By Matthew Bishop, Journalist & Innovator

Today our world seems increasingly troubled. We are living in a time of “poly-crisis,” with the Covid-19 pandemic followed by unexpected high inflation, signs that climate change may now be hitting hard, and probably more misery of various kinds to come. Violence and war, and the threat of both, are on the rise. Change is accelerating everywhere, a lot of it apparently for the worse — and even change that could potentially be hugely positive, such as the rolling out of new generations of Artificial Intelligence, brings with it possibly massive negative (maybe existential) consequences. So it is hardly surprising that in many countries the public’s trust in mainstream leaders and key societal institutions is unusually low.

This may matter more in 2024 than in most years. Elections loom in many of the world’s most significant democracies, including India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Britain (no later than January 2025) and, above all, the U.S. In each case, trust and distrust will play a crucial role. Will AI turbocharge the recent trend for fake news and targeted misinformation to drive mistrust and polarization? How much will efforts to weaken the public’s trust in the operating systems of democracy influence voter behavior?

Above all, how will divisive populists who build trust in themselves by championing their own tribe while demonizing outsiders (so-called “othering”) fare against candidates seeking to build trust more broadly through policies that aim to unify voters, not divide them? The recent elections in Argentina and the Netherlands provide a stark reminder that a certain type of crowd-pleasing populist, promising to take a chainsaw to the political mainstream, can still win big.

How leaders can retain and build the sort of broad-based trust needed to successfully navigate the massive geopolitical, economic and technological changes now under way is the theme of this third annual collection of essays for the Edelman Trust Institute, “Evolving Trust, Embracing Change.”

Much of the change now underway is unstoppable. But trusted leaders can help manage the process of change so that its upsides for humanity and the planet are maximized and the downsides limited.

As our essays show, our understanding of how to be a trustworthy leader in times of change is evolving rapidly, in very practical ways.

In politics, for example, unifying leaders should focus on rebuilding trust by repairing a social contract that in much of the world is badly broken, argues economist Eric Beinhocker. This is especially true where rising inequality and other evidence of unfairness has left a lot of people “feeling screwed.” Crucially, these politicians must acknowledge that the social contract is indeed broken, if they are to channel the justifiable anger at that failure in more productive directions than the populists are doing. Focusing on finding instances where trust remains alive — more often at a state or local level than nationwide — and building on that is likely to work best, he argues.

If trust is low within countries, the world’s multilateral governance system is trusted even less. The COP process, for example, is widely distrusted because countries don’t stick to their goals or provide transparent information on how they will reach them. But Brazil has an opportunity to restore trust in COP, as it prepares to host in the heart of the Amazon in 2025, argues Marina Grossi of the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development. One big idea is that Brazil should showcase ways to simultaneously tackle climate change and deliver economic development, for instance by incentivizing local people to steward important carbon sinks, such as rainforests, rather than chop them down.

Consistent messaging is crucial to building trust. When the British government hosted global leaders at an Artificial Intelligence Safety Summit in November, it chose a symbolically perfect venue: Bletchley Park, where cutting edge technology was deployed to break the secret codes of the Nazis and so help the Allies to victory in the Second World War. But British prime minister Rishi Sunak undercut his own message of reassurance by conducting a fawning pre-summit on-stage interview with Elon Musk, regard by many as exactly the sort of rampaging capitalist governments need to be tough on if AI is to be deployed safely. Days later, the farcical firing then rehiring of Sam Altman as chief executive of Open AI raised further questions about whether today’s tech leaders, and the monied interests behind them, can be trusted to roll out this game-changing innovation in ways that produce positive benefits to humanity, rather than court catastrophe.

For lessons in getting the AI rollout right, look to the history of the internet, which celebrates its 50th birthday next year, writes Mei Lin Fung. With “father of the internet” Vint Cerf, she cofounded a non-profit, the People-Centered Internet, to refocus this world-changing technology less on just making money and more on making human life better. In the same spirit, she calls on governments and business to prioritize working together to ensure that AI benefits everyone, not least by closing the digital divide (which on current trends, AI seems likely to increase significantly). She also urges corporate leaders to tread carefully with AI. Time and again, she says, when a cool new technology breaks through, businesses mess up by deploying it without really understanding it, often with negative consequences for employees, customers and shareholders alike.

Another new technology with huge potential benefits for humanity, but which also generates high levels of distrust, is mRNA-based drug innovation. This made a triumphant breakthrough during peak Covid-19 by delivering the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. In his interview with me, Noubar Afeyan, the cofounder and chairman of Moderna, described Covid-19 as an unprecedented case study in how “with social media, mistrust can be weaponized.” Given the high probability of future pandemics, and other global disasters, he says there is an urgent need for a serious effort to learn from the pandemic – what worked, what didn’t – so that next time, a lack of preparedness, particularly by government, does not lead to further mistrust and chaos.

The pandemic added to a long-term fall in trust in the K-12 education system in many countries, as parents were frequently disappointed by the response of schools to the challenges posed by Covid-19. For many people, school is their most common exposure to the public sector, so declining trust in schools may be contributing significantly to lower trust in government more broadly. Policymakers would therefore do well to prioritize rebuilding trust in schools, argues Rebecca Winthrop of the Brookings Institution. This should include an overhaul of the curriculum to focus more on teaching the skills needed to thrive in the 21st Century; and a push to increase trust at the personal level between students, families and school staff, including training teachers to communicate better, especially with parents. “Longitudinal studies in the U.S. have shown that the existence of trusting relationships between communities and schools – namely school leaders, teachers, and families – makes it ten times more likely for a school to be improving students’ outcomes across academic learning and socio-emotional wellbeing,” she notes.

Several essays present accounts of the author’s personal trust-building efforts. A fast-growing “trust-based philanthropy” movement aims to reverse long-established top-down power dynamics between charitable donors and beneficiaries. Zainab Salbi and Casey Rogers describe the many challenges they faced putting this into practice at Daughters for Earth, a new fund and movement launched with Jody Allen in 2022 to support women-led climate action. They were particularly struck by the extent to which, despite the best intentions, their foundation staff displayed a lot of unconscious distrust in the competence of the women on the frontlines to whom they were supposedly yielding decision making authority. However, since they discovered ways to overcome this distrust, the power shift has gone well.

Margaret Talev, a veteran journalist who now leads Syracuse University’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship, is working to build trust and reduce political polarization by helping people become better consumers of news and so avoid being manipulated by the agenda of any individual news provider. This is a task for everyone. “Yes, news organizations, governments, non-profit groups and schools and universities can and should organize media literacy and civic education and engagement efforts,” she says. “But ensuring they really take requires creative and sustained involvement from major employers and people working in marketing, technology, professional sports, food, music, entertainment, and the military. And not just ‘leaders’ like CEOs, or ex-presidents, or Taylor Swift, or somebody else who isn’t you.”

As a precocious climate activist, Rena Kawasaki had developed a deep distrust of older people, especially Japanese business leaders, who she had criticized in a documentary calling out corporate greenwashing. This started to change when, at age 15, she was hired as the Chief Future Officer at Euglena, a Japanese biotech firm. Her work at the firm centered on transforming the corporate culture by fostering engagement between Gen Z people, like herself, and older colleagues.

Later, the city government of Tokyo sought her help in engaging young people in policy discussions. In 2022, Kawasaki was awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize for her work in bridging the generation gap.

Still only 18, Kawasaki is the sort of young leader who readily inspires trust. Fred Swaniker is currently training around 250,000 young leaders a year in Africa, through the three arms of his AL Group that he has founded since 2004: the African Leadership Academy, African Leadership University and ALX. His goal is to equip them to “meet the global challenges posed by AI, climate change, geopolitical fracturing, and deep-rooted inequities in health and wealth.”

The key to this, he says, is showing future leaders how to “put building and maintaining trust at the core of their mission,” particularly in order to make a difference at scale. Being trustworthy is crucial to running a big organization like AL Group, and like Sand Technologies, the for-profit AI business he is now growing. Swaniker expects Sand to have 1 million employees in Africa within 15 years and over $40 billion in revenue, a good part of which will be used to train many more trustworthy African leaders.

Other parts of the world would do well to copy this bold African innovation. Ambition on this scale offers us all some welcome grounds for optimism as a pivotal new year begins in unpromising circumstances. We desperately need leaders willing to find more convincing ways to inspire our trust. We hope this collection of essays will at least give them some practical ideas.



Trust After COVID: A CEO's Lessons

Noubar Afeyan in conversation with Matthew Bishop