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Trust is fraying in the digital age. How ‘trust anchors’ could help

Image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Chizuru Suga
Director for Digital Economy, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan
Teruka Sumiya
Project Specialist, Agile Governance, World Economic Forum, C4IR Japan
Jonathan Soble
Editorial and Communication Lead, World Economic Forum, C4IR Japan
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This article is part of: Global Technology Governance Summit
  • Trust is needed to keep society functioning – especially in a digital age.
  • Rapid social and economic change, political divisions, and disruptive technologies have frayed trust.
  • New collaborations and approaches are key to rebuilding the trust needed to keep society resilient.

A functioning society is built on trust. Whether we’re drinking water from a faucet, riding an elevator or sending an e-mail, we’re trusting that somebody, somewhere, has taken the necessary steps to make sure that activity is safe.

Yet today, our shared foundation of trust is under strain as never before. Rapid social and economic change, deepening political divisions, and the disruptive impact of new technologies are stretching the limits of traditional systems of trust-building. Governments, businesses and civil society are struggling to keep up.

Our changing digital age has made it harder and harder to know just whom to trust. Is the person or company you’re dealing with real or just an online facade? Is the video you’re looking at genuine or a deepfake? Where exactly does your data go when you share it? There’s no way to fact check everything, creating anxiety. If people can only trust what they’ve seen and touched, or people they’ve met personally, society can’t function. The system is under strain and we can no longer take trust and trust-building for granted.

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Understanding trust and its role

When we talk about trust in the context of governance and the adequate functioning of societies, we mean the assumption of goodwill and safety that’s necessary for basic human interactions. Those could be commercial transactions, or cooperation to solve some kind of collective problem. Trust can be personal—trusting someone you know. But since most people in society are strangers, it’s often mediated by a third party: the government, a company with a trusted brand, and so on.

At the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, my team and I spend a lot of time thinking about why trust is fraying, what it means for society and what can be done to repair it. We’ve distilled our answers in Updating Governance Mechanisms for Rebuilding Trust, a white paper on the topic of trust and governance.

In our white paper, we looked at the relationships and processes that create trust in society. What we found was a kind of chicken-and-egg problem: Authorities can’t govern effectively unless people trust them, but people won’t trust them unless they have a proven record of effectiveness and trustworthiness. A whole “trust chain” has to be created link by link.

This task is made more difficult by the ever-accelerating speed of technological change. Take autonomous vehicles, for example. They need a track record of safety before they'll be considered truly trustworthy, but the technology is advancing so quickly that self-driving cars are already on the roads.

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‘Trust anchors’ and why we need them
In our research, one conclusion we reached is that society needs “trust anchors” to help us make the leaps of faith needed to keep progressing and innovating. A trust anchor is a widely recognized authority whose endorsements engender trust.

Today’s trust anchors can’t just be governments. For better or for worse, states and their institutions don’t command the automatic respect they once did. That’s why we need to strengthen the ability of companies and civil society to be trust anchors, too. For trust and governance to function in the digital age, a wide range of people and groups need to participate in the process.

In our white paper, we propose a new Trust Governance Framework that can serve as a guide to building trusted and effective governance models in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This framework breaks down the trust-building process into its component parts, and maps out relationships between actors, goals and actions in this circular, self-reinforcing process. It distinguishes between trust (the subjecting sense we have that something is good and reliable) and trustworthiness (the objective deservingness of trust, supported by evidence and a track record), and shows how the two interact.

The framework can serve as a guide for public officials and private-sector leaders alike as they seek to update governance systems for the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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Trust anchors in action
A recent international initiative that has taken an inclusive approach is CommonPass, a travel health app that’s being developed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The project is led by the Commons Project, a non-profit, non-government group, and being supported by range of governments and companies. Trust is at the core of it—it’s designed to be a widely accepted form of health certification, like a medical passport. But unlike a passport, its reliability doesn’t come from the say-so of one issuing government or international agency. Instead it’s the product of an open, diverse initiative. Initiatives like CommonPass, if they succeed, can widen the circle of trust in society and create new and enduring trust anchors.

"It’s necessary to change organizations’ mindsets, implement concrete operational mechanisms to facilitate the process, and nurture new capabilities in both business and governance entities."

Of course, change won’t happen overnight. Governments need to become more flexible and agile to create space for this new kind of governance. The private sector, too, will have to adjust by taking on new kinds of responsibilities.

It’s necessary to change organizations’ mindsets, implement concrete operational mechanisms to facilitate the process, and nurture new capabilities in both business and governance entities.

These changes are critical. Trust is both a glue and a lubricant, holding society together and allowing its many parts to move smoothly. If trust can’t be made suitable for the digital age, the digital age won’t function.

Such mindset shifts will not happen just once – they will evolve with society’s needs. That is at the heart of the trust and governance project: constantly finding new ways to maximize the reach and power of trust across different stakeholders. It’s an effort that has to be horizontal and cross-sectoral. In a new age, there is no single guarantor of trust. It’s a responsibility all stakeholders must share and prioritize.

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