Published April 13, 2021
Over the past few months, we have seen in the West the emergence of new fault-lines of our systems, shedding lights on the vulnerability and fragility of our social contract. Beyond the growing divide and enhanced polarization, we are also witnessing the growing underlying role of social media as an amplifier of beliefs and behaviors. Digital platforms and tools that are supposed to “bring people closer together” seem to instead further accentuate differences and spread misinformation.
In this context, exploring different facets of “digital trust” emerges as one of the promising ways to understand the limitations of our systems and identify where promising opportunities for intervention lie. How can we concretely contribute to building trust in a polarized world? What is the role of digital technology in creating trust? How can we influence the technology sector to ensure technology delivers on its promises to be a force for good and inclusion? What is the role of startups, academia and venture capitalists in creating digital trust through multi-stakeholder collaboration? These are some of the questions that were explored on Wednesday, March 24 during the kick-off event of “Trust Valley Meets Silicon Valley”.
Leveraging the final stages of Trust Valley’s Tech4Trust startup acceleration program, this event gathered different experts from Switzerland and the Bay Area, two leading global hubs in technology leadership and cybersecurity. Beyond an event, the conversation was engineered to showcase the multifaceted facets of digital trust and think about ways to concretely move from ideas to action. Thanks to cutting edge insights from tech executives, government officials, startups, academics, venture capitalists and humanitarians, the following 6 key insights emerged from the discussion.
1. Digital Trust should be first and foremost about society
The relevance of digital trust doesn’t have much to do with technology as much as it is about living together. It would be easy to focus on the digital technology component of our lives, and not acknowledge that trust is something bigger, something we already practice on a daily basis, as we trust people, companies and organizations every day.
We have this race of new things and new capabilities, which is really just amazing, but all built with a very weak institutional foundation for what's trustworthy, because it was all so new.
From this broad society-based understanding of trust, we can then specifically look at the form trust takes when considering technology. As Mozilla’s CEO Mitchell Baker warned: ”we have this race of new things and new capabilities, which is really just amazing, but all built with a very weak institutional foundation for what’s trustworthy, because it was all so new.”
2. Digital Trust should enable individuals to take action
It is not only about consuming technology products and services. It is about citizens taking action in an informed manner. According to Glynn Capital’s Heather Loomis, our use of digital technologies is similar to our visits to the grocery store. “We select the things that are healthy for us, that contribute to our wellness. We should view technology the same way and critically assess it in light of the impact it has on us”.
Given the complexities of technology, however, it is “hard for people to understand it and make tech companies accountable for how their products influence our choices and behavior”, a crucial point raised by Harvard’s Yves Daccord.
3. Education is therefore one of the key requirements of digital trust
It allows citizens to better understand and use the technologies we have available. Questions of data ownership and privacy are closely linked to this dimension and call for more programs ensuring people are equipped to choose wisely and express their voices if they don’t agree with the offer.
4. Digital Trust has to do with system-thinking
Regulating technology firms may be limited in its efficiency without vision of how the overall system should function. Indeed, the real challenge may less be about “fixing the system” than “creating a new system” where trust is at the center of each interaction. Different alternatives to our current technology system exist, such as the ones not based on data extraction and the monopoly of a few global tech firms. Different safe spaces need to be created to ensure new alternatives can be explored.
5. Academia can be the backbone of these safe spaces
Brandie Nonnecke, from UC Berkeley, stressed how much stronger partnerships between technology companies and academia are needed to strengthen digital trust. For instance, “researchers should be able to easily access anonymized social media data to better understand how algorithms work in light of their societal effects”.
These cross-sector collaborations can also be key in ensuring a broader understanding of how technology functions, as to enhance their social acceptance. Nonnecke quoted Sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. who said in 1962 that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. It is hard to regulate and create trust in magic. Academia can surely play an important role in demystifying technologies and strengthening the role of education and digital literacy as the backbone of how our society can create trust in digital technologies.
6. Digital Trust is becoming a requirement for investors
Despite the challenges of our times, according to Heather Loomis, there is optimism when looking at how a new generation of entrepreneurs is integrating trust and security as the center of their products. The 10 startups from Trust Valley’s Tech4Trust acceleration program are a good illustration of concrete applications that are the link between trust and technology.
Similarly, the investment scene is also seeing a new type of innovator that natively integrates trust, security, privacy and the broader societal implications of technology at the heart of their services. This is encouraging and speaks of the crucial role of investors in leading by example.
How do you concretely create digital trust?
This discussion reminded us of how digital trust is a multidisciplinary and multifaceted concept. In polarized times, creating “trustworthy” products and solutions requires to proactively bring together divergent perspectives. Indeed, diversity of ideas and opinion is key to account for the complexity of our days. As this event illustrated, there is unique value created when you bring together technologists, academia, investors, and the government to speak to each other, thanks to their different and yet complementary ways of understanding how our systems work, and what interventions are needed to bridge the gap between technologies and its impact on society.
For this to happen, investing in education has to be seen as a priority, both as it applies to the citizen (who may not understand technology well) and the entrepreneurs, innovators and investors (who may be tech-savvy but not grasp the societal impact of their products).
This has important implications for the next steps of the “Trust Valley meet Silicon Valley” process. Emerging from Switzerland, “Trust Valley” is a good example of a multi-stakeholder forum that brings together actors contributing to digital trust with complementary skills, expertise and networks. The opportunity ahead lies in bringing divergent perspectives together, creating rituals and safe spaces for mutual learning exchanges and co-creation addressing reinforcing bounds of trust in our society. We will pursue this objective throughout 2021.
Insights written by Yannick Heiniger, Deputy CEO, Swissnex in San Francisco and Lennig Pedron, Director, Trust Valley.