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Strengthening Trust in Digital Identities

The St. Gallen Symposium is an institution on par with the World Economic Forum – albeit with a more intimate setting, and with a focus on intergenerational exchange. In fact, the St. Gallen Symposium is one year older than the WEF and is set to celebrate its 50th edition on May of 2021. Every year comes with a theme – and this time the theme is "Trust Matters." 

Just like the rest of the world, the organizers of the St. Gallen Symposium were impacted by COVID-19. The 50th anniversary edition, planned for 2020, was postponed to 2021 – and yet, the bright and hugely energized student body didn't miss a beat. Over the course of 2020, they are focusing on "Trust Matters" in many ways already, ramping up understanding and engagement in good time for what is bound to be a highly impactful symposium next year.  

It is a matter of trust, yes, in just about every instance of just about every interaction, be it in the physical or the virtual world. With regard to the physical world, we've become quite used to a few systems we have chosen to trust. With regard to the digital world, however, matters of trust are only just beginning to be explored – and solutions are far and few between. For this reason, the St. Gallen Symposium partnered with Swiss Re Institute and Microsoft to focus on digital trust

Earlier this month a high-paced and results driven cross-generational workshop brought together young professionals and entrepreneurs and a number of senior experts. Keynote speaker Jeffrey Bohn, Swiss Re Institute's Chief Research & Innovation Officer, framed the challenge with his opening presentation. Fake digital identities can undermine decision-making procedures, manipulate public debate, and cause significant financial and reputational damage – on an individual, organizational, and societal level. Trusted and secure digital identity systems are seen as key to preventing such risks, adding economic value and improving secure citizen interactions (such as e-voting). But, as Bohn explained, current solutions are fragmented, not always robust, and lack scale and efficiency. 

The twenty workshop participants were given the necessary guidance and then spent time in three groups to pick a challenge and then work toward solving it, all facilitated by a team of Microsoft’s innovation experts. Naturally, there were no definitive solutions presented at the end of the three-hour workshop, but the teams had worked through a great deal and presented first solutions that may well lead to further research by Swiss Re Institute and other involved stakeholders, and will, without a doubt, be valuable material for next year's symposium. Here a glimpse at three key elements the teams focused on: 

It is a matter of trust, yes, in just about every instance of just about every interaction, be it in the physical or the virtual world.
Daniel Eckhart, SRI Advocate, Swiss Re Research & Engagement

Simplicity 

The first team picked an excellent way to frame the challenge in that they asked themselves: "How can we create a digital identity system my mom is able to use?" Simplicity is absolutely essential – as simple as a signature, or the showing of an ID, is in the physical world, as simple must digital solutions be. Without that simplicity, many will not use digital identity mechanisms because that which is complicated, simply put, breeds mistrust. People around the world need to be able to simply, effortlessly, grasp their digital identity, its use, its value, and its impact. One big consideration in this regard is education – which was the very focus of the following team. 

Advocacy 

Recognizing the need for advocacy, one of the teams focused on promoting understanding and acceptance of digital identities to help societies make the shift toward identification models that will be increasingly digital. As they phrased it, "Extensive advocacy will remove fear of the unknown, thus help increase adoption of trustworthy digital IDs." The team noted that there already are ongoing efforts in this space. They suggested building on what exists and scaling up, highlighting the benefits of digital ID adoption and using defined influencers to reach as many people as possible. 

Security 

The third group looked at providing reliable digital identity that still protects privacy, or, as they called it "privacy with security and accountability." They initially looked at a variety of approaches, such as digitalized identity documents, biometrics, social networks (peer-to-peer trust), hybrid physical/digital approaches, digital ledgers and more. Among the elements they discussed was the conviction that there should be no profit involved in digital identity, thus removing potential conflicts of interest. They were also clear in aiming for multi-layered systems that sustain and protect to ensure against potential breaches. It certainly sounded like distributed ledger technology, something that Jeff Bohn had also addressed in his opening remarks. 

Next steps

 As part of the work, every team had to give a good deal of thought to the various parties that need to be collaborating to develop the respective solutions. In every one of the three cases the teams put together extensive lists. It was clear that any success for something as fundamental as a digital identity depends on the involvement and engagement of every element of society, from individuals, to business, to institutions and governments. 

The teams identified many of the crucial elements that need to come together. There's no doubt that there already is a coalition of the willing, as companies, institutions and governments around the world are heavily engaged in making digital identities a seamless reality for people. Personally, I'm a big believer in two driving forces – namely those of commerce and convenience. These two forces will be instrumental in bringing about digital identities. Commerce: Business will put every effort into driving progress forward, as it will undoubtedly benefit economies everywhere. Convenience: Consumers will (and already do) increasingly accept and embrace digital identities for the sake of convenience, this will only accelerate. 

Digital identities are not yet as secure and as reliable as they need to be. However, the world is already hurtling forward on that digital path and I'm convinced that the right solutions are just around the corner. One of Swiss Re Institute's partnerships, for example, is with the Center for Digital Trust at the EPFL. In that center alone are thirteen partners and thirty-four laboratories focused on digital trust. Just as the mobile phone has become ubiquitous, so will a full-fledged, trusted and secure digital identity be part of our lives before long. Passports will disappear and, in time, people may even forget the very notion of a signature … we're not quite there yet – but this future is not beyond the distant horizon – it's in clear view, and coming closer fast.  

Finally, kudos to the organizers of the workshop and the whole team behind the St. Gallen Symposium! It is this kind of passionate engagement and indomitable spirit that brings generations together and helps us solve the challenges ahead. What can I say, I greatly look forward to the 50th St. Gallen Symposium! 

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