Digital public infrastructure can help solve global challenges. This is how to implement it

Image: Unsplash/Jay H

Keyzom Ngodup Massally
Head of Digital Programmes, Chief Digital Office, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Devesh Sharma
Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Digital Public Infrastructure is crucial in addressing important global challenges such as climate change and the need for responsive and effective public finance.
  • It's important to engage in infrastructure-first thinking to catalyse the ecosystem to create solutions that empower people and protect our planet.
  • Here are six principles for implementing DPIs as an approach to problem-solving in key sectors.

As World Leaders gather for the 77th United Nations General Assembly’s Digital Moment, we started to tackle an important question – how can we accelerate the understanding and development of inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure (DPIs) to address important global challenges of climate change and effective public finance management?

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Digital solutions need to be scalable and contextual

The world’s interlocking challenges require coordination and cooperation at population scale – across borders, countries, cities and districts – while requiring agility.

On the one hand, digital solutions can be innovative and solve immediate problems. On the other, they risk staying fragmented and unscalable when they don’t coordinate with other parts of the ecosystem they operate in. Further, at-scale solutions can risk being monoliths that become rigid top-down diktats, neither contextually evolvable or adaptable.

An infrastructure-first approach using DPIs holds the promise for us to imagine an inclusive digital future that harnesses the power of society, governments and businesses, while being innovative, contextually relevant and scalable to serve people and our planet.

DPIs in identification and payments have shortened the adoption and inclusion curve significantly. For example, India achieved over 80% financial inclusion in 6 years – compared to 46 years it would have taken without a DPI approach. India and a number of countries such as Ukraine and Estonia are investing in interoperable building blocks, often built as reusable digital public goods.

These are seen as the DPI that enable others in the ecosystems to solve challenges and build digital solutions on common shared infrastructure, providing us the best opportunity to build inclusive-by-design principles in how technologies are scaled to improve access, safeguard data, and unlock value of digital for people and our planet.

What is infrastructure-first thinking?

At its core, DPIs allow exponential things to happen. In this talk, Dr. Pramod Varma, a leading architect of a number of population-scale DPIs, identifies six ‘first principles’ for using a DPI-approach to problem-solving that were used while designing digital infrastructure.

Image: Dr Pramod Varma

1. Unbundle foundational elements: DPI is the underlying building block that enables inclusive and exponential growth to happen by the ecosystem, it is what separates the ‘apps’ from the ‘infrastructure’. We need to consider what are the minimum building blocks that can trigger non-linear innovation by the ecosystem locally to solve.

2. Identify and implement them as a series of 1+ steps: What is the one thing you can start today that triggers the next thing more rapidly. Start with the change that triggers exponential change.

3. Think about the ecosystem, it is key: DPI design can catalyze the ecosystem to innovate for scale and serve people - including women and those at the last mile. Digital Public Infrastructure is not about solving; it is about distributing the ability to solve.

4. Build only interoperable, minimal building blocks: Ancient Greek philosopher Archilocus said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big important thing”. Any DPI should be like a hedghehog, doing one thing really well. It is important to build one building block that could be used in diverse contexts.

5. Design to unify, not to make everything uniform: A small group of people cannot solve climate change for example. It must be solved across all layers of society and stakeholders and therefore infrastructure to facilitate data exchanges, create interoperable infrastructure to build innovation on top of helps to unify the ecosystem and be effective.

6. Catalyse inclusive by design innovation: Inclusive infrastructure enables inclusive innovations where the challenges of interoperability, safeguards are privacy are built into the norms and standards by which innovation around or on top of infrastructure abides.

DPI empowers the ecosystem to create solutions for all

These principles were discussed at the workshop co-convened by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A group of DPI experts as well as climate and public finance experts came together to discuss how shared digital infrastructure in specific areas, for example such as climate change could help accelerate the Paris Climate Accord. They also discussed how digital infrastructure could support the global communities of governments to manage public finance in more effective ways, recognizing the interface of public finance management with government to people (G2P) disbursement systems. .

Taking inspiration from this infrastructure-first approach, the six ‘first principles’ can help identify the shared digital public infrastructure that can potentially serve as a new digital framework to shorten the time to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. For instance, DPIs can allow for real-time, accurate measurement of unified metrics to allow for a universal lingua franca, an ‘apples v apples’ approach when managing carbon sequestering between nations and regions. We are already seeing this information exchange happen for fiscal data, with use of DPIs such as iFIX developed by eGov Foundation.

In the same way that education and health departments in governments don’t build roads just for their use, this workshop was a first step forward to building concerted engagement and work required to understand the digital infrastructure that many actors can share to design solutions to ensure an inclusive future for all.

To be sure, we understand that the roads analogy can be a red herring to the extent that one immediately thinks about infrastructure as a ‘thing’. However, as Dr. Varma explains, thinking about DPIs as an ‘approach’ to problem-solving is critical here, irrespective of what we call ‘the thing’ or the digital tool that is built using these principles.

Envisioning an equitable, safe and inclusive digital public infrastructure

We believe that infrastructure-first thinking is a nudge to imagine the building blocks on which shared global digital infrastructure can emerge, including infrastructure elements such as open data standards and information exchange switches to solve the observability problem in public finance and track progress on nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in climate but the journey to unbundle and identify foundational elements in these critical areas has just only begun.

As we continue these conversations at the 77th United Nations General Assembly, we look forward to world leaders coming together for the first time to talk about an inclusive, equitable and safe digital public infrastructure for the world. We are excited about the new thinking that is starting to emerge to help unbundle these complex challenges to apply infrastructure-first thinking in climate change and public finance, issues that will affect everyone on earth. Digital Public Infrastructure is 21st century technology rising up to meet it.

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