Tech for Humanity: A Path Forward from Davos

Tech for Humanity: A Path Forward from Davos

For all the elitist charges against the World Economic Forum (WEF), we follow the Davos dialogue each year because it sets the tone – more than any gathering – for global economic priorities and the role of business in society.

As with the 2017 proceedings, technology and science were major focal points of the larger 2018 theme, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Jobs, privacy, gender, climate change, and health recurred as issues for which tech wields a double-edged sword.

In an age of automation, Jack Ma, Alibaba founder and executive chairman, provided advice for humans to navigate a digitizing world. “If you don’t want to lose quickly, you will need a high IQ, and if you want to be respected you need high LQ: the IQ of love,” he said. His words cut to the quick of what “social innovation” is all about – technology and science for humanity.

While tech in 2017 often looked more bad than good, female leaders had some of the most compelling visions for tech in 2018. Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, said she wants to see “greater transparency in technology, a set of principles for data and workers prepared for the future of work.”

Meanwhile Fabiola Gianotti of CERN remarked how “scientific knowledge has no passport, no gender and no political party.”

Further to Ma’s point (and a panel chaired by Yahoo! Finance’s Andy Serwer titled “Putting Jobs Out of Work”), automation and artificial intelligence (AI) undoubtedly puts many jobs at risk. Enter SkillSET, an online portal that allows people to evaluate their current tech skills and access future training.

Said Chuck Robbins, SkillSET community chair and Cisco CEO, “We all know that technology is going to permeate every job on the planet in the future, as well as technology will dislocate some jobs. Not only do we have a responsibility, but we have an opportunity to come together as a technology industry and create a platform where people can go and do a couple of things.”

That sense of responsibility – not just to jobs, also to the planet – had echoes in other WEF developments:

But with all tech and science, success is not guaranteed and sometimes innovation must be pared back – and fast. In the “Rogue Technology” session, scientists discussed genetic engineering that turned strawberries blue and protective drones that inspired fury in elephants.

Amid the societal gains and losses wrought by technology and science, the WEF conversations remind us that communicators play a critical role fostering trust by increasingly populations around the globe.

In the U.S. in particular, The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer (launched at WEF18) reveals that trust in the U.S. has suffered the largest-ever-recorded drop in the survey’s history among the general population.

The root cause of this fall is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse – exactly where communicators come in.

We can help innovators communicate developments with greater transparency, regularity and through trusted mechanisms and voices. In 2018, according to the Barometer, “voices of expertise” are now regaining credibility. Journalists have risen 12 points, and CEOs recorded a seven-percentage point gain, since 2017. Technical experts, financial industry analysts, and successful entrepreneurs now register credibility levels of 50 percent or higher.

While some public relations and marketing pros have been rightfully building out social media engagement for clients and activating everyday “people like me,” the research reminds us that journalists are playing a resurgent role today while media platforms (including social media) are much less trusted. (Trust in journalism jumped five points – to 59 percent – in 2018, whereas trust in platforms dipped two points – to 51 percent—amounting to a seven-point spread today between the two.)

While we don’t want to abandon social media and influencer programs, we have even more reason than ever to engage with credentialed journalists (and analysts) to explain innovations. And we should be putting our CEOs and technical experts forward at time when trust in “people like me” is falling (for the first time in the Barometer’s history) and the public is looking to trust business leaders and innovators to be agents of change.

If the Davos leaders didn’t already clarify, tech and science leaders cannot recuse themselves from the public discourse, no matter how chaotic that discourse has become.

“Silence is a tax on the truth,” said Richard Edelman. “Trust is only going to be regained when the truth moves back to center stage.”

While every innovator is unique, we have identified five general conversation themes that organizations should tackle in a low-trust environment:

  • Guard Information Quality (because it’s hard to tell what’s fake)
  • Protect Consumers (the double-edged sword of tech)
  • Safeguard Privacy (data’s downside)
  • Drive Economic Prosperity (new skills, life- and planet-enhancing science)
  • Innovate (in a social and business context)

If you’d like to talk about building trust in 2018, email me at joey.marquart@edelman.com.