A leading futurist has painted a daunting picture of the challenges facing the back-office teams at Australian superannuation funds if they are to ensure their organisations survive beyond the next five years.

We are living in “an age of distrust”, but smart businesses can turn this into an opportunity to work with customers and stakeholders to restore trust and order, Chris Sanderson, co-founder of The Future Laboratory, told the 20th Conexus Financial Investment Operations Conference in Sydney on Tuesday.

“We have become distrustful of governments, institutions and corporations,” Sanderson said. “This sense of distrust is a big theme.”

Sanderson said the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global study, showed less than 50 per cent of respondents trust mainstream business, government media and non-government organisations to do what is right. The credibility of chief executives fell by 12 points this year, to 37 per cent; in Japan, it is 18 per cent.

But it’s not just an environment of distrust, he warned. There’s also disruption, disorder, discord, displacement, disconnection and disillusionment. The situation is bleak.

“We encourage people to see these challenges as opportunities,” Sanderson said. “This is about a glass half full situation. These ‘dis’ words are about opportunities. We say lead with optimism. Consumers are surrounded by dystopian storylines; is the world really that bad? Don’t work through fear but trust. Work towards a legacy. Future differentiation will come from a legacy narrative, not a heritage position. Companies will no longer be judged by who they are but what they’ve left behind.”

The futurist’s words hit a nerve at the gathering of more than 250 investment operations professionals from some of the country’s largest superannuation and investment funds. Public trust in the local financial services sector has copped a battering in recent years.

Sanderson told the gathering of superannuation industry executives to think about how their organisations could become more “emotional” businesses. This means measuring customers’ feeling as much as their behaviours, and allowing a deeper connection with consumers.

“This is about post-materialism,” he said. “Product-led brands are finding it difficult to appeal to those who place less value on materialism; 72 per cent of millennials want to spend more on experiences, rather than physical things.”

He said the opportunities for investors and companies lie in fresh approaches to collaboration, technology, sustainability and innovation.

“We need to take a fresh approach, survive and become more sustainable. Collaboration and understanding technology are keys to that. From a sustainability viewpoint, you need to look at whether your business and brand will survive in the next five or even 50 years,” he told delegates. “The superannuation and pension fund industry is dependent on people thinking you are investing for the long term. [Getting] past short-termism is a real issue.”

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