Trust in the Digital Age

 A great new TED Talk by subject expert Rachel Botsman articulates the future of trust and the great opportunity to redesign systems so they are transparent, inclusive and accountable. As a social enterprise dedicated to creating the future of brand trust, we reflect on her wise words and offer insights from our work on Provenance.

We set up Provenance because we felt that the notion of “the brand” as a vehicle for trust in a corporation needed reinventing for the digital age. Particularly when it comes to consumer products. So much money and effort is poured into making you – the consumer – feel comfortable to not only buy, but pay a premium, for a new product, through establishing an emotion connection to “the brand”.

When it comes to product functionality and price – some work has been done to assist brand in its trust facilitation – think consumer review plugins and price comparison sites. However, when it comes to the creation, the companies and the journey behind a product – we still place a huge amount of trust in the brand’s communications – a top down notion. Certifications (e.g. organic, fairtrade) have helped us identify some good behaviours. However, the digital age can provide a system to revolutionise why and how we chose to trust one product and company above another.

Botsman defines trust as a “confident reliability in the unknown.” She talks of a concept called the “Trust Leap” – which is essentially what it takes to trust something e.g. using BlaBlaCar for the first time, buying some bitcoin, or buying a product because of its Provenance.

October 2016 TED talk by Rachel Botsman: We’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers

To enable this trust leap is a Trust Stack:

  • Trust in the idea e.g. that it’s OK to trust product information that has been collected from actors in the supply chain.
  • Trust in the platform e.g. that the platform is genuinely connecting data from suppliers along a supply chain with an accessible ID or reference on a product.
  • Trust in the other user e.g. you think the information source – be it a farmer or a certifier – is legit. This is where blockchain adds a lot of value, because if it’s an immutable record, this trust can be reduced as the data (and product) changes hands.

We very much agree with Botsman in that the way trust flows through society is changing, and “institutional trust wasn’t designed for the digital age.” Particularly when you add blockchain to the mix – “the great chain of being sure about things” – which creates a shared base layer that means users can trust data implicitly.

Meaning, in the case of Provenance, that the registration and transfer of physical material products, with associated attributes and certifications, is publicly, immutably recorded in a format that no one can change, everyone in the system can access or audit – giving a source of truth common to all parties.

The Internet is helping us all know more about the things we eat, buy and appreciate – from a yogurt to a bag to an artwork, and we at Provenance are very much part of enabling that transparency movement to grow.

However, in agreement with Botsman, it’s the blockchain that will allow the transparency movement to fundamentally change the brands and businesses we trust and chose to support with our purchases. When we buy a product we buy into a vast network of businesses and choices and with blockchains, that network won’t just be more transparent, it will be fundamentally accountable on a system not controlled by the most powerful actor, but by the network itself.

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Traditional institutional trust >> The future of distributed trust

However, as Botsman also states, we are very much at the beginning of designing how our digitally enabled trust leaps will function as a society. Just today, an article came out about Walmart and IBM working on a blockchain solution for food. On the surface, it’s not dissimilar from what we are doing at Provenance. However, Hyperledger, IBM’s blockchain, is a private chain involving colluding parties sharing data more securely between themselves. Sure, this works well in reinforcing the data architectures that perhaps already exist between parties – and will certainly aid food safety. However, we think there’s a bigger shift emerging, and that shift is enabled by the world of public ledgers.

These public ledgers, which of course, private ledgers could connect to, enable a farmer with a smartphone to obtain a premium for his crop of coffee. The proof of this can be cryptographically substantiated to a latte drinker on the other side of the world – and perhaps they don’t even realize it, because they opted into that system long before reaching the coffee shop.

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The journey of tuna caught by a Fairtrade fisherman, accessed at the point of sale. As featured in our tuna traceability pilot.

The transparent, inclusive and accessible trust system that Botsman refers to at the end of her talk is still very much in design – and its outcome will affect far more than your cup of coffee. It will have a fundamental effect on the work, governance, life cycles and wellbeing of humans, society, and the environment.

P.S. I tried to articulate some of these same ideas in my WIRED talk in November 2015, when we were just beginning our pilot of blockchain technology to track responsibly caught fish. Perhaps I’ll try again sometime soon…