Published on in Responsible Business

Last week was an exciting time to be visiting Parliament Square.

We were right in the centre of things, at the beautiful Queen Elizabeth II Centre, for our latest Executive Discussion Evening, where we explored the ever-changing nature of trust.

It felt like a prescient moment to be there. As the country sought answers to the biggest political questions of the day, we were looking for answers to our own questions about technology, business, and responsibility.

Specifically, we were trying to work out how we reconcile the immense power afforded us by the proliferation of data and technology’s ability to process it for commercial advantage, and the responsibility to do so ethically and responsibly.

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I think trust is a fascinating topic, because it goes right into the fabric of business, government and society. All relationships are built on trust. Without it we cannot engage meaningfully, on a personal or professional level.

And yet, it seems that technology is challenging trust, making us more cynical, and maybe even preventing us from trusting at all. In a world where we cannot easily differentiate what is authentic from what is fake, how can we build and maintain trust?

This was the subject we gathered to explore. But it wouldn’t be an Executive Discussion Evening without experts to kick-off the discussion, and we were lucky enough to be joined by three:

  • decorativeDavid Gentle, Director of Foresight and Planning at Fujitsu, was our host and moderator for the evening.
  • William Tunstall-Pedoe, an entrepreneur whose company, Evi, provided much of the artificial intelligence for Alexa.
  • Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur, chief executive, and author famous for her work on wilful blindness.

They shared their unique perspectives on the nature of trust in the digital age – and stimulated lots of lively debate.

To inspire the conversation further, I’ve jotted down my thoughts on the crucial role of trust so that you can have a think about them too.

In a digital age, how do we define trust?

All three of our speakers provided their own definitions of trust – and it was really interesting to see where they overlapped, and where they differed.

David pointed to the definition devised by Rachel Botsman, academic, author and keynote speaker at last year’s Fujitsu Forum. She describes trust as ‘a confident relationship with the unknown’.

William chose a similar definition, identifying trust as “having a firm belief in something, expecting the model to be reliable and truthful”.

Margaret, meanwhile, explained her vision of trust, which comprises four components: benevolence, competency, consistency and integrity. When an individual or an organisation displays these four characteristics, they can be described as trustworthy.

Although our speakers used different language to describe trust, they all agreed on one thing: the nature of trust is currently undergoing unprecedented change.

William gave an honest review of the benefits and risks of Artificial Intelligence, stating with absolute clarity that changes in business today are powered by technology – which will continue to challenge trust.

He entertained us with Google’s AI virtual assistant as it held a plausible conversation that it fooled a human being when it called to book a hair appointment.

Trust under threat

There are several factors impeding trust today.

William highlighted simply that everyone has become a content creator, clearing a path for online opinions to go viral in an instant, destroying brand trust with them.

Similarly, the rise of fake news has put pressure on audiences to really interrogate the information they consume. How can we really know if our sources are genuine?

Margaret argued that technology cannot be objective, and introduces risk of bias – the complete opposite of the culture we are trying to create in the 21st century.

Margaret quoted Baroness Martha Lane Fox, ‘96% of world’s code written by men’ therefore is by default unrepresentative – therefore she cautioned against trusting AI to make important decisions about people – for example in recruitment. She said, “AI just amplifies and automates the risk and the lack of accountability, creating a flawed status quo”.

Margaret’s call to action to technology companies was to be mindful of their place in society and the communities they serve in order to maintain trust.

Participation in defence of trust

Trust may be under attack, but there are ways to defend it.

Margaret detailed the approach she believes will help re-establish trust: citizen participation.

The only way the public will trust AI is if it is involved in deciding what it can and can’t do. When somebody has been consulted and heard, they can support decisions – even those they don’t agree with – if they trust that the process is a good one.

Margaret pointed out that the medical community has been doing this for a long time. They work hard to educate the public on the kind of technologies they are developing, because they know that there’s an ethical element to their work which means it has to be discussed by all.

We could all take a leaf out of their book.

Margaret also spoke about the importance of earning the trust of your employees. This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

I think an organisation can only secure the trust of society if it is trusted by its employees. And we work very hard to ensure this. I’m proud that Fujitsu was named at number 34 of Stonewall’s 2019 list of top 100 LGBT employers, and that we were a founding member of the Valuable 500.

We also have one of the lowest gender pay gaps in the industry – although this also really annoys me, because we shouldn’t have a pay gap at all. In Europe, 53% of our P&L is run by women, and this figure stands at 64% in the UK.

It’s so important that we have brilliant people in our companies, and that we can inspire them to do things they have never done before. But this is only possible when you create a culture of trust within the organisation, something which will then be reflected to the outside world.

This is how we play our part in improving trust in our society. It’s a form of active participation, just as Margaret suggested.

Hard to earn, easy to lose

Every one of our speakers made the point that trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.

In a way, I’m glad about this. It keeps us accountable – not just for what we do, but the way we do it.

We understand that having the trust of citizens and consumers is a privilege and not a right. Setting the bar high in this way means we will always deliver the very best solutions, ideas and products – in the fairest, most ethical, and sustainable way.

This was my thought as the evening drew to a close. We concluded the conversation with a Q&A, followed by drinks and further discussion looking out on the night-time lights of Westminster.

All in all, it was a fascinating and inspiring Executive Discussion Evening – and I trust that you will be joining us at the next one!

Do follow the conversation #FujitsuEDE @FujitsuUKEvents.

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