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Workshop: Consumers in the Knowledge-Based Economy

Date: 20 - 21 April 2006


This workshop will look at the opportunities and challenges posed for consumers - as well as for policy makers concerned with consumer welfare - by the knowledge based economy(KBE). Some of the crucial issues for consumers relate firstly, to the new skills which they need in order to participate in the KBE; and secondly, the assets, such as computers, that are needed to participate fully in many of the 'virtual' aspects of the modern marketplace. From the perspective of policy-makers, one set of issues relate to changes in consumer protection strategy. Policy is increasingly aimed at informing and educating the consumer. The relationship between this new approach to policy making (which seeks to educate the consumer) and the more traditional forms of consumer protection that placed greater emphasis on controlling trader conduct, needs to be explored. In addition, the underlying assumption about the level of consumer literacy which is required in order for consumers to enjoy the opportunities represented by the KBE, and be able to take a more proactive role within consumer protection, needs to be examined, if not problematized. Our particular focus, therefore, in this workshop will be on how vulnerable consumers cope with the KBE and we pose the question "what creates and/or constitutes consumer vulnerability in the KBE?".

The KBE opens up challenges, as well as many opportunities, for citizens operating as consumers in both 'real time' and 'virtual' marketplaces. A significant range of resources are required to participate in the KBE. In terms of skills, many of the electronic and technological tools needed to participate in the KBE require consumers to develop new technical skills. In terms of financial resources, computers and mobile phones are expensive products. In terms of expertise, consumers have to learn how to search for and then choose from amongst a range of technological products (e.g. computers) and allocate their household and family resources accordingly. Lack of access to the internet can dramatically reduce consumer's choices in terms of online channels; whilst texting is needed for many other activities central to the lives of younger consumers (e.g. buying tickets for Live 8). The implications of the gaps between resources and the KBE, represent firstly, potential difficulties for disadvantaged individuals and communities; secondly, potential sources of stress for inter-generational relationships; and thirdly, important issues around consumer socialization (do children learn consumer skills from their parents (e.g. allocation of resources); or do parents learn consumer skills from their children (e.g. learning to search the net for information; this skill transfer process is known as 'reverse socialization').

From the perspective of policy makers, there has been a fundamental shift of emphasis within the KBE towards a policy of providing consumers with information so that they are able to protect themselves. One sees this with a host of regulatory rules requiring disclosure; and the sister concept of cooling-off periods can also be viewed as part of this strategy. This applies especially in areas governed by EC law such as distance selling, timeshares, package travel tours as well as in such well known areas as food law. But it even applies in relation to public goods, where we are supposed to compare school and surgeon tables; and in utilities, where we should seek out the cheapest supplier.

There are a host of issues surrounding how consumers gain knowledge. Regulation of advertising, and its relationship to information, have always attracted keen interest. However information is increasingly being provided by regulators. This raises an important set of issues in itself; for instance one particular problem has been the unwillingness to release negative information. As well as information, regulators are increasingly seeing themselves as having a responsibility to educate consumers, witness the Consumer Direct initiative. An important example of this is the Financial Services Authority which sees itself as having an important role in educating consumers about financial service products. The place of consumer and money management education in the school curriculum is another important area which needs to be explored.

Underpinning these developments is a yet to be fully explored debate about the extent to which information and education are part of a broader change in consumer protection strategy. What consequences does this new change of emphasis have for consumer protection? How do these new changes relate to traditional forms of regulation and liability? Is the government increasingly seeing its role as ensuring consumers are informed and educated and then wanting to leave the markets greater freedom?

The remit of this workshop is deliberately open-ended and in-keeping with the IAS's aim to provide distinguished scholars with 'time to think' on crucial contemporary issues in a rich and supportive interdisciplinary environment. The emphasis is on thinking and dialogue rather than the presentation of finished papers - although the aspiration is to edit a book or journal if participants feel this is appropriate.

We will meet rail fare (advance purchase super saver fares) and overnight accommodation on campus on a first come first served basis.

We have a draft programme and will add speakers as these are confirmed:

Draft Programme

>Thursday 20 April

11.00-13.00 The vulnerable consumer in a KBE

"From the right to education to the right to information and back again" Geraint Howells (Lancaster University)

"Consumption Lives and Vulnerable Consumers: Care leavers and their transition to independent living" Sally Hibbert, Maria.G. Piacentini and Margaret K. Hogg

"Empowering Vunerable Consumers in the KBE: taking forward policy, knowledge and a new Alliance for Consumer Education" Carole Brennan

14.30-17.00 Financial Service, Vulnerability and the KBE

"Financial education in schools" David Milman (Lancaster University)

"Disclosure, Information and Education: Consumer Protection in Banking" Peter Cartwright (Nottingham University), Toni Williams (Osgoode Hall) and Iain Ramsay (Osgoode Hall)

Friday 21 April

9.00-11.00:The Internet, Vulnerability and the KBE

11.15-12.00 Open session for papers not fitting into above themes and general discussion

12.00-13.30 Video link with Acadaemia Conference on European Consumer Law in Istanbul

14.30- 15.30 Future research agenda

Maria Piacenti Lancaster University (Marketing) TBC.


Who can attend:


Further information

Organising departments and research centres: Law


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YD
United Kingdom

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