Communications firm Edelman released its annual Trust Barometer report last week to coincide with the gathering of world leaders at Davos. As the most influential, powerful and wealthy were gearing up for a week of talks focused on the future of capitalism and meeting the global goals, the Barometer provided stark insight into the challenges we face. Fifty-six percent of people believe capitalism does more harm than good. Forty-eight percent believe the system is not working for them. Most people feel pessimistic about their futures. And, perhaps most tellingly, the ‘trust gap’ – the difference in levels of trust between the ‘informed public’ (the wealthier and more educated), and the general population – is growing.
The report also sheds light on some of the drivers of distrust – many of which are related to technology. Eighty-three percent worry about the future of work, with the concern being driven by several tech-related factors, namely the gig economy, a lack of opportunities to retrain and learn new skills, and automation. What’s more, respondents reported that they feel tech is out of control, citing the pace of change, concerns about being able to tell what is real and what is fake, and a lack of confidence in government to effectively regulate as the reasons behind these fears. And as an industry, technology had the biggest year-on-year fall in trust.
While the report gives us valuable insight into trust trends over the last year, business leaders and governments have shown signs that these issues are becoming central to their agendas. In August last year, the Business Roundtable declared that they were changing the definition of the purpose of a corporation from making as much money as possible for shareholders to improving the world. In Europe and the UK, if not so much yet in the US, government is taking more action to regulate technology and tax tech firms (see the UK’s new code protecting children’s privacy online). And businesses and governments alike are launching retraining programmes to address displacement caused by automation.
These moves give me hope, but we must move quickly to do much more. The growing lack of faith in the capitalist system that defines most economies is one that is increasingly driven by advances in digital technology that is too often developed and deployed without a thought for its impact on society. Combined with the growing trust gap between the ‘have-nots’ and the ‘haves’, this presents a massive threat to society and business: this distrust of capitalism and the trust gap contribute to more instability, more divisiveness. On the other hand, the promise of technology to improve people’s lives is still real. For example, from breakthroughs in healthcare to the momentum of the green tech economy, technology is helping to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Encouragingly for business, action will be met with real reward: reskilling efforts will pay off in the short-, medium-, and long-term by providing a workforce better equipped for the jobs of the present and the future, closing the skills gap and creating a détente in the battle for talent; and employees already trust their employers more than they trust business in general, the media, NGOs or government to get things right when it comes to addressing societal concerns, according to Edelman. So they may be more willing to go along with the changes that are needed if they can see that corporate efforts aim to address those concerns.
Technology leaders and makers clearly have a tremendous role to play in changing the public’s perceptions of tech, but we must also work to address some of the headline issues highlighted in the 2020 Barometer. Taking a more thoughtful, ethical approach to the development and release of technology, and one that considers economic, social and environmental impacts over different time horizons, will be critical to rebuild trust, and will contribute to the healthy and stable economic and social environment all businesses rely on for growth. So too will ensuring they are investing in a healthy future by addressing the maker/user divide (where there are too few people from too few communities creating technology and disproportionately benefitting from tech business), levelling the playing field by investing in skills and in new businesses with diverse founders.
As Davos came to a close on Friday, Børge Brende, World Economic Forum President, outlined some heartening commitments including a ‘reskilling revolution’. With most of 2020 still before us, it’s time to set our intentions and start to take action, focusing on building and sustaining trust by ensuring more people share the rewards of innovation, and that innovations better address the issues that affect all of us, not just the few.
Jen Rodvold is Head of Digital Ethics & Tech for Good at Sopra Steria. To learn more about what Sopra Steria is doing to help its clients create and implement ethical technology, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.