EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Stewart has just returned from SXSW 2017, where he moderated a panel on trust in the tech sector that featured veteran journalist Dan Rather; Shaw DuBravac, Chief Economist of the Consumer Technology Association; John Kim, President of HomeAway; and Zoe Schlag, Executive Director of UnLtd USA. Below, Michael explores the technology findings of the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer and their implications for the industry.  

In 2016, the world experienced a profound crisis of trust, one that has led people in many countries to reject the established order and act to change it in dramatic ways. British voters rejected the EU, Italian voters rejected a constitutional amendment, Colombians rejected their government’s FARC peace treaty, and the U.S. elected a president who vowed to “drain the swamp” of the political establishment and dismantle trade agreements and long-standing global alliances. Similar populist movements have gained ground in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

In the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, we measured a series of societal and economic concerns commonly associated with populist movements and found broad agreement that these concerns are true. In fact, a significant portion of the population found them to be so prevalent that we describe them to be not just concerned, but fearful. As a result, 53 percent of respondents globally believe the system is failing them.

This wave of anti-establishment uprisings and lack of faith in the system have profound implications for businesses across all sectors — and the tech industry is not exempt, as the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found. What’s more, the societal and economic fears that are fueling increased nationalism, protectionism and a clamp-down on immigration — in many cases — have their roots in technology-driven disruptions.

Yet, as a sector, tech continues to enjoy the advantage of a high level of trust. Again, this year, the sector is trusted in all but one of the countries we surveyed and by 76 percent of the general population. But there is no room for complacency. This trust is an asset that should not be taken for granted and it does not take much digging to discover some warning signs:

  1. Tech flat while other sectors rise: For the six years that we have been measuring trust in technology among the general population, trust in technology has consistently hovered around 75 percent. While this makes tech the most trusted sector, other sectors have almost consistently seen an increase in trust in that same timeframe. For example the energy, consumer packaged goods and telecommunications sectors have gained 9, 6 and 5-points respectively during that period. Even financial services has gained 11-points from its low following the Great Recession. The tech sector must continue to replenish its trust bank to maintain its historic leadership position.
  2. Deficit in trusted behaviors: Tech companies fall short in some key trust-building behaviors. People are not convinced that the tech sector is adequately transparent and authentic in how it operates, nor are they clear on how technology is contributing to the greater good. There are also growing concerns about how effectively the sector is protecting their data. These gaps between what stakeholders identify as important and the performance of the sector  directly undermine the values of openness and inclusivity that the sector historically has embodied.
  3. Some innovations yet to earn trust: The more well-established technological innovations, such as those in the telecommunications, mobile sector and the Internet of Things, are now in the trusted category – with IOT achieving a 17-point increase in trust in just the past year. This indicates that the work the industry has been doing to ease concerns and articulating benefits in these innovations is paying off. However, a number of recent innovations, such as driverless cars and blockchain, remain distrusted, while even the reasonably well-established sharing economy is still in the neutral category. More worryingly, nearly half (49 percent) of respondents believe technological innovations are happening too fast and are leading to changes that are not good.

Trust is an asset that businesses must earn every day. And given that the tech sector must earn trust every time an innovation is introduced, no industry needs this asset more. But without trust in the broader system, the tech sector cannot build trust in highly disruptive technologies such as blockchain, or job-changing innovations such as driverless trucks. Therefore, tech must act to ease broader societal and economic fears by collaborating with other sectors and institutions to restore trust in the system.

Specifically, technology companies must commit themselves to setting a strong example of transparency, inclusion and ethical behavior and do more to not only highlight the benefits of innovation but also be candid about addressing the risks. For example, if automation disrupts jobs, what can tech companies do to lead on issues like job retraining?

When tech talks about being open — it should be about more than an operating system — it must also be about an open society that values the free exchange of ideas and information equitably across all societies. And in an era where peers are more credible than CEOs, technology companies can earn trust by facilitating that free exchange via a peer-led conversation among customers and employees. When a company motivates and inspires its employees, they will become its most important ambassadors, helping a company earn trust both within the enterprise and far beyond.

Michael Stewart is global vice chairman, Edelman.