UNSW’s Grand Challenge on Trust aims to move past a restatement of trust issues and instead get to a deeper understanding. It’s not asking, ‘how can we make people trust?’ but the bigger question, ‘how can we build systems from the very beginning, so they are worthy of trust?’

Grand Challenges Academic Lead Scientia Professor Rob Brooks says trust, in some ways, is the fundamental Grand Challenge.

“Without trust there can be no friendship, cooperation or progress. We cannot address the other Grand Challenges without robust and reliable systems of enhancing trust,” he says.

Trust is sixth in UNSW’s Grand Challenges program, which identifies, explores and addresses the most important issues facing, or likely to face, humanity. Trust runs from February 2020 to February 2022, working alongside Rapid Urbanisation and, starting later this year, Thriving in the Anthropocene.

Each challenge engages scholars, policymakers and the public through a series of critical discussions, debates, events and activities. Topics are wide ranging and have included refugees and migrants, inequality, climate change and living with 21st-century technology.

“The Grand Challenges program has involved hundreds of staff and students in research that straddles disciplines, debates that change minds and policies that advance the public good. Almost everyone who gets involved in a Grand Challenge comes back again and again; the program enhances academic life,” says Professor Brooks.

The Grand Challenge on Trust lead is Dr Katharine Kemp, a senior lecturer at UNSW Law and co-leader of the Data as a Source of Market Power research stream for the Allens Hub for Technology, Law & Innovation. Ironically, her primary specialisation is ‘antitrust’ and she has written extensively on power in markets, and misuse of market power, in particular.

Dr Kemp says increasing demands are placed on our trust – “we’re expected to make greater stretches in our confidence and belief”.

“Particularly in light of technological leaps – driverless cars, robo advisors, online medical histories, pervasive digital surveillance – we're being asked to trust these technologies won’t do us more harm than good when, as individuals, we lack the expertise to know for sure,” she says. “A failure in trust could also mean the benefits, or potential benefits, of these technologies are sacrificed.

“We are seeing critical shifts in our trust in information,” Dr Kemp says. “We have access to more information than ever before and yet we often lack the ability to analyse or curate it to sort the wheat from the chaff.”

UNSW experts across disciplines – including psychology, law, medicine, journalism, engineering, business, computer science, social sciences, and art and design – will work on the challenge.

“When we bring all that expertise and those perspectives together, we will see solutions of global significance,” Dr Kemp says. “And the beauty of a Grand Challenge is our experts can focus on ‘trust’ for two years and collaborate with experts from other institutions, government, industry and civil society.

“We are particularly excited about student involvement and the prospect of student events and activities. I know from my work in data privacy, that we have UNSW students with inspiring creativity and perspectives on these issues.”

In 2019, a scoping and design process with the Australian Futures Project and 25 academics and senior staff members identified three themes of trust for this Grand Challenge: trust in experts, trust in institutions and trust in data practice.

Trust in experts

Social media, online content and the constant stream of clickbait have had a real effect on our trust in experts, according to Dr Kemp.

“Some medical experts despair at the fact that a lot of their messages don’t get through to the general public because of social media messaging and other online content. It can sway people's behaviour, even in the face of advice from their doctors and health experts.”

“We've seen it play out in the vaccine controversy and, more recently, with COVID-19,” she says. “The World Health Organization [WHO] claims it is facing an ‘infodemic’ trying to address the myths around COVID-19, especially on social media.”

Trust in institutions

Dr Kemp says recent research has shown a significant decline in trust in institutions. This Grand Challenge will look at government, media, business, academia and NGOs.

She sees a gap in trust, a divide between those who feel they are being served by institutions and those more pessimistic about their future and particularly their ability to support themselves and their families into the future.

“The former are generally people with better education and secure incomes,” Dr Kemp says. “A real question arises about whether people can trust in a system if they don't have a fair share. What’s different about those countries where we see higher levels of trust?

“It’s also clear from the climate strikes that many young people, who don't yet have a vote, are not trusting the older generation with our planet.”

Trust in data practices

Data practices will be an important focus this year in Australia in light of the planned major review of the Privacy Act following the ACCC's Digital Platforms Inquiry. Dr Kemp says the Inquiry’s final report expressed concern about the power exercised by Google and Facebook in particular.

“There are also data practices which disempower consumers and erode their data privacy,” she says. “We're currently relying on a 'notice and choice' model of regulation. It essentially says we have notice of how our personal data is being used and we have a choice about whether we accept those practices. But this becomes near impossible in a digital context where people lack the expertise and the power or knowledge to be able to see the many invisible companies receiving their personal data and understand the consequences of this.”

Much of Dr Kemp’s own research has focused on data privacy regulation and the question of how to make systems worthy of trust.

“It’s important to explore those leaps in trust we're being asked to make in experts, information, institutions and technology to help us understand what makes systems trustworthy and what makes trust fail.”

Learn more about UNSW Grand Challenges.

Belinda Henwood