The right way to build digital public infrastructure: 5 insights

Digital public infrastructure is an essential part of the pursuit of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, the UN's blueprint to achieving a better and more sustainable future for all.

Digital public infrastructure is an essential part of the pursuit of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, the UN's blueprint to achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. Image: UNDP/Frey Morales

Keyzom Ngodup Massally
Head of Digital Programmes, Chief Digital Office, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Carolin Frankenhauser
Technology for Development Specialist, UNICEF
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  • From health to education and commerce, digital public infrastructure is essential to our lives and livelihoods.
  • Digital public infrastructure is the "rail" upon which private and public sector stakeholders can build applications and products that benefit people.
  • Digital cooperation between countries is essential to make progress on building digital public infrastructure everywhere.

The past two years have shown unequivocally how essential digital infrastructure is in our lives. From online banking to education, work and even our health, digital infrastructure makes us safer, more prosperous and better connected.

That’s why improving, securing and widening access to digital public infrastructure (DPI) is fundamental in the pursuit of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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Maximising digital public infrastructure's potential

In the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, the United Nations Secretary-General identified digital public goods (DPGs) — these open-source solutions and tools — as a key mechanism for accelerating the attainment of the SDGs. As global digital cooperation around DPGs, led by the Digital Public Goods Alliance, is rapidly increasing, maximising the potential of DPGs for building inclusive, equitable and secure digital public infrastructure (DPI) has become an imperative.

DPI includes population-scale digital systems and platforms that support basic, society-wide functions, effectively serving as “rails” for digital transactions, such as digital identification, digital payments, data sharing and verifiable credentials. They can underpin entire sectors, such as in health and education, and unlock opportunities for global and regional cooperation by monitoring climate commitments, improving access to justice or enabling digital commerce.

While DPI and other digital systems can break down data silos and create shared technology infrastructure that encourages private sector participation to deliver innovative solutions, it can also expose people to risks. Privacy violations, data-driven behavioral manipulation, identity theft and fraud and exclusion from essential public services all must be mitigated and secured against in the rollout of DPI.

Key considerations must be made for thoughtfully building digital public infrastructure through a whole-of-society approach. This includes through DPGs and deploying technical assistance to ensure that digital cooperation safeguards human rights, contributes to governments’ digital sovereignty and is grounded in local digital ecosystems.

whole-of-society approach to digital transformation UNDP digital public infrastructure
A whole-of-society approach to digital transformation, as outlined by the UNDP. Image: UNDP

Getting digital public infrastructure right: 5 insights

Building on UNDP’s engagements in a range of countries, the following five insights are key to designing impactful technical assistance for DPI:

  • For DPI to be inclusive, it must take a whole-of-society approach.

While the development sector is recognising the importance of DPI for development, building digital public infrastructure is not “just” a development agenda — it is an opportunity to shape components of the infrastructure in a direction that serves the public interest and accelerates digital inclusion, increasing countries' digital sovereignty. This requires investing in country dialogues, co-creation and inclusive planning. Regional cooperation and planning, such as through the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, can support the creation of common standards for digital rails that enable trade and related sectors to thrive.

More and more tools are being built to support countries in developing DPI based on a whole-of-society approach. For example, the multi-stakeholder initiative GovStack develops a secure and standard-based approach to designing and implementing DPI building blocks.

  • Governance of DPGs for DPIs requires new models of digital cooperation.

The joint management and maintenance of any resource by sovereign entities — particularly of key digital infrastructure for services offered by the state — carries with it significant questions of governance. This provides an opportunity to work together with countries on strategic decisions around choice, data portability, data empowerment, interoperability among others to create and support new models for digital cooperation between countries.

  • A people-centric approach to building DPIs is critical
    to protect people and drive inclusion.

As governments are starting to prioritise investments in digital public infrastructure, it is important to consider both the technical and ‘non-technical aspects’ of building inclusive infrastructures. Among the latter is a people-first approach that focuses on equity, good governance, and regulatory frameworks that ensure that no one is left behind.

  • Engage the local digital ecosystem for lasting digital transformation.

Building local capacity goes way beyond deploying international experts to work side by side with government partners. Engaging local stakeholders, such as universities and accelerators, is key. CMU Africa’s Upanzi Network for Digital Public Goods is an example for long-term capacity investment in DPG implementation and maintenance.

  • More evidence for the impact of DPGs for building DPI is required.

The potential of open-source and DPGs building digital public infrastructure is significant. Adopting a DPG can lower costs and speed up adoption. DPGs can also form the basis for a system of solutions that are interoperable and can plug-and-play across each other. To increase and prioritise the right investments, we need to better understand how digital public goods used to build DPI benefits the Global Goals. UNDP, Co-Develop Fund and the DPGA are already working with countries to measure the contribution of DPI to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.

We have now an opportunity to re-imagine technical assistance and co-create locally. Cases like that of the Indian government’s Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), an ambitious digital public infrastructure for e-commerce, highlight the potential of DPGs for creating open and decentralised DPI, curbing digital monopolies and supporting micro, small and medium enterprises and small traders. This is just one of the many examples of the good that DPGs can do in society.

To fully realise the benefits of DPI and DPGs, further commitment and investment is needed from all stakeholders, including governments, organizations and companies. In doing so, we will collectively increase our chance to deliver on the SDGs and further improve people’s lives.

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