21st century trust

Navigating the intricacies of trust

Amidst a complex landscape where people, spaces and things are more and more connected in the digital realm, soaring streams of private data are captured, stored and used. The question of trust runs through every new product or experience introduced to daily life, and is an issue – often precariously resolved – that comes up again and again in our research across a variety of fields – from health technology, mobile technology, to education.

As a notion that threads through every interaction of daily life, the mechanisms of trust in the digital sphere can therefore herald dystopian futures as well as new hope for societal progression.

Given the ubiquity but fragility of trust, we want to ask this: what is trust made of? What are the barriers to trust? What are the drivers? What are the benefits and what are the risks? What services are building trust well, and which ones are not?

The notion of trust is multi-faceted. It is at play in interactions between individuals (through social networks like Facebook), in relation to institutions (with companies or governments), and in a range of contexts (online, through wearables or ambient intelligent environments) that intersect with different kinds of data (biological, behavioural, social) in different ways (whether captured, stored, managed, used, analysed, shared or owned).

Within each of these relationships is a set of power dynamics, mediated by mechanisms like communications, regulations, or policy. These determine the parameters that we regularly see mentioned as necessary for trust: transparency and reciprocity, honesty and integrity, sincerity and directness, patience and time, shared values and mutual understanding. And they set the level at which people – whether conceived as users, customers, consumers, or citizens – feel a sense of control and agency in the relationship.

Ultimately, companies gain a wealth of data to sell or draw in advertising, and importantly create products that help grow their reputation and community – all the while generating revenue. Equally, users get more seamless, intuitive and individualised daily interactions. The result is daily life both simplified and enhanced with a greater sense of control, confidence and understanding.

But the picture is not so clear, nor necessarily so easily win-win. Sociologists Anthony Giddens (1991) and Ulrich Beck (2006) speak of an entire society where attempts to build trust are undermined by institutional opaqueness and a heightened sense of uncertainty, danger and risk. This worldview is characterised by the erosion of trust between citizens amongst themselves and with governments, brands, and organisations. The media frenzy that surrounded the NSA scandal or care.data controversy can be interpreted through this lens. In both cases the lack of transparency could be seen to entrench the ‘ontological insecurity’ (Giddens, 1991), or psychosocial uncertainty, suspicion, and anxiety that underlines the broader phenomenon of the ‘risk society’ (Beck, 2006). Faced with this loss of trust, communities become concerned with the threat of exploitation, paternalism and individual freedom, all the while opening up additional vulnerabilities from the possibility of anarchy and decentralised security and responsibility.

Against this theoretical outlook, the delicate nature of trust comes sharply into focus. This is particularly so in the context of health and technology. Successful products exchange people’s health data – often highly sensitive – with personal privacy assured in return. Users comfortably take part, especially when the benefits in this case – i.e. being healthy, happy vs. being ill – far outweigh the risks.

Services that meet these expectations in a simple and compelling way, with accessible goals and a resonance with the broader social and clinical networks involved, herald an entire generation of self-managed lives, with an emerging self-sustaining market in tow. While people’s confidence in leading healthier lifestyles develops, clinicians deepen their understanding of patients and their conditions through data generated, and health care systems are unburdened through the gains of preventative medicine.

As a notion that threads through every interaction of daily life, the mechanisms of trust in the digital sphere can therefore herald dystopian futures as well as new hope for societal progression. What the growth of the health tech market might begin to indicate is a fresh set of conditions for trust – applicable beyond just health to other industries, services and demographics – that are now built in 21st century technological spaces. One where exchanges are transparent and honest, where citizens create the market, and where, ultimately if every component in the equation is rightly balanced, trust can result in experiences where the benefits far outweigh the risks that can ensue.

We are continuously engaging in conversations about trust, so if you want to take part send us an email or join the discussion @eclipse_london #digitaltrust.

Mindset reminders

  • Trust is far from simple, yet crucial to embed in the design of new technologies.
  • Taking trust for granted can create unpredictable risks for people, corporations, governments and organisations.
  • If trust is nurtured in a considered and considerate way, mutual benefits can support more open and honest institutions alongside healthier, happier and more empowered people.


Beck, U., (2006) "Living in the World Risk Society". Economy and Society, 35 (3), pp. 329-345.
Giddens, A., (1991) "Modernity and Self-Identity". Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Image: ‘Quant Junkies’ courtesy of Eric Frommelt

Emilie Glazer