On the Relationship between Trust and Innovation

As Design Public III inches ever closer, we’ve been trying to articulate, and more deeply understand for ourselves, what we mean by Trust, Participation and Innovation, and how they relate to each other. Over the next weeks, we will be sharing our thoughts and research on these questions, the first of which is concerned with trust and how it relates to creativity, and by extension, innovation.

Why Trust?

This past year has been rife with protest, from the Ram Lila grounds to Tahrir Square and Zucotti Park, all of which appear to have sprung from a breakdown in trust: society, or the public at large, seems to have lost faith in their governments as well as private corporations, no longer trusting that these entities are working in their interest. This breakdown in society’s trust in its largest, most long-standing institutions is a crisis with very wide-ranging consequences in the social as well political sphere.

Anna Hazare en route to Ram Lila grounds

At CKS, however, we are most concerned with how this crisis of trust impacts innovation, which as we see it, is twofold. On the one hand, without trust, there can be no creativity, and hence no innovation. On the other, the only means to overcome such social crises is through innovation. We aim to look at both these issues at the upcoming conclave, and will attempt to dialogue and generate answers on the question of how this crisis in trust can be resolved, as well as how we can build more trust amongst the different arms of society to transform India into an innovation society.

How is Trust related to Innovation?

A widely accepted definition, put forth at the Academy of Management Review in 1998, is that “Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.” The definition implies that there is certain level of risk that we take in trusting someone or something, but that the risk is accepted based on our expectations in the person or entity’s integrity, ethics and actions.

Trust is an essential ingredient of any partnership, personal or professional, and consequently plays a major role in determining the success of any innovation, which is itself an inherently collaborative process. Professors Francis Bidault and Alessio Castello have explored the role that trust plays in creative processes and consequently, innovation, in several influential papers. They write, “trust seems to induce environments that are more open, supportive, tolerant, less hostile and less competitive.” Hence, trust helps create environments where people can voice their ideas without fear of rejection or judgment, and therefore where creativity can thrive.

Trust becomes especially essential, according to Bidault and Castello, in inter-firm collaborations and co-innovation projects, which are themselves quickly becoming the norm in several sectors as well as between actors in different complementary sectors. Despite the fact that collaboration is increasingly being considered more essential, however, research indicates that the management of collaboration can be exceedingly difficult. While contracts and legal documents can help lay out concrete strategic objectives and goals, as well as rules and modes of conduct, there are always unforeseen changes in corporate priorities, shifts in the market, or other unexpected developments that may arise in the course of the partnership, and that this is where mutual trust will help navigate the unknown terrain. Partners that trust each other tend to be more adaptable, and by doing so, are able to better serve their customers and consequently generate greater profits.

Can too much trust be a bad thing?

While trust is essential in determining the success of any collaboration, Bidault and Castello maintain that there is an optimal level of trust that is necessary, and that a deviation from this norm on either side can negatively impact the innovation potential of the partnership. Too much trust, they warn in a paper of the same title, can be death to innovation.

They conducted a series of research experiments and charted the levels of mutual trust between actors against the effectiveness of the partnership. The resultant curve is bell-shaped, not linear, indicating that there is an optimal level of trust, combined with a healthy level of conflict – not relational conflict but task-oriented conflict – that can result in successful, innovative partnerships. Task-oriented conflicts, that is, holding differing opinions about the best way to proceed, can be instrumental in the development of truly out-of-the-box ideas and solutions. Too much trust in this case can result in complete agreement amongst parties with little reason to develop newer and better ways of doing things.

In Conclusion

This is interesting in light of our previous editions of Design Public (one and two), which have centered around the question of how the different sectors of society – government, social and private – can coordinate and collaborate in order to advance India’s innovation path such that it serves the public interest. Whilst we did not talk about trust explicitly at these last two events, it was an underlying theme in discussions on both occasions, and several participants articulated this lack of trust, especially of the citizens towards government and public institutions in India. This third edition will attempt to tackle this difficult area and develop meaningful solutions for how we can collectively build trust in our society, and through this transform India into an innovation ecology.

Stay tuned for more updates on our thoughts and the logic behind Design Public III.


  1. Very interesting — gives one pause to think. Especially thought provoking to me is the point you make about ‘too much trust’ being death to innovation !

  2. Great piece!

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