware), and decrease in demand for goods and services that can be substituted by AI (e.g. travel agents).

On the question of whether competition law is fit-for-purpose in an AI environment, there is no consensus among regulators. European Competition Commissioner Vestager has stated that: “…businesses also need to know that when they decide to use an automated system, they will be held responsible for what it does. So, they had better know how that system works” (Bundeskartellamt 18th Conference on Competition, Berlin, 16 March 2017). In terms of attribution of liability, the European Commission treats an AI decision-maker in the same way as a human and the business cannot escape liability by attributing conduct to a machine. It appears that the European Commission expects businesses to anticipate the possibility of an errant AI decision-maker and they must take steps to limit its freedom by design.

In contrast, the UK’s former Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) Chairman David Currie has expressed a less definitive view. David Currie has questioned whether the legal tools currently available to the CMA are capable of tackling all the challenges presented by the rise of the algorithmic economy, such as self-learning algorithms. This may suggest that the question of attribution of liability (under the UK competition regime at least) is ripe for reassessment should developments in AI advance to such a state.

On the specific issue of whether algorithms may facilitate anti-competitive outcomes, the CMA adopts a nuanced view. It has recently published an economic research paper on the role of pricing algorithms in online markets (Pricing algorithms, Economic working paper on the use of algorithms to facilitate collusion and personalised pricing, 8 October 2018 (CMA94)). The CMA also finds that algorithms can be used to help implement illegal price fixing and, under certain circumstances, could encourage the formation of cartels. However, the risk of algorithms colluding without human involvement is currently less clear.

The AI antitrust scholarship makes a bold claim that AI is an enabler of tacit collusion and could increase the scope for anti-competitive outcomes at even lower levels of concentration than traditionally associated with antitrust theory. However, even the brief examination of these claims in this article in the area of antitrust has revealed alternative hypotheses which need to be fully tested before the theory can be incorporated in policy and legal environments without running the risk of being counterproductive.

Professor Suzanne Rab is a Law Lecturer at the University of Oxford, an Associate Lecturer at The Open University, Professor of Commercial Law and Practice Chair at Brunel University London and a full-time practising barrister at Serle Court Chambers in London where she specialises in competition, EU and regulatory law.

Find out more about the book Artificial Intelligence Law and Regulation.

Addressing climate change is not just an environmental issue; it is one of social justice

Gillian Mawdsley, Associate Lecturer in Law, is based in Glasgow and is attending COP26 as one of the chosen representatives of The Open University.

I guess that most students, on reaching their third year of studying law at the OU, could not define clearly what the relationship between policy and law is. Unless, of course, they work for Government or a third sector organisation.

By choosing to study the module W360, ‘Justice in action’, students can undertake a range of Open Justice projects. These allow them to develop a background in pro bono work in addition to acquiring valuable skills such as problem-solving working in teams. These skills provide an understanding that the academic study of law is very different from the practical application of law in practice.

On W360 this year, students learnt about policy, in an online clinic. They contributed to probably the most important policy for our and the next generation. No, not Covid-19 which currently dominates our thoughts but climate change which is with us – now and for the future.

The students undertook research for the Environmental law Foundation (ELF), a charity, which aims to provide free information/guidance on environmental issues for individuals and communities. The students initially researched Councils in England and Wales to identify if they had made a Climate Emergency Declaration in acknowledging humanity is in a climate emergency. These were followed by making Freedom of Information requests to the Councils from which information was collated in a Report to ELF. They joined other universities who were undertaking similar research projects and were able to participate in conferences held together. ELF’s aim was to build a picture of Council and climate change action across England and Wales.

What’s in it for them?

The students may have been interested in the environmental matters before. However, by focusing on this project, this raised awareness of the topic for them and the need to accommodate climate change within policy development. That is particularly important given attention in the UK is heading towards COP26. That is the summit being held in Glasgow in November 2021 (delayed from 2020) bringing parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement (where the goal is to limit global warming to below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The project opened their eyes to other aspects.

Addressing climate change is not just an environmental issue; it is one of social justice. It is about basic human rights ensuring access to clean water, clean air, and shelter. Climate change affects those at the lowest end of society impacting on the vulnerable, being most susceptible to the effects of the weather and other climate events. They are least able and resourced to cope with that impact.

The students learnt about the intersection of law and policy. Policy is what a government does and achieves for society. Law sets procedures to be followed. It aims to achieve justice in the society. Working in policy, whether its creation, or implementation allowed them the chance to influence as well as developing an understanding of the iterative policy process.

Policy should “add value” and is a much-used term within Government. For W360 students and me, the tutor, taking part on this climate change policy -based project proved was an enriching experience. It was a journey of change on the cusp of COP26. Let’s hope that COP26 makes changes for the good of us all and society as a whole.

Gillian Mawdsley, Associate Lecturer in Law, The Open University
Gillian wrote this blog earlier in the summer after working with Open Justice students on a research project in collaboration with the Environmental Law Foundation.

What’s wrong with weddings?

Written by: Stephanie Pywell, Senior Lecturer in Law at The Open University Law School, Faculty of Business and Law.

Nothing at all, if the weddings are the ceremonies that couples want, conducted when they want, where they want, and by whom they want. But, according to Dr Stephanie Pywell, there is quite a lot wrong with the law that governs weddings, some of which existed before Queen Victoria ascended the throne.

The root of the problem

Parliament last debated some aspects of the law that governs weddings in England and Wales in 1836, when both were predominantly Christian countries. The law also still treats marriages in the ‘established’ Anglican church differently from all other types of weddings. This means that, for almost all couples, wedding ceremonies must be either completely religious or completely secular. That presents difficulties for couples who are unsure about their belief(s) in any god(s), couples who have different belief systems, and couples who want to honour their parents or community by including religious or cultural elements in a principally secular ceremony.

Another problem is that, because of the religious/secular divide, there are significant restrictions on who may conduct weddings and where they may do so.

And, in many areas of England and Wales, it is impossible to marry in a legally binding ceremony for the £127 that the law specifies. In others, couples must wait months. This is, arguably, a breach of a couple’s basic human right to ‘marry and found a family’.

The religious/secular divide

I read about a couple who had been told that their registrar-led wedding could include the traditional vows: ‘to have and to hold… in sickness and in health…’. The day before their wedding, a different registrar phoned the bride and told her those words were ‘too religious’, so they would have to say, ‘to hold and to have’ and ‘in sickness and when we are well’ instead. On their wedding day, the groom stumbled over his amended words, and the bride ‘got the giggles’, marring the dignity of the occasion.

To investigate the religious/secular problem, I was privileged to work with Professor Rebecca Probert from the University of Exeter, the leading expert on weddings law in England and Wales. We conducted two surveys – one involving couples planning civil weddings in register offices or the approved premises that host’ venue weddings’, and one involving registrars. We asked what vows, rituals, readings, and music couples would like to include in their wedding ceremonies and whether registrars would feel able to include their choices, given that the law states ‘[a]ny proceedings… shall not be religious in nature’.

Rebecca and I discovered a lot of variation in the readings and other content that registrars immediately recognised as ‘religious’; this differed even between registrars working in the same registration service. This confusion – and the resulting inconsistency, unfairness and distress to couples – arises because the content of each wedding ceremony has to be approved by the superintendent registrar who will conduct it. Our findings led one registration service (every local authority has its own service) to develop resources that categorise readings and music as religious or secular. The service continues to develop that resource and has offered to share it with other registration services in its region.

Who may conduct weddings

The myriad restrictions around weddings have led to a growth in independent ‘wedding celebrancy’. Wedding celebrants conduct personalised wedding-style ceremonies that have no legal effect. These events can take place more or less anywhere, at more or less any time of day or night, and can include more or less anything the couple wish them to include. They can encompass any theme and include blends of civil, religious and cultural elements tailored to couples’ beliefs and lifestyles. I conducted the first survey exploring celebrancy by directly asking celebrants what they do and why and how they do it.

Most of my respondents ensure that couples know that the ceremonies they conduct are not legally binding – this is crucial because married couples have many legal rights that are not available to unmarried cohabiting couples. I was concerned, though, that many celebrants refer to their ceremonies as ‘weddings’ or ‘marriages’. As a result of my work, the Wedding Celebrancy Commission – an umbrella organisation for celebrants’ membership organisations and training providers – tightened its professional standards: celebrants are now required to explain the non-legally binding nature of their ceremonies.

My survey showed that most respondents’ fees are similar to those charged by registrars and by celebrants who conduct legally binding weddings in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Jersey. I established that most respondents would be willing to pay for formal registration that would enable them to conduct legally binding ceremonies if Parliament changed the law to allow this. This led me to propose elements of a legal framework for widening the choice of people who can conduct weddings.

The cost of getting married

At the other end of the personalisation scale, a couple has the right to marry in any register office for a total of £127 (more, if one or both of them is not a UK national) in a short and simple register office ceremony attended only by them, two registrars and two witnesses. I explored the websites of about one-fifth of the local authority areas in England and Wales to see how much such ceremonies cost, and how easy it appeared to book them.

My research revealed several issues of concern. First, minimal ceremonies were not readily available – in some areas, they could be arranged for only one morning per month. Some very rough calculations suggested that, in Herefordshire, there is one minimal ceremony slot each week for 139,800 people, while in neighbouring Powys, there is one for every 928 people.

And one in three of the 34 websites that I explored did not mention that it was possible to marry for £127. Some registration services appeared to charge this amount, but nine charged non-refundable ‘booking fees’ ranging from £27 to £120. In Windsor and Maidenhead, the cheapest advertised ceremony was £321, including a booking fee and marriage certificate. So couples in some areas are effectively denied the right to a quick and inexpensive wedding.

The impact of COVID-19

In August 2020, Rebecca and I ran an online survey into the effects of the first pandemic-related lockdown on couples’ wedding plans. Our findings reinforce our view that Parliament should, as a priority, reform the law.

We found that the first lockdown affected all types of weddings – even those planned for the latter half of 2020. Couples reported huge levels of stress and expense associated with changing their plans. We have suggested some specific legal changes that would enable more weddings to go ahead, perhaps in a changed form, in any future national emergency. On 20 June 2021, the Government announced that outdoor weddings would, subject to some restrictions, be permitted at ‘approved premises’, at least from 1 July 2021 until April 2022.

What next for weddings law?

The Law Commission is a statutory body that reviews and recommends changes to the law. The Consultation Paper for its ongoing Weddings project cites my work 18 times, and the Commission sent me a personal invitation to respond to the proposals in that document.

I hope that policy-makers will see my empirical findings as reinforcing the need for what the Commission describes as ‘a reformed law of weddings that allows for greater choice within a simple, fair and consistent legal structure’.

Marriage is important in most cultures, so couples should be able to begin marriages when and where they wish, in whatever way is most meaningful to them.

It’s time to talk about menopause in the workplace

Written by: Jo Brewis, Professor of People and Organisations at The Open University Business School

Menopause, when a woman’s periods stop for good, and they can no longer become pregnant, is a normal stage in most women’s reproductive lives. Typically beginning in a woman’s 40s, the average age for women in the UK to reach menopause is 51. However, one in a hundred women experience menopause before 40. Some will also go through sudden onset menopause because of surgery such as a hysterectomy which includes the removal of the ovaries, or medication like Tamoxifen, used to treat breast cancer. The experience and symptoms are different for everyone, ranging from unpredictable periods, poor sleep and hot flushes to loss of concentration and difficulties with recall. Around 25% of women experience severe and debilitating symptoms that significantly impact their ability to do everyday tasks and their overall quality of life. It is also important to point out that not everyone who experiences menopause identifies as a woman. Some trans men and gender non-conforming people will also transition through this reproductive life stage. I only use ‘woman’, ‘women’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ here as placeholders.

A workplace taboo

So why is talking about this inevitable, universal, and usually natural transition in every woman’s life still taboo in our workplaces? Even worse, why did a 2019 survey find that 370 000 women going through menopause had either left their jobs or considered leaving their jobs because of menopause symptoms?

In 2017, I was lead author on the UK Government Equalities Office (GEO) commissioned report ‘The impact of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK’. We found that, despite being an experience that 50% of the world’s population share, women still feel afraid or embarrassed to talk about menopause at work. My co-authors and I even reflected on how our experiences of writing the report mirrored many of the findings in the research we reviewed, especially around menopause as a taboo and gendered ageism in western organisations.

Employers have a moral responsibility to recognise that menopause happens and that it can be challenging for those who experience it. Thanks to the Equality Act and the first successful employment tribunal to prove unfair dismissal due to menopause-related under-performance, they also have a legal obligation to ensure they don’t discriminate against women going through this transition. If that’s not enough of an incentive, doing the right thing also helps organisations’ bottom lines. It costs an average of £30,000 in recruitment and training to replace a woman who has to leave work because of her symptoms, not to mention the valuable experience they take with them. And women of menopausal age are also among the fastest-growing workforce groups in the UK and elsewhere.

Improving employers’ attitudes to menopause

During the past few years, I’ve been working with innovative professional services consultancy, Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, to help public, private and third sector organisations develop best practice around menopause through workplace awareness events, training for line managers, HR and Occupational Health professionals, and communication and engagement toolkits. I regularly present at Henpicked events and always share the latest findings from my research with the team there.

Their work has reached millions of employees, not only in the UK but as far afield as the US and the Netherlands, and diverse employers from the NHS to high street retailer Next and HSBC UK.

This work has demonstrated how inexpensive and straightforward support mechanisms can make a huge difference. Allowing women to wear uniforms made of natural fibres or to work in an office with natural light, providing USB fans or supplies of cold drinking water and sanitary protection all helps. Specialist occupational health support can be more expensive, but women will probably only need it for a short time. Every UK worker already has the right to request flexible working after six months with the same employer, which can help women cope during menopause transition. This flexibility will be especially relevant after the coronavirus pandemic.

I’ve helped the Universities of Leicester and Salford develop their first-ever menopause policies with these things in mind.

[The policy] has encouraged managers and colleagues to openly embrace how changes to working schedules and environments can be altered so to assist women with symptoms, enabling them to continue to be productive in the workplace.

Jeanette Seale, Finance Officer, University of Salford

I am also now a member of the expert panel which evaluates organisations’ applications for Menopause Friendly Accreditation. During our recent first meeting, it was inspiring to see how applicants are supporting their menopausal staff.

Changing the conversation

Through my work, I’ve spoken at events for employees from diverse organisations, from global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

I think people are a little bit scared to discuss the menopause, particularly men, however the tide is turning, as a result of work by people like Jo, and also with many female celebrities starting to become more vocal publicly. Only by normalising the conversation will that fear start to abate.

My employer now has quite a comprehensive webpage with information around the menopause. The support I was initially worried about did exist, but now it is more clearly signposted.

Nicki Metcalfe, Finance Director for Global Categories, GlaxoSmithKline

RSPB now has a dedicated menopause support section on its intranet, a digital menopause support group and has advertised its first virtual menopause event to its more than 2,000 staff.

Pushing the policy agenda

Engaging directly with employers and employees is critical to changing workplace attitudes to menopause and improving support for mid-life women in individual organisations. But it’s also essential to work with those organisations that shape attitudes across entire sectors. It has been so rewarding to help Business in the Community, the London-based responsible business network, enhance understanding among its more than 350 member organisations by co-authoring its Menopause in the Workplace toolkit.

Our academic team has also collaborated extensively with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to evaluate UK workplaces’ menopause awareness. Surveying thousands of employees up and down the country and further afield, we found that 10% of organisations have menopause policies in place. This sounds like a small number, but it is an indication that we are moving in the right direction. When we started researching menopause at work in early 2016, there were very few, if any, with this kind of provision in place. We’ve used the insights from the survey to support union members in raising menopause awareness with their employers, building support networks, and implementing beneficial policy changes.

A demographically pressing issue

Let’s be clear. I don’t think mid-life women workers should receive special treatment unless risk assessments find they need it. Nor do I ignore the fact that men have mid-life experiences which can be equally challenging. But what is clear to me is that we must continue to normalise women’s menopause experiences, so they feel comfortable speaking about it at work, without fear of judgement. It is also critical that we make employers understand that this issue will only become more pronounced as the working population ages.