Trust Beyond the Present

Monica Porteanu is one of our Emerging Fellows. She and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. Her first article discusses the intersection of society and trust.

Trust is a social construct essential to economic and societal development. However, trust has issues that the passing of time has not only not yet solved but also blurred any futures orientation. Furthermore, while technology presents possible solutions, it also introduces new challenges. One would expect that science has resolved such issues, but science itself has undergone a trust crisis. A solution to re-establishing trust is designing the future with the society itself.

In 2017, trust in official institutions registered a collapse in the US and a significant drop in the UK, after a steady decline over time. Decades earlier, behind the Iron Curtain, the communist regime thrived through the propagation of mistrust.

Centuries ago, the victory or defeat in war was a question of how the communication amongst generals, stationed at various locations, was transmitted through trusted, non-forgeable links. The system, at that time, did not have any control or feedback loop to ensure traitors did not intercept and interfere with the message. Dubbed the Byzantine Generals’ problem in mathematics, in many ways similar to the Prisoners’ Dilemma in economics, the challenge might now be solved by blockchain technology, with its promise for a single record of fact between two parties involved in a transaction.

Even if blockchain succeeds, another technology facet raises trust questions: data. With staggering amounts of data available but a remarkably low percentage analyzed, and even smaller amounts validated, how do we know whether we can count on the truth of this content?

The belief that scientific research is a trusted leader is also challenged. Investigations show that less than 50% of psychology studies could be replicated, together with increasing instances of corruption, including priming effects, fake peer reviews, or proliferation of citation cartels.

Extending the question of trust to forward-looking settings enhances decision makers’ ability to anticipate possible futures and navigate risks and uncertainties, especially when trust molds into “the willingness to be vulnerable to another party’s actions.” Trust in futures thinking enhances the capacity to embrace opportunities presented by “actionable images of the future” while deflecting weaknesses and threats.

A solution to re-establishing trust is expanding its definition from being an ingredient that catalyses economic prosperity and social life for people, to envisioning futures of a society with people. This participatory approach is diametrically opposed to the communist doctrine as well as the hierarchical, patriarchal, belief, and value systems that underlie existing power structures. Participation not only increases the likelihood of trusting what could be developed but also the engagement to ignite futures and shape the preferred one.

The reciprocal relationship between participation and trust is self-explanatory: participation spawns trust through dialogue, transparency, and agency, while trusting beliefs and actions (e.g., ability, benevolence, integrity) strengthen participation through the willingness to engage, take action, and break various barriers such as personal, situational, functional, or psychological.

Such relationship alleviates the anxiety of unknown futures through mental training and careful orchestration of expert and participant involvement. For example, while futurists’ skill is critical in trend analysis to unearth blind spots and set the stage for grounded results, diversity and wide participation is more beneficial than competence during the next phase focused on opportunity prioritization. Further refining of selected opportunities is easily enabled by experimental prototyping of actionable future narratives, as a method to understand and handle the uncertainties and risks of unproven ideas about the future. The experts’ facilitation skills and toolkits, such as empathy maps, role-playing, or installations, contribute to establishing the need, desire, and feasibility of building the envisioned futures.
As a final note, participation to build trust is the opportunity to develop further the networked society in which the collaboration amongst creativity, ethnographic, foresight, and analytical approaches convert the unknown into a viable and promising future for society.

© Monica Porteanu 2018