Background - 05.05.2021 - 00:00 

Trust in times of the pandemic

What are the greatest challenges worldwide, and how have governments mastered the pandemic? At the St.Gallen Symposium, these issues were discussed by top-notch representatives from politics and business, among them the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

5 May 2021. The St.Gallen Symposium is among those conferences at which the list of participants is almost as top-class as those of the speakers. During this year’s conference, one is sometimes tempted to browse through the list for contacts one would like to meet at the virtual bar. However, there was hardly any opportunity for this kind of thing in the afternoon of the second day: the discussions were too exciting.

Zooming in and out in the crisis

Under the chairmanship of Martin Wolf, economics commentator at the Financial Times, people discussed the challenges of our times. Kira Maria Peter-Hansen, Danish Member of the European Parliament, and Professor Stephanie Kelton, Stony Brook University, agreed that global warming was the greatest problem. However, the signs from the USA were better than in previous years: “Climate change is front and centre for the Biden administration,” said Kelton. To solve the problem, the rich countries would have to make a financial contribution to bring poorer countries along. She was convinced that the USA would play a leading role. In Kira Maria Peter-Hansen’s view, the problem had so far been tackled with too little ambition. “The longer we wait, the more generations will suffer from the consequences.” However, nobody must be left behind. For the transition to succeed, the “green economy” would have to create enough jobs. Alvin Tan, Minister of State in Singapore, said that one should not focus too much at present, but also “zoom out” and consider future developments. For Singapore, this means, for instance, procuring sufficient vaccines, but also ensuring that in the future, they will be able to develop and produce them domestically. Marianne Janik, Area Vice President, Microsoft Germany, pointed out that digitalisation was not proceeding at the same pace everywhere. Here, the pandemic was a “stress test”. Also, the world was not ready to deal with cyber threats adequately.

Do people trust the government?

HSG professor Miriam Meckel interviewed the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Had Austria coped well with the crisis, and what could have been done better? The government did a good job as crisis manager, said Sebastian Kurz. In the first wave, a major disaster could be prevented because there was rare inter-party discipline and great support among the population. During the summer, discussions about the measures increased. This was normal in a democracy but made the implementation of strict measures in the second wave more difficult. This had probably happened in a similar way in many countries. Credibility was a daily challenge in the political discourse. A reduction in the media and social media made it difficult to find a consensus. The bandwidth of views, also among experts, was enormous. Whether new technologies such as artificial intelligence could serve as decision-making aids? “That will be a giant step.” If one had used everything that was already technically possible, much could have been done better in the pandemic. He was concerned about the fact that many countries were not prepared to use the opportunities of digitalisation. “We’ve got a lot to catching up to do in this respect.” However, many citizens would rather entrust their data to Facebook than to the health ministry. At least people’s trust in science and research was stronger today. “It’s an incredible success of science that we had a vaccine so quickly.” The fact that the USA and the UK made such good progress with regard to vaccination had something to do with the complex structures of the EU. That was why the EU was too hesitant when it came to the conclusion of contracts with pharmaceutical companies. In addition, the border regulations in Europe had not worked, which sometimes resulted in absurd situations. “I hope that we’ll succeed in establishing the green passport by the summer and in restoring the freedom to travel.”

Digital identities that we trust

Subsequently, there was a choice of seven parallel sessions. How can we make digital identities trustworthy? This complex issue was discussed by Damian Borth and Katerina Mitrokotsa, full professors at the University of St.Gallen, with Jeffrey Bohn, Senior Advisor at the Swiss Re Institute. Prof. Öykü Isik from the IMD Business School opened the discussion with an alarming fact: according to the UN, more than a billion people worldwide are unable to prove their identity, which excludes them from important services. According to Damian Borth, the discussion was about trust. In order to safeguard trust between people, but also between institutions, specific tools were required. In Katerina Mitrokotsa’s view, a lack of transparency regarding the treatment of data resulted in a situation whereby the population did not have any trust in digital solutions. She reckoned that this was a reason for the rejection of the E-ID in Switzerland. Control must be returned to the users, and they must be shown how the systems work. Jeffrey Bohn warned that governments would have to take their bearings from companies or cooperate with them when it came to digital identities. Otherwise things would become too complex. However, he would also like governments to assume sovereignty: “Personally I do not trust Facebook as my identity provider.” He also mentioned users’ rights not to be constantly identified. Then there was a long discussion about the “success story” of the GDPR.

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