In this opinion piece, Fellow of Social Innovation Noa Gafni shares her view on the global decline in trust and how to rebuild this.
Trust in the system has decreased in recent years, stimulated by the rise of exponential technologies. Radical transparency has exposed rising inequality and corruption. Social media feeds have been fuelling the fire on political polarisation. And artificial intelligence is taking away jobs from humans while, at the same time, being built by humans with their biases and perspectives. It is no wonder that many of us are sceptical and pessimistic.
General state of distrust
This is a time of great change, and with uncertainty comes distrust. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer report, the general population’s trust in all key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media —declined generally in 2017, something that hadn’t been seen since Edelman began tracking trust in 2012. For the business world in particular, which relies on public trust for its license to operate, this is particularly concerning.
The private sector has forced us to question its motives and assume the worst. The 2008 financial crisis sparked protests as well as massive regulation changes. The public was shocked and frustrated as the financial sector acted unethically, bringing themselves down and the global economy with it.
But at the moment trust is even lower than it has been before and we have to ask ourselves “why”? Trust is defined as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. In a world where everything is changing as a result of exponential technologies and what some people call “the fourth industrial revolution”, it is hard to have firm beliefs in institutions that are struggling to keep up.
And it is not that trust has disappeared altogether. Many people are suggesting that, as trust is moving away from institutions and experts, it is moving to people. Trust is now becoming peer-to-peer. Researcher Rachel Botsman, who studies the sharing and collaborative economy, says we are moving into an age of “distributed trust.”
Evolution of the business sector
We are far from a world where institutions are irrelevant. I believe we need them, now more than ever. We just need them to evolve. The business world shows how this evolution can look like, as it is adapting to the 21st century and the changes that are coming along with it. And this is happening with a combination of technology and people power — a new type of human-machine collaboration.
As technology becomes more intelligent and complex, people are needed to add nuance. There have been some embarrassing examples of tech without human intervention: Amazon’s Alexa has offered adult content to children, automated YouTube campaigns were displayed alongside homophobic content and a chatbot that learned from Twitter became a white supremacist in less than a day.
The private sector is changing and recognising the need to win back people’s trust. Traditionally, the sector begrudgingly reacted in response to campaigns from activist organisations like Greenpeace, new regulation and rebuking from courts. But as a new generation of employees and consumers comes to the fore, businesses are recognising their need to adapt. Fifty per cent of the world’s population is under the age of 27, and millennials are expected to represent approximately 75% of the world’s workforce by 2025.
The millennials’ push
As consumers, millennials are focusing their spending power on brands that make a social impact. Three-quarters of millennials believe it’s important that a company gives back to society instead of just making a profit. Over half will pay a premium for sustainable products and check the packaging for sustainable labelling. And more than 90% would switch brands for one associated with a social purpose. It is clear that companies need to do more than adopt corporate social responsibility– they need to make social purpose a core component of their value proposition.
As employees, millennials believe that the private sector, in particular, has a responsibility to behave ethically. Only 16% of millennials see themselves with their current employers a decade from now. With many labour market challenges taking place, the traditional relationship between large corporations and long-term employees is becoming a relic of the past. Millennials expect companies to compensate for this increasing uncertainty in the workplace with pro-social behaviour.
The private sector is waking up to young people’s expectations and taking initiative accordingly. Leaders like Richard Branson and Paul Polman are building a ‘Plan B’ to ensure business becomes a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit. According to them, Plan A – where business has been motivated primarily by profit – is no longer an option. They are taking a stand on climate change, tax dodging and other issues where business can play a key role.
Across all aspects of the private sector, technology is playing its part, from finance to health and energy. The sharing economy, circular economy and collaborative economy are bringing new ideas and a different way of doing things, and traditional business is working hard to keep up, operating with greater transparency, embracing ethical behaviour and giving customers more control.
Even though we know that all sectors have work left to do in rebuilding trust, I am optimistic. I spend much of my time connecting with the entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and extrapreneurs who are rebuilding society from the ground up, inside out and outside in. It is this hybrid approach that makes me confident we will see the types of systemic changes that will make a real impact.
The world will be home to 9.7 billion people by 2050. We cannot afford to ignore technology, nor can we expect technology to solve all our problems. When we work together, using technology and human capital to rebuild trust, we’re creating a better future for all of us.
Noa Gafni, [email protected]
Noa is a Social Innovation Fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School and the Founder and CEO of Trust Collab, a platform focused on rebuilding trust in society. She has 15 years of work experience at the intersection between people and technology, working with online communities in support of social change initiatives. She is currently writing a book on the topic of rebuilding trust. Noa is also a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post and New York Times.
References Coombs, W.T. and Holladay, S.J. (2002) ‘Helping crisis managers protect reputational assets’, Management Communication Quarterly, 16, 165–186
 Paul Tracey and Neil Stott (2017) Social innovation: a window on alternative ways of organizing and innovating, Innovation: Organization and Management, 19(1): 51-60, freely accessible at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14479338.2016.1268924