3 ways to rebuild trust in how we regulate technology

technology 2019 regulat

(Ales Nesetril, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Conrad von Kameke, Director, TIGTech & Elizabeth O’Day, CEO & Founder, Olaris Therapeutics


Trust in governance is at an all-time low. Experts trace a first major decline in trust back to the 1970s, corresponding with rising worries about what is today referred to as the Great Acceleration. More recently, global incidents like the financial crisis have continued to erode trust in governments and institutions.

This is a problem. Trust is the oxygen of sustainable business and governance, and without it not much is possible. A recognition of the need for trust in governance has even made it into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, where SDG 16 highlights the importance of “effective, accountable and inclusive institutions”. The OECD and others, meanwhile, have identified inclusivity, accountability and effectiveness as critical drivers of trust in governance.

The trend of declining trust is exemplified and amplified in the context of technology governance. Consider gene editing, self-driving cars, or data security and data protection by the large social media players. Besides the technologies themselves, it is the rules, procedures, market access requirements and regulatory institutions – in other words, the governance of these technologies – that is perceived to have already failed, or to require strengthening in order to protect data privacy, human health, and even human lives.

By and large, we don't trust our governments much

Image: Statista

In this context, we offer three recommendations for those in charge of drafting, applying or changing technology governance:

1. Trust in technology governance is important in its own right

Some innovations and technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – smartphones, for example – receive a near unanimous positive reception. Others – such as genetically modified organisms (GMO) – face hostility, even rejection. In both cases, the role of governance goes beyond ensuring human health and environmental sustainability. “Whether or not I like the technology, I know I can trust those in government who are in charge of deciding over its safe use and application” is what governance strives to achieve.

Distrust in the mere governance over a technology – and resulting impact on its ability to compete with alternative products or technologies – is something societies simply cannot, and should not, afford. In these times of truly global challenges, the governance of technology and innovations needs to be both trustworthy and trusted – regardless of whether that governance encourages or restricts, prohibits or promotes an emerging technology or its products.

2. Trustworthiness – a critical step towards trust.

There is no one generally accepted definition of trust. However, for years, governments, academia, industry and other non-government actors have often referred to the need for “building consumer confidence”. The concept has made it into the EU´s biotech law, for example, and into EU policy on AI. If trust is understood as a belief about other people`s trustworthiness, it cannot be built, but rather must be earned. Acting in ways that convey trustworthiness is the best one can do to maximise the opportunity to receive trust from those who give it. Efforts have been mushrooming around the world to define and execute principles of good governance, better regulation, responsible research and innovation, all of which will ultimately contribute to and sometimes explicitly aim at providing a basis for governance to be perceived as trustworthy.

3. Both trust and trustworthiness are needed – but neither is sufficient by itself

GMOs offer a prominent example. The EU has established and constantly refined one of the most demanding regulatory frameworks worldwide for market approvals of genetically modified crops and derived foods. The EU’s rules and regulations are likely to meet many of the requirements typically subsumed under principles of “good governance”. However, despite an ever-rising regulatory bar, with increasing labelling, traceability, liability, and other requirements added (at least in part) for the purpose of demonstrating trustworthiness, trust was expected to ensue – but it did not. A trustworthy governance framework does not earn trust by default. Why this is not the case is the subject of TIGTech (Trust in Tech Governance), an initiative supported by the World Economic Forum and by Fraunhofer, one of Europe’s largest applied sciences organisations. The initiative aims at identifying actionable principles which can help those involved in governance design increase chances for the governance itself to deserve and earn societal trust.

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