Business and government must seize innovation edge

April 22, 2024 - 16:50
Few regions are as positive about innovation as Asia-Pacific (APAC).


Trade and technology have been central to the APAC's growth and development. Photo UNSPLASH


SINGAPORE — Few regions are as positive about innovation as Asia-Pacific (APAC).

And for good reason: trade and technology have been central to the region’s growth and development. Even as the global economy continues to change, innovation has made the region richer, healthier, and better educated.

Edelman’s 2024 APAC Trust Barometer study found that people in APAC countries are more likely than those elsewhere to believe in the promise of technology. The majority trust green energy (75 per cent), artificial intelligence (62 per cent), and even gene-based medicine (56 per cent). In the case of AI, APAC has a 12-point lead over the global average (50 per cent), suggesting greater optimism towards AI’s future-defining potential.

This is reflective of a broader attitude towards innovation in APAC, and the region’s business and government leaders must seize this advantage. They have a unique opportunity to create an environment where innovation can flourish, and people feel secure enough to embrace it.

However, this is a window that could quickly close if they don’t act soon. Edelman’s survey revealed that there is a backlash against technology globally, and it would be wishful thinking to suggest that APAC is immune to such doubts emerging.

A regional backlash against technology’s potential would be a tremendous loss because innovation is essential to APAC’s economic growth and to the further development of the technology itself.

Why are so many people globally, and potentially in APAC, wary of innovation?

Edelman’s trust study this year found that by a margin of two to one, people around the world feel that the process of technological change is not being well managed. Worries abound about whether emerging technologies are being vetted by scientists and ethicists, and if the changes being rolled out serve the interest of people like them in the wider community or are more focused on narrow benefits for business and other elites.

Many want a better explanation, in layman’s terms, of the benefits of scientific advances and more engagement on how they might improve their lives.

Many believe that today’s ultimate managers of technological innovation care more about profit than about social progress. Among those who think innovation is poorly managed, 70 per cent believe that society is changing too quickly and in ways that will not benefit ‘people like me’.

And perhaps even more worrying, there’s a concern that governments are not equipped to address the implications of technology, given the relentless pace of change. A majority thinks regulators lack adequate understanding of emerging technologies to regulate them effectively (61 per cent).

Many are concerned that regulators and politicians will place their political interests ahead of doing what’s right. More than half (53 per cent) of people in APAC are concerned that science has become politicised, and 60 per cent think government and organisations that fund research have too much influence on how science is done.

These findings could have electoral implications, with eight elections scheduled to take place in Asia over the rest of this year. Those who think innovation is poorly managed are 39 percent less likely to trust that the system is fair to all segments of society than those who think it is well-managed.

Troublingly, there was even a 26-point gap between those two groups when asked if the capitalist system as it is today does more harm than good in the world.

Another concern: the risk of AI being tapped for misinformation campaigns emerged in our findings. Fear of an information war (62 per cent) jumped by seven points from last year, while many believed that journalists (64 per cent), government leaders (59 per cent) and business leaders (59 per cent) are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false.

That’s not a very encouraging report card. But it does give us an indication of what the key concerns are and how we might address them.

In APAC, Business (65 per cent) is closely followed by government (62 per cent) as most trusted to integrate innovation into society ahead of NGOs and media. These trust levels are higher than those globally (59 per cent for business and 50 per cent for government respectively).

As the most trusted institution, business must lead the way. Nearly two thirds (62 per cent) expect CEOs to manage changes occurring in society, not just those occurring in their business. Around 8 in 10 employees say it’s important for their CEO to speak publicly about job skills of the future (83 per cent), the ethical use of technology (82 per cent), and automation’s impact on jobs (81 per cent).

And it’s vital for business and government to work together to nurture trust. Over the last decade, there has been a 15-point increase (55 per cent to 70 per cent) in regional respondents saying that business and government partnering on developing and implementing technology-led innovations would increase their trust in business.

Trust in technology is a human problem. It can’t be solved with more technology. It is less about the innovation itself, and more about how business and government must lead an honest conversation about its impact while establishing guardrails to maximise the benefits and minimise the possible negative consequences.

Trust is powerful, but fragile. It can expand opportunities for businesses and give them the social capital to try new things. It can help to establish the appropriate borders between business and government, so that innovation can flourish.

APAC enjoys an innovation advantage. The benefits of a trusting environment are clear.

While regional skepticism is nowhere near as acute as in the west, our leaders need to act now. Time could well be running out. — DANNY QUAH/ANN