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Who do you trust?

Most of us, if pressed to answer that odd yet supremely important question, would compose rather short lists. Our family members, maybe. A few close friends.

In reality, though, we trust far more people than that. Total strangers, for example: “This taxi driver is competent behind the wheel and will take me where I want to go.” We trust faceless businesses: “This item I bought online will arrive in the mail as promised.” Though we often claim we don’t, we often trust the government — whose regulators, courts and other instruments of authority are, after all, the ultimate guarantors of our safe taxi rides and properly fulfilled online purchases.

Indeed, almost all of our decisions involve trust. Whether we’re drinking water from a faucet, riding an elevator or sending an e-mail, we’re trusting that somebody, somewhere, has taken the necessary steps to make sure that activity is safe.

Yet today, our shared foundation of trust is under strain as never before. Rapid social and economic change, deepening political divisions and the disruptive impact of new technologies are stretching the limits of traditional systems of trust-building. Governments, businesses and civil society are struggling to keep up.

Simply put, trust — of the minimum, baseline sort we need to keep society functioning — is something we can no longer take for granted.

Jonathan Soble spoke with Chizuru Suga, head of the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, and Teruka Sumiya, a project specialist at the center and co-author of “Updating Governance Mechanisms for Rebuilding Trust,” a recently published white paper on the topic of trust and governance, about why trust is fraying, what it means for society and what can be done to repair it.

When we talk about trust in the context of governance and the adequate functioning of societies, what exactly do we mean?

CS: It’s the assumption of goodwill and safety that’s necessary for basic human interactions.

The interaction could be a commercial transaction or cooperation to solve some kind of collective problem. Trust can be personal — trusting someone you know. But most people in society are strangers, so often it’s mediated by a third party, such as the government or a company with a trusted brand.

In the digital age, it’s harder to know who to trust. Is the person or company you’re dealing with real or just an online facade? Is the video you’re looking at genuine or a deepfake? Where exactly does your data go when you share it? There’s no way to fact check everything, and that creates anxiety.

So why is the the World Economic Forum focusing on trust?

CS: Because the impact is so huge. If you can only trust what you’ve seen and touched, or people you’ve met personally, society can’t function.

Even if you could verify everything yourself, it would take all of your time and create massive transaction costs.

Ultimately, we need some kind of third-party authority or system to act as a guarantor of trust. But the traditional ones we’re used to — governments, the media, and so on — don’t have the trust-building power they used to, and often aren’t equipped for the digital age. So we see things like coronavirus conspiracy theories, or people insisting the world is flat. Those are signs of deeper systemic strain.

The open, distributed nature of Cocoa, the Japanese government's contact-tracing app, lends to its trustworthiness in a time of uncertainty. | KYODO
The open, distributed nature of Cocoa, the Japanese government’s contact-tracing app, lends to its trustworthiness in a time of uncertainty. | KYODO

At the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, we have projects looking at a wide range of topics related to the governance of technology — things like health-care data, mobility and smart cities. After a while, we realized that everybody was working on a common underlying problem: the need to rebuild trust.

How do we deploy artificial intelligence ethically? How do we make sure smart-city infrastructure benefits everyone? How do we support data-sharing across borders? These questions all boil down to trust. So we decided to focus on this core issue and try to develop a common understanding and a common language across disciplines.

Teruka, you co-wrote a research paper on the subject. What did you find?

TS: We looked at the relationships and processes that create trust in society.

Not personal trust — trusting people you know directly — but the more systemic kind. We found a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. Authorities can’t govern effectively unless people trust them to some degree, but people won’t trust them unless they have a proven record of effectiveness and trustworthiness.

There’s a kind of “trust chain” that has to be created, link by link. And with new technology, that process can be too slow to keep up with the development of the technology itself. Autonomous vehicles, for instance, will need a track record of safety before they’re truly trustworthy, so what do we do in the meantime? We need third-party “anchors” of trust to help us make that leap of faith. And it can’t just be governments; we need to strengthen the ability of companies and civil society groups to be trust anchors, too.

How do we do that?

TS: The only way to do that is transparently and inclusively.

We’re no longer in an age when authorities could simply command trust. They have to be open, their actions have to be evidence-based and they have to be accountable. Additionally, they have to include a wide range of people and groups in their rule-making processes.

Our own research team took a cross-sectoral approach: the white paper is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum, Hitachi and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. And we want to continue this broad-based dialogue at the Global Technology Governance Summit (GTGS), a major World Economic Forum event taking place on April 6 and 7, with Japan as the official host country. One of the things participants will be talking a lot about is trust.

Are there any examples in real life now of the kind of digital-age governance that you advocate?

TS: One example is Cocoa, the contact-tracing app offered by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

It grew out of an open-source project by Code for Japan, a nongovernment, nonprofit “civic tech” group. The development process was very different from the closed, top-down style that you might expect of a government initiative. The open, distributed nature of it makes it more trustworthy, I think, in this day and age.

CS: That really is the heart of it — how can we maximize the circle of trust. It has to be horizontal and cross-sectoral, because if it wasn’t obvious before, the pandemic has shown that governments alone can’t be full guarantors of trust. In April, the World Economic Forum is holding the Global Technology Governance Summit. Japan is the main host nation. We want it to be a showcase for this inclusive, multi-stakeholder approach to rebuilding trust in the digital age. In the upcoming Global Technology Governance Summit, we want it to be a showcase for this inclusive, multi-stakeholder approach to rebuilding trust in the digital age.

Chizuru Suga is head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, and leads projects related to health-care data policy, next-generation mobility, smart cities and other fields. Previously, Suga was an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Jonathan Soble is the center’s editorial and communications lead. Teruka Sumiya is a project specialist at the center. This is the sixth installment of a series in collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) Japan, which will explore how the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the need for a reset of the world’s economic and social systems.

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