No single institution in Australia is reaching “trusted territory” in steering innovative change for a more prosperous future, and artificial intelligence is being questioned, according to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer report.

    Rapid innovation offers the promise of a new era of prosperity, however it risks exacerbating trust issues that are leading to further societal instability and political polarisation, according to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer.

    When institutions mismanage innovation, it is more readily rejected and there is less enthusiasm for emerging technologies, the latest Edelman report explained.

    Findings show that more than half (59 per cent) of Australian respondents admit they are concerned our leaders are purposefully misleading the population.

    Tom Robinson, CEO of Edelman Australia, said in an interview that previous barometer reports showed that our trust across business and government really improved in 2020 and 2021, and rose to a point not previously seen.

    “It seemed there was a feeling that we were facing this great uncertainty and this great unknown, but we were there together, we were supporting one another, and we leaned on our senior voices of authority. We believed and trusted in what they were saying,” said Robinson.

    “Off the back of COVID, there was a change in sentiment, and a great disparity in trust came through, and by 2023, we reached this precipice of polarisation, and we saw that Australia had reached a point of division where there was a significant wealth gap, as well as a political gap.”

    Despite economic challenges seen from the beginning of 2023 — including cost-of-living crisis and supply chain issues — Robinson said some settled down throughout the year.

    “So there’s a little more stability and we've seen trust levels improve slightly. That’s the good news story, because I think last year was a very negative year that painted a picture of Australia on the cusp of crisis, almost,” he said.

    “We're not at the levels of trust we saw in 2021 or 2022 and there are underlying tensions and trust inequality that still remains.”

    Ways to restore trust

    The Edelman Trust Barometer put forward four ways to restore trust in the promise of innovation for organisations to consider:

    1. Implementation is as important as invention
      Mismanaged innovations are as likely to ignite backlash as to advance society. With breakthroughs like AI, vaccines, and green energy at stake, explaining the science and managing impact is essential.
    2. Business must partner for change
      Business would be more trusted with technology-led changes if it partnered with government. CEOs need to safeguard jobs and take a stand on emerging ethical concerns.
    3. Science must integrate with society
      Scientists are still trusted — but increasingly subject to public scrutiny. To build trust in expert recommendations, explain the research, engage in dialogue, and harness peer voices as advocates.
    4. Give me control over my future
      When people feel in control over how innovations affect their lives, they are more likely to embrace them, not resist them. Listen for concerns; be open to questions.

    Robinson said the barometer’s finding showed that “people want to feel involved in the process”.

    “Importantly, they need to be able to feel like they're being heard, that their concerns are being listened to, and that their concerns are being addressed,” he said.

    “Are we actively listening? Are we doing that in a way that creates a feedback loop into the organisation and into the decisions that we're making? It is important that our employees and internal and external stakeholders understand exactly what's going on, why it's going on and how that will affect them in the short and the long term.

    “How do we bring our employees, customers and those that might feel increasingly marginalised by certain decisions, along for the journey with us, and ensure that no one's left behind? I think equally that partnership is quite key between government and business.”

    Businesses need to promote an inclusive environment that allows discourse of differing opinions without the feeling of being subjected to any particular judgement, he said.

    The barometer showed there is an enormous distrust of the media, while business and NGOs are more trusted than government to ensure innovations are safe, understood and accessible.

    According to the global Edelman Trust Barometer 2024, over the past year, trust in business has grown by four per cent in Australia to 58 per cent.

    Globally, trust in business has grown to 63 per cent, with business trusted in 15 out of 28 countries. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed globally expect CEOs to manage changes occurring in society, not just those occurring in their business (62 per cent), and eight in 10 employees say it's important for their CEO to speak publicly about job skills of the future (82 per cent), the ethical use of technology (79 per cent) and automation's impact on jobs (78 per cent).

    Innovation and distrust of AI

    Australians are second most likely, behind the US, to believe that innovation is being mismanaged. Across income, gender and age demographics, those with this mindset are highly likely to believe that society is changing too quickly and it is happening in ways that will not be of benefit to them.

    Currently, 53 per cent of Australians reject artificial intelligence (AI), according to Edelman’s research, and Australia trails the rest of the APAC region for trust in AI.

    “Our ability or willingness to embrace innovation is much lower than it is in other markets. That raises a particular question or concern around whether we really understand the technologies and are we thinking about invention as well as innovation?” said Robinson.

    “Are we considering how that benefits Australians as a whole and how willing they are to lean into that? Because the bottom line in all of this is we are in danger of being left behind. Artificial intelligence is particularly pronounced. The report shows that we're much more likely to reject artificial intelligence as a technology rather than embrace it.”

    Edelman found that while 51 per cent of Australian respondents get most of their information about new technologies from national media, CEOs and journalists are distrusted in Australia.

    Science is seen to be under political pressure, and has a communications problem that could be improved “with better messaging, more transparency and an explanation of its impact on regular people”, the barometer suggested.

    “Acceptance of innovation takes time. It takes longer if it is not communicated well,” Robinson said.  “We have business leaders and CEOs in the private sector, specifically, that are often looked to as the voice of change. We look to them and so often hear from them in regard to changes that are affecting our lives.

    “But they are not the people that are reflective of our own reality. We want to hear from the scientists.”

    Respondents suggested that technical experts (69 per cent) and scientists (67 per cent) should have a big role in managing the introduction of innovation in Australia.

    “We want to hear from the technical experts. But we also want to know that people like me or people like us have been involved in the conversations of shaping these inventions that will permeate, influence and affect me in the years to come. At the moment, we just aren't seeing that. Those messages are getting lost.”

    Robinson said this year’s report highlights two very different demographics — highly wealthy Australians and those struggling with cost-of-living issues, and also the metro and regional challenges.

    “How Australia can mitigate and manage the gap this creates needs a clear answer and businesses that are able to address that effectively will succeed.”

    The research was produced by the Edelman Trust Institute and consisted of 30-minute online interviews conducted between 3 November and 22 November, 2023. The 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer online survey sampled more than 32,000 respondents across 28 countries. Download the Edelman Trust Barometer 2024 here.

    READ MORE: For a review of the global findings, see the AICD article, “Business must lead on innovation: Edelman Trust Barometer

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