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:
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.