Widely hailed as the dawn of a new technological era, 5G is the enabling technology expected to make digital transformation buzzwords a reality. Since its inception in 2017, rather than celebrating the transformative potential of the fifth generation of wireless technology, it has been the subject of controversy, conspiracy and a key frontier in the US-China trade war.
Companies that are looking to adopt or introduce 5G technology and infrastructure, particularly telecommunications providers and public organisations, need to proactively mitigate this controversy through conscious and deliberate engagement.
We have identified a three-step approach to help do this, recommending that organisations:
- empathise with the general public
- engage them to help build a mutual understanding of attitudes towards 5G
- embed organisational agility and resilience within the business to ensure a swift reaction to any future controversy.
Before exploring this approach, it’s interesting to consider the unique context of the 5G rollout to underline why building a conscious approach to mitigating controversy and conspiracy in future technology rollouts is essential.
Planting seeds of doubt
Last spring, as the world reacted to COVID-19, controversy and conspiracy around 5G gained widespread traction and coverage. Claims of a causal relationship between 5G and COVID-19 travelled from whisperings on fringe social media sites to mainstream media outlets, with attacks on engineers and property becoming daily headlines. Government figures branded 5G conspiracies as “dangerous nonsense” (1), but the evidence cited by both mobile network operators (MNOs) and the UK Government did little to curtail the campaign of disinformation. Unsurprising given that distrust and scepticism in authority institutions tends to merely increase the belief of a conspiracy or cover-up.
Complex context of UK 5G rollout
Private telecommunications companies are navigating a matrix of political, economic, health, digital and architectural complexity under increasingly robust public scrutiny. This complexity is rooted in the Government’s billion-pound investment in digital infrastructure as part of the UK’s 5G strategy (2). Hence, the UK’s telecommunications sector needs to be conscious of its own role as a key enabler in the Government’s ambition to be a world-leading digital economy (3). Understanding this context places 5G controversy in a different, more nuanced context. This context redefines the operating landscape and implies that public interest in the UK’s 5G rollout is set to continue. To avoid asset damage and risk to employees or reputation, MNOs will need to be more proactive in improving public perception of future rollout plans. If not, the cycle of controversy seen with each generation of wireless technology is likely to continue, inhibiting the success of rollout plans and undermining public confidence.
Empathise, engage, embed
It is easy for organisations that are well versed in working with innovative technology to forget that for many individuals, it takes time to understand and trust new technologies. This is not unique to 5G; other new technologies have and are experiencing similar issues. For example, less than a quarter of those surveyed in a recent poll said that they would be “very comfortable” or even “fairly comfortable” with driverless cars being allowed onto motorways this year, despite studies predicting that hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved with the introduction of autonomous vehicles (5). In the case of 5G, this wariness has been compounded by criticism of the role played by Chinese-owned companies in providing 5G infrastructure. Media reporting of conspiracy stories helps add credibility to the rhetoric, particularly since those advocating the conspiracy distrust the media.
Empathising with this unease is key. By acknowledging the breadth of public perception, technologically-fluent organisations can assess and respond to the different needs of different audiences – thoughtfully and through varied engagement
Once a foundational awareness and empathetic understanding of the different attitudes towards 5G has been established, bespoke engagement strategies can be designed to help alleviate concern. Framing the technical benefits of 5G, for example, low latency and high bandwidth in the language of exciting and embraced technologies such as VR headsets and Smart Cities, will help to translate some of the technical terminology in a digestible way. Curating these interventions in a way that is both empathetic and relatable will help to break down some of the language barriers, helping individuals to really understand why 5G technology is needed and how it will benefit them personally.
To be truly effective, empathising and engaging cannot be a one-off activity. By being proactive and monitoring public perception, organisations can continuously assess whether they need to intervene. Agile organisations can effectively respond to any potential controversy. Gate One’s recent research into organisational agility demonstrates numerous other benefits including operational efficiency and organisational resilience. In a landscape of increasing volatility, embedding this agility will enable organisations to respond effectively and efficiently to changing public perceptions and set them up for success in what is likely to be an unpredictable future.
With social media, identity politics and the COVID-19 pandemic forming the perfect petri dish to propagate conspiracy, it’s a problem that will continue to accompany the rollout of 5G and the generations of technology innovation that will follow. By acknowledging this context and making conscious efforts to embed empathetic engagement, technological innovators can prepare for the controversies that will inevitably come.