Trust may sound like an old-fashioned concept, but it is at the heart of any innovation, says Philipp Kristian, one of Asia’s youngest and most progressive leaders on the subject. His new book, The Trust Economy, explores this intricate link and gives practical advice on how to build trust and succeed in the digital age.
How trust is powering the digital economy
Philipp, you were born in the 90’s and your CV already reads like a book – what drives you?
My career has been a whirlwind of experiences, and I like to think my vocation chose me. I still remember vividly my exchange semester in Singapore in 2010. Back then, my main goal was to see the other side of the world without spending too much time studying or in lecture halls. I chose my modules purely based on what spoke to me –branding, consumer behaviour and design thinking. Ironically, each of them profoundly defined my professional life. Out came a new Philipp that was fascinated with the domain of innovation, and on a mission to make my mark in this space. But let me go back in time a bit. I had always been both a right-brain person and a first-mover. At age fourteen, I started taking clients as a freelance designer. At 17, I got into business school, which spoke to my inquisitive and analytical sides. In those three years prior, I had also co-founded a small-scale event business and youth media website, which was really the first instance in which my left and right-brain inclinations crossed path – but it wasn’t clear to me at the time that this was a taster of things to come. For the most part, the artistic and strategic elements of my work co-existed, but didn’t really mingle. My exposure to design thinking changed that and showed me the beauty of interconnecting left and right brain thinking to create better experiences, products and services; in short, to innovate. This is when I realised that some people are made to be bridges between worlds which we see as largely separate, such as design and business. I’ve been a bridge ever since and in the process, I realised that the relationship between innovation and the status quo isn’t black and white either. As the saying goes, ‘the future is already here, but it is distributed unevenly’. That’s because there are not enough bridges, really, and that’s why I do what I do. My book is a bridge, too – between the various fields I have come to be exposed to over the past half-decade or so. I’ve picked trust as its main theme because trust is much like love: Everybody values it, and much is written about it, yet it’s hard to pin down what exactly we are talking about. Also, trust should be primary concern to anyone working in the innovation domain. How can you create a better version of today unless people trust in the power of your ideas? Think of the change makers you admire – first and foremost, they excelled at building trust in their vision of the future. The moment you look at trust from that angle, it’s no longer a feel-good concept your grandparents like to talk about, but the very force that advances human civilisation. What drives me is the revelation of truth to improve life, i.e. figuring out what is wrong with the way things are, and creating a better version of it that results in more value for more people. In my experience so far, that feat is simply impossible unless you are extremely good at building trust in the change you are suggesting. It really does not matter whether you are an entrepreneur pitching for funding, a hobbyist on a mission to build a community, a politician driven to improve the system or someone in corporate who comes up with a better way of doing things. If you are to succeed, you need to have people’s trust on your side. I think my book can help with getting there.
Not everyone is an innovator – why do you think people should read your book?
Many books have been published about success in life and business, and about innovation. I personally have not come across one that posits trust as a driving force behind everything we value. That honestly surprised me, and I felt it needed to change. I enjoy books that sweep you off your feet with a perspective unlike anything you have ever read, that lend you an entirely new outlook on life and the world. That’s what I love about TED talks – they make you think in totally new ways. I believe we all crave such experiences, and The Trust Economy intends to be that kind of read. Whether your day to day revolves around facility management or leading a billion-dollar brand, the book will speak to you equally, because it focuses on what connects us and collectively makes us human. Information is no longer a privilege, and many hitherto exclusive services are now available to many. In the industrial age, it became customary to buy from large organizations – nowadays, we increasingly do business with individuals, like we did in the old days. In the past, we had to choose between personalisation and scale – nowadays, we can achieve both at the same time. Our economy will become more decentralised, and individuals from all walks of life more empowered. It’s part and parcel of a bigger societal shift, which has been termed ‘trust renaissance’. Look at the recent boom around cryptocurrencies or FinTech at large, and you have a great example of what’s going on. If you are wondering what the future will be like, my book aims to provide a lot of answers, most of which are based on what we know to be true today. The Trust Economy narrows many a socioeconomic gap, and offers unprecedented opportunity for all of us to reimagine how we live, work and play. I would find that genuinely exciting and worth a closer look!
If you had to distill your book into three core takeaways, what would they be?
You would think that’s hard given I wrote 200-over pages on the subject, but it’s quite simple:
- Without trust, there is no value. The more trust there is, the more value we realise for ourselves and others. Any moment trust leaves, value leaves with it. Examples are abundant: Corporate scandals devalue stock prices, cheating partners devalues relationships, collective misconduct devalues financial markets (and causes global financial crisis);
- Much of society today is based on the principle of distrust. We lock our doors, write complicated legal agreements, conduct background checks and create closed communities to protect us from fellow humans – much of which makes life less efficient or pleasant than it ideally could be. Increasing trust in business and daily life is paramount, but will be a gradual process. In order to make trust the status quo, things will need to change gradually; in fact they already are: Less than a decade ago, most of us would hesitate before riding random strangers’ vehicles or sleeping in someone’s apartment unless we met those people in person prior. Changing the way we live will take its time, and a lot is at stake. A thought experiment: Imagine going into a prison (a prime example of an institution based on distrust), opening all cell and compound doors and proclaiming to inmates that from now on, the prison would trust them not to escape. How well do you think that would go?
- Technology, chiefly the internet, has allowed us to scale trust from physical to digital interactions – and this allows us to revert to relationship-driven commerce as prevalent before the industrial revolution. In more ways than one, this will make our economic and social lives more interconnected, and likely improve quality of life for everyone involved.
How has the response to your book been so far?
There’s this saying that you should find your message to the world and shout it from the rooftops until the right people hear you, or something along those lines. People outside my network approached me and called the book eye-opening, which is exactly what I was hoping for. That honestly makes me really happy. Some previous articles I’d written for magazines – from Esquire Singapore to Insurance Business – triggered similar responses. Each one makes me glow.
What does trust mean to you personally?
Being the odd one out, I’ve never had it easy. If you think and act different from the rest, many people will oppose you. That’s especially true when you eventually succeed. Until this day, I face a fair share of adversity and distrust. For example, being this young isn’t always an advantage. Sometimes, people are more comfortable listening to an industry veteran with 20+ years of experience even if your perspective is just as valid. In my world, experience is measured not in years, but in the intensity of one’s learning. Whether people agree or disagree really depends on what they put their trust in. This is where the six-stage trust framework I created for The Trust Economy comes into play. In a nutshell, it’s a method for ‘trust-hacking’ that comes in especially handy when the odds are stacked against you. I recall this one job opportunity two years ago. I was offered a regional leadership role, defying every other candidate in the running, all of which were at least a decade older than me. In the end, I didn’t take it, which offered me a lot of personal insight into what I trusted (aka valued) most at the time. Trust is not just about what happens on the outside – it influences our most impactful and personal choices. In a way, writing this book made me understand myself a lot better, and I hope it does the same for everyone reading it.
Philipp Kristian is an innovation leader in Asia specialising in transformational value proposition design. He has worked with Fortune 500 innovation teams and trailblazing start-ups, with a particular interest in zero-to-one environments. An innovation strategy pioneer and design thinking champion, Philipp frequently appears on the international conference circuit and was among 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow featured at the 45th St. Gallen Symposium. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org