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Trust is at an all-time low. Here are 5 ways to address it

Trust is at an all-time low. Here are 5 ways to address it

By Jannet Walker-Ford

First, the good news. Trust in infrastructure is generally solid, and rightly so. Designers, engineers and planners have long created modern marvels that withstand the unthinkable and make daily life immeasurably better.

The bad news is it might not be enough to sustain trust in today’s era of misinformation, disengagement, and plummeting levels of trust across all aspects of society. It’s an issue we ignore at our peril. 

Gallup has recorded near-record lows in public confidence in the majority of institutions it tracks, including big business, unions and newspapers–among the groups that build infrastructure and report on its progress. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer found that government isn’t trusted, either. What’s more, “a shared media environment has given way to echo chambers, making it harder to collaboratively solve problems.” 

Some businesses are addressing these issues head-on, creating strategies to build and sustain trust. Yet, as Elena Kvochko, chief trust officer for SAP, said to Fortune, “many leaders incorporate trust as a key tenet among their values but still struggle to implement.” Delivering on that ambition isn’t a nice-to-do. When trust is lacking, the cost is high.

A lack of trust robs society of potential. One economic study shows that social trust boosts annual per capita real GDP growth. For individual organizations, trust is deeply related to reputation, which supports long-term value creation. Reputation may account for as much as 63% of corporate market value and up to 35% of total capitalization of the world’s top 15 stock market indices. So, it’s no wonder that 91% of executives say their ability to build and maintain trust improves the bottom line, largely due to increased referrals and 64% of employees say they recommended a company as a place to work because they trusted it. Or, to quote Andrew Clearwater, chief trust architect at software provider OneTrust, “trust makes the difference between a resilient, successful business and one that’s just sort of hanging on.”

A crucial success metric for nearly any organization, trust is particularly important when it comes to infrastructure. The 2022 WSP Infrastructure Index found that, while most Americans (60%) trust their local government to spend infrastructure budget on what is needed most, 86% nonetheless are concerned about public safety on poorly designed or maintained roads and bridges. The time to focus on trust is before you find it has eroded, which is another reason why our sector should be paying close attention to these issues. 

Increased investment in infrastructure is one key to sustaining public confidence. Here are five other priorities that, with sustained attention, also can bolster trust in infrastructure:

  1. Ethics and safety first – In our field, ethics and safety should be table stakes. A majority (57%) of Americans say the top priority for infrastructure spending should be projects most urgently in need of repair, no matter where they are located – putting the public good significantly ahead of improvements near their homes (15%). Quality also counts. In the same study, 86% of Americans said they want their community to invest more money now in quality infrastructure that will last a long time, instead of saving money today with infrastructure that needs to be replaced sooner. 
  2. Transparent communications and stakeholder engagement – Frequent and honest communication can build trust, particularly if the communications are two-way. Listening to key stakeholders and taking their views into account can help create more future ready infrastructure. By considering diverse perspectives, we can spot potential problems earlier, rethink traditional approaches and enhance innovation. Meaningful stakeholder engagement also can help us rectify past mistakes—such as highways that bifurcate once-vibrant neighborhoods—and look ahead to better manage potential social risks. Click here to enter text.
  3. Inclusion and equity – If trust is bolstered by engagement, then we should be concerned that not everyone feels equally engaged. Rural residents (38%) and women (44%) are more likely to say they don’t have a sufficient voice on infrastructure priorities. When asked, 80% of Americans support equity in infrastructure spending, agreeing that “every community should have access to quality infrastructure, even if it means my community would get less funding so others can catch up.” Reckoning with the past means we need to be deliberately inclusive and focus on equity when considering where projects are cited, how they are designed–and even who builds them, as our industry fosters a more diverse workforce.
  4. Digital and data-driven approaches – Data and digital tools can capture community needs and preferences and provide insights that enable more effective participation in infrastructure planning. Digital tools such as Mobility Marketplace can enable more equitable access to multi-modal transportation options by consolidating disparate services such as tolling, road usage charging, transit, parking, micro mobility and more. By enabling bike-sharing and similar options, this approach also may help promote greater equity by reducing “last mile” challenges for communities that are not directly connected to major transit corridors.
  5. Sustainability – The Edelman Trust Barometer has consistently found that people expect companies to do more on climate and other environmental issues. Our sector is well positioned to meet those expectations. Whether we are delivering high-speed rail systems, designing power grids, or creating net zero buildings, we can find sustainable solutions that meet the needs of today and are forward-thinking enough to account for the challenges the future will bring. Helping people recover from disasters with more resilient, adaptive approaches also can build trust.

With infrastructure spending on the rise, these and other approaches can create a “trust dividend” that can benefit our sector and society as a whole. To earn it, government and industry must continue to act with integrity, transparently engage all stakeholders, and ensure the benefits of infrastructure development are felt equitably. That’s the blueprint for more sustainable, prosperous and resilient communities, with trust as the true foundation underpinning everything we build. 

Jannet Walker-Ford is a nationally recognized transportation industry executive with more than two decades of public and private sector experience. As Senior Vice President & Principal Director at WSP USA, she leads WSP’s national transit and rail business and is responsible for growth and innovation, and technical project excellence in the transit, rail, mobility, freight, and intercity rail markets. Walker-Ford has held executive leadership roles at a number of private international companies and served as the Deputy General Manager/Deputy CEO and CIO at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

Walker-Ford is a distinguished and tireless advocate for equity in transportation and the power of public transit to transform communities.