Trust and Tech

Simon Mainwaring

December 12, 2021

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Of late - and for obvious reasons - there's a ton of talk about trust in our institutions. Maybe it only seems true that business doesn't suffer as much as governments from a diminishment of public trust owing to the kind of disinformation people perceive from the media, private sector, and public officials. The obvious fracturing and polarization of the information ecosystem evident in recent US political campaigns will - and already does - extend into business communications and relationships.

And I'd argue the upcoming exponential advancement of supercompetitive AI and next-level machine learning is going to only accelerate a disinformation ocean that's already swamping the average consumer's consciousness, mostly through social media. Even our experience of "reality" has bifurcated, thereby stymying our ability to solve for common global challenges. If we can't even agree on the world we live in, how can we possibly fix it?

The handwriting (and code) are on the wall: Disinformation, deliberate or unintended, is going to be a huge obstacle to all authentic connections in the near future - it already is. And this will inevitably continue to erode trust in companies reliant on authentic communication.

When we look further into the last six years' worth of ETB reports, we see that erosion of trust in all institutions, including business, followed by an attrition in trust specifically of CEOs and other business leaders (with people trusting only other employees and peers). Given the life-or-death upheavals and polarization of 2020-21, people don't even trust each other anymore. But the 2021 study revealed a rise in expectations on the part of consumers toward the business world. Consumers across all demographics understand just how determinative business can be as a force to make their lives and the greater world far better - or worse.

Seventy percent of all respondents say that trusting a brand is more important today than in the past. And even more - 74 percent - say a brand's impact on society is a reason why brand trust has become more important to them. Finally, "81 percent say personal vulnerability (around health, financial stability, and privacy) is a reason why brand trust has become more important." Business leaders cannot disentangle their "Me" interests with the interests of the collective We.

Such data on the corrosion of trust provides a blow-by-blow account of exactly why we need more Lead With We processes and collaborations in place - and why they will, on the whole, work wonders. Capitalism as traditionally practiced in the West has increasingly failed to meet the expectations, hopes, and needs all stakeholders - of the common We.

A few months into the pandemic, a special appendix to Edelman's twentieth annual survey uncovered that a mere 38 percent of people trusted that business was doing well or very well at putting people before profits. That's unacceptable. We must take responsibility for this perception, and the actions we leaders are taking to contribute to it. Lack of trust in business hinges heavily on a legacy of generalized skepticism of monolithic and powerful institutions, as well as a multitude of tangible, traceable causes. Well more than half of people globally think capitalism does more harm than good, with only 20 percent believing the system is actually benefiting them.

Seems strange to suggest the solution to all these trust conundrums is in fact, more and more advanced technology. At the least, "tech triumphalism" isn't nearly as problematic as pure, naked market worship.

Many companies are innovating technology as fixes for the climate emergency and our other interconnected long-term challenges. In fact, I argue that only business boasts the creativity, technology, and ingenuity to solve such complex problems at scale and pace.

Consider Atlanta's modular flooring giant Interface, which continually innovates tech in pursuit of environmental sustainability. Its outsized investments revolutionized the manufacturing of tile, transforming its flooring products - and its industry and beyond - forever. All because it's driven by the purpose of helping to restore the health of the planet through new technology. All because Interface and the coalition it co-founded trusted that we can reverse the climate emergency through sheer human ingenuity and some change of perspective - if everyone works together.

There are thousands of great examples of business innovating and collaborating for the good. For example, let's look at Berkeley, California-based startup Air Protein, which engineers a meat alternative through NASA-inspired fermentation technology that transforms C02 - the toxic byproduct we emit into the air through the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation - into a complete edible protein.

Such innovation isn't just nice to do. We must transform the remedial into the preventative through this kind of "space age technology." Lead product innovations that are net-positive. How about Moonshot, a startup food brand committed to "climate friendly" snacks? Or Timberland, which, along with scores if not hundreds of other legacy companies, vowed to transform into a 100 percent net-positive company by 2030. It's achieving progress through circularity. And regenerative agriculture, including working with partners on the ground in Thailand to help scale a dynamic agroforestry system for growing its natural rubber.

Unlike the similarly eco-minded Modern Meadow (Transforming the material world) whose groundbreaking product line, ZOA, was pioneered in its lab, made from a bio-alloy, and assembled with engineered proteins and bio-based polymers. Its premium material looks and feels like high-quality, designer leather (we could call it "vegan leather"). The applications across myriad industries are legion. No cow had to suffer and die - with no wide environmental footprint crushing our future. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn-based "cellular agriculture" company is transforming not only the fashion space, but the manufacturing industry, and science in general.

It's not alone. Companies are awakening, for example, to animal-less fur, dairyless dairy, and fabrics constructed out of various recycled waste. Salvatore Ferragamo sells scarves created from orange fibers. For Adidas, Stella McCartney and her partner, California's Bolt Threads, is perfecting faux silk outfits made from proteins inspired by spider-web DNA. In addition to its "eco-canvas" and "eco-suede" lines of shoes made from recycled materials, Vivobarefoot's X Bloom Collaboration created the first ever pair of shoes - The Ultra III - made from harvested algal biomass - a major damager of the health of the world's waterways. Every pair helps re-circulate fifty-seven gallons of filtered water back into natural habitats, even as it prevents the equivalent of forty balloons full of CO2 getting released into the Earth's atmosphere."

Such exciting innovation and societal impact are by no means restricted to clothing designers and manufacturers. Consider the Air Company of N.Y. City (Goods that do good.). It set out to tackle one of the planet's most vexing problems: anthropogenic climate change. And it wound up patenting some world-changing technology, indeed. Its debut product, Air Vodka with Natural Flavors, is not only a sugar-free, carbohydrate-free, gluten-free, impurity-free, high-quality and sustainable spirit. It's also carbon-negative - so its impact is indisputable. For every bottle of Air Co. vodka produced, the tech removes one pound of CO2 from the atmosphere. And that tech can be used across industries and sectors.

No industry is off-limits to a trust transformation through a Lead With We mindset and methods. But, to provide viable alternatives to the stranglehold that companies and politics have on business, we sometimes need to innovate a completely new (and proven viable) ecosystem solution that represents a total reboot of the system. The Arkansas-based B2B/B2C Cooks Venture is reinventing the entire poultry industry with national distribution of its pasture-raised, "slow-growth" heirloom chickens.

There is perhaps no more remarkable exemplar of consumer trust in business driven by tech than Big Pharma. Tech innovation combined with high-level, cross-sector collaboration is the secret behind how several wildly effective COVID-19 vaccines came to fruition in astoundingly record-breaking time in 2020 and 2021, with many more in the pipeline, including notable collaborative efforts - all accelerated by the Chinese-Australian release of the genetic sequence of the virus even before there was proof of human-to-human spread. In fact, Moderna's vaccine had already been made and shipped to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to start clinical trials a full month before the first US citizen died of the corona virus. Big Pharma suddenly became a host of heroines and heroes riding in on white horses, rather than a greedy dragon as previously perceived.

This is how whole industries become transformed and how the world transcends old paradigms. Business and society engaged in an imperative cultural conversation, e.g., "How do we save human lives from this virus?" and a consortium of business, science, and citizens rose to the occasion with creativity and the kind of pre-competitive collaboration responsible for most of our lives online. Not only did these advancements, propelled by collective purpose, save humanity from the coronavirus, but they also will potentially save us from various cancers and other ailments that wouldn't have received this level of scientific activity had it not been for this big step forward. They also restored the average person's trust in business and technology.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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