A digital world that is all of ours…

On World Consumer Rights Day, Consumers International Director General Amanda Long delivered a speech at the G20 Consumer Summit in Berlin - 'Building a Digital World Consumers Can Trust'.

The prize if we can build a digital world that everyone can trust, and where no one is left behind is clear to see.

In Africa, 1 million hand pumps supply 200 million rural water users (eng).  A third of these hand pumps are estimated to be broken at any one time. In Kyuso, Kenya sensors that could detect and report faults quickly led to a 10 fold reduction in problems. Ninety eight per cent of pumps in the area are fully functioning. But that’s not all, sensors also monitor demand which they can link to fairer payments, and usage data can help plan better services. 

In Europe, it is estimated that 10 million people live with dementia. In the UK, doctors are trialling the use of Internet of Things (IoT) technology to help them pick up signs of changes in behaviour for patients with dementia. Sensors attached to kettles, fridges and even beds can give vital early clues as to how someone is doing – are they making tea as usual? Are they eating food from the fridge? Picking up and acting on these signs can help people stay well and reduce hospital admissions.

These types of stories are why it is so important to work together so we can make full use of the potential of digital technology and achieve these kind of results for everyone. 

It starts with getting more people online. This will bring many benefits for consumers: more choice, convenience and lower prices; an easier say in how services are run; lower barriers to entry for small businesses thus increasing choice. 

For those with access already, there is still much to gain – such as making the most of the potential of digital to expand opportunities for education, entrepreneurship, creation, healthier environments, healthier lifestyles, smoother transport and more efficient energy distribution. But none of this can happen without trust. 

We need trust for a better digital world

This is the theme of this year’s World Consumer Rights Day and topic of the G20 Consumer Digital Summit that we are co-hosting with our German member, vzbv and Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection (BMJV) as part of the German presidency of the G20 is ‘building a digital world consumers can trust’

But is this accurate? Do we need to improve confidence and build trust to maintain progress on digital? Doesn’t high uptake and enthusiasm for digital technology suggest that people are largely satisfied? Can’t we just carry on the way we have been, fixing problems as we go along? 

Carrying on as we are is of course an option, we could all convince ourselves that mass uptake and satisfaction with service quality is the same as satisfaction with business models, corporate practice and ethics. But that would be to ignore some clear signals coming from consumers about what the digital world can feel like at the receiving end: 

  • 60 per cent of mobile users worry about the privacy and security implications of a world of connected IoT devices. [1]
  • 71 per cent of people worldwide believe brands with access to their personal data are using it unethically. [2]   
  • And in that same survey, that concerns about privacy are consistent across age, gender, country and personality. 

Not properly understanding and addressing these signals would be missing a trick, it would miss the point that despite the enthusiasm and appreciation of what digital interconnectivity can do, it brings both positives and negatives; and, most importantly, it would miss an opportunity to make the system more inclusive and comfortable for everyone.

Paradox of connectivity

The beauty of so much that digital has given us is that it is all connected. The downside of so much that digital is that it is all connected. It’s a paradox of connectivity.

So when everyday things like payments or returning goods mess up, or updates slow down a device, or when uncanny decisions are made about us based on our likes, habits or opinions, when promises about privacy policies feel empty, when it feels impossible to keep your children safe from harm online – all of these things erode our faith in the other amazing things that we do with digital. 

Perhaps part of the problem is that we too often describe the digital world only in terms of numbers – how fast it is, how many connections there are or how much it could grow. 

But we need to also start thinking not just about how much we could grow, but how we can grow, and what we want to grow towards. We can remain inspired and impressed by the speed and innovation of digital technology, but also keep focused on what we as a world want to achieve through digital innovation?

What do we want to achieve through digital innovation?

Answering this question requires listening to the voices of people everywhere - people as consumers, citizens and as representatives of future generations.  

And trust needs to be more than what we call ‘transactional trust’, i.e the nuts and bolts of a transaction between a business and consumer (or consumers and consumers). 

If tech is going to go deeper into people’s lives, it’s no longer enough to say it will bring convenience, or save money. It has to offer more than that, more than just a transaction. Instead, it is way beyond time to think more roundly about consumers and their trust in the whole experience and try to understand what the combined effect of this fast, expansive, powerful and all-seeing digital technology is on people and their communities, their lives and their idea of the future. What does ‘whole experience trust’ look like to people? 

This type of reflection might be regarded as ‘stifling innovation’ or progress, but it’s the opposite - it’s the definition of progress. To progress means to bring people along on the journey, to pay attention to the impact on people, so that we do not leave anyone behind.   Otherwise we risk similar problems of that other current example of the boundary breaking, cross border, disruptive force - globalisation.  Where impact on some ordinary citizens has not been as understood or considered as necessary and some people have ended up feeling left behind and have lost faith in institutions and leaders.  

So who do we trust to build a better digital world?

It’s up to all of us - consumers should trust their instincts and articulate what kind of digital world they want for themselves and their children.  Businesses should trust their relationships with people and make a stand to behave more responsibly and respond to people’s concerns – to stand out from the crowd.  Governments should trust their citizens to be able to recognise what is fair and right online and find ways to help them get it. 
No single entity can reassure trust.  And in any case, trust in business, government, media and NGOs is in decline in part because people feel these institutions can’t protect them from the negative effects of globalization and technological change.  

We need to face up to some of the complex and big issues of access, ownership, tracking, competition and to work with the fact that we are in flux – and that we don’t have all the answers but that but that we have a better chance of finding them if we work together. 

The recommendations presented at the summit on 15th March are the first time that the role of demand side trust in driving growth in digital has been thought about, and acknowledged on such a major stage. However, they are just the starting point of something bigger. We want to achieve these recommendations and much more beyond in partnership with others, in line with Consumers Internationals’ new commitment to ‘come together for change’.
Only then can we build the #BetterDigitalWorld that we all deserve.


1. Mobile Ecosystem Forum, 2016