Inclusive digital infrastructure can help achieve the SDGs. Here's how

Digital solutions can create a more equitable world.

Digital solutions can create a more equitable world. Image: Freepik.

Paula Ingabire
Minister of Information Communication Technology and Innovation, Ministry of Information Communication Technology and Innovation of Rwanda
David Sengeh
Chief Innovation Officer and Minister of Education, Government of Sierra Leone
Martin Wimmer
Chief Digital Officer, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany
Nele Leosk
Digital Ambassador, Government of Estonia
Robert Opp
Chief Digital Officer, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Rodger Voorhies
President, Global Growth & Opportunity, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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  • Digital transformation is central to achieving the sustainable development goals.
  • Digital public goods are open-source solutions which can be leveraged to create a more equitable world.
  • Around the world digital initiatives are supporting inclusivity and building resilient economies.

Digital technology permeates today’s society. From communicating across borders to delivering essential services, it is transforming how people go about their daily lives and how governments function. Yet to bring about meaningful society-wide impact, this transformation should be safe, trusted and inclusive.

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the tremendous potential of digitalization. Marked by the uptick in digital government-to-people payments and the demand for digital solutions from governments, more and more countries are adopting and adapting to digital technology.

Due to increasing demand, in 2020 alone, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) supported the implementation of more than 500 digital solutions around the world. In Ukraine, amidst the ongoing war, the government is harnessing digital technology to ensure continuity of public service delivery for its people. Besides improving efficiency, digitalization helps to reduce costs and ensure that the most vulnerable people in society also benefit.

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Digital transformation is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By targeting food and energy security through innovative digital approaches, the global community can work to elevate 2.4 billion lives from the grip of hunger and 800 million more from extreme poverty.

What are digital public goods and how can they help achieve the SDGs?

As nations strive towards these global goals, attention now coalesces on digital public goods (DPGs): open-source, interoperable digital solutions that can be effectively leveraged to build the much-needed digital public infrastructure (DPI) to ensure society-wide benefits. Built inclusively with a human-centred approach, digital public infrastructure can supercharge delivery of these goals to benefit everyone, everywhere.

The SDGs presents humanity with a complex jigsaw puzzle full of acronyms and initialisms. There are institutions and governments, software, regulation, rights and of course people. There are private problems and structural imbalances. There are needs, risks, opportunities – and inescapably, the ticking of a clock.

DPGs can steer us in the right direction, and meshed together can form the basis of a DPI with even greater potential to address today’s societal problems and help to mitigate future ones. These DPGs can be altered, refined and reused. They are sharable, improvable and they are resilient.

How can countries harness digital public goods?

Countries are innovating and transforming practices by adopting and adapting DPGs. DPGs (such as digital payments solutions, data transfer protocols or digital health services) can be incorporated to improve public service delivery in a safe, trusted and inclusive way. Correctly assembled, DPGs can build a digital public infrastructure that is powerful enough to deliver society-wide impact for current and future generations.

The inherent openness of DPGs means they are socially oriented. They can be customized to meet a country’s specific needs and context, whilst respecting the agency of the implementing country. By their design, DPGs can decrease implementation costs, effort and time. And crucially, by building solutions collaboratively, they preclude the emergence of any future tech monopolies.

Openness also confers another priceless quality – scalability. Proprietary digital solutions by their nature tend to resist open collaboration and information sharing which can hinder scaling. However as observed with today’s combination of global challenges, humanity requires swiftly scalable solutions to respond to and anticipate new challenges.

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How is the World Economic Forum fostering a sustainable and inclusive digital economy?

Digital public goods can facilitate knowledge exchange between countries, by sharing the blueprints of their development, as well as experiential learnings from other countries. This in turn allows for replication of solutions – and success – with each country’s own context. The answer to unlocking digital transformation lies in coming together and sharing insights to customize and improve DPGs toward building the inclusive digital public infrastructure of tomorrow.

These initiatives highlight the power of digital cooperation

Today, this work has already begun. Below are four initiatives from around the world that highlight the power of digital cooperation embedded with inclusivity and resilience.

  • The Sierra Leone Directorate of Science, Technology & Innovation’s (DSTI) DPG OpenG2P created during the Ebola response is today offered as a re-imagined government-to-people social cash transfer architecture to crisis countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. DSTI engages the private sector and university communities to build the technology that makes digital public goods like OpenG2P possible.
  • The German Ministry for Development (BMZ) is rethinking development in a digital world. The focus is on changing times and its leadership priorities are COVID-19, feminist development policy, fighting poverty and hunger, and just transition. Digital transformation plays a crucial role as a catalyst in all areas. With open training datasets for AI development, FAIR Forward makes AI training services available in Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili and Luganda languages – spoken by more than 150 million people in Africa.
  • GovStack supports governments in embedding the capacity to identify, deploy and sustain DPGs for DPI. The apparatus of its support so far encompasses open-source tools, a sandbox for testing, and communities of practices. GovStack envisages that through these efforts it can contribute to building DPI that can deliver faster, safer and more inclusive services. It cooperates with Ukraine, Kenya, Rwanda, Egypt and the EU co-financed with Horn of Africa countries.
  • E-Estonia’s backbone, X-Road, included in the digital public goods registry, is an open-source solution that provides secure data exchange between organizations. “X-Road can contribute to the attainment of the SDGs by helping to close the digital divide and enhancing connectivity, in addition to boosting the transition towards cleaner energy systems, and supporting industry, innovation and infrastructure,” according to Nele Leosk, Digital Ambassador, Government of Estonia.

Many of these initiatives are built collaboratively with UNDP and countries themselves, so they can build their digital infrastructure in ways that can support robust economies, more resilient communities and empowered citizens.

These firebrand initiatives demonstrate how 21st century challenges are being met by rising 21st century digital solutions. Interoperable DPGs will compound and form safe, trusted and inclusive infrastructure that delivers whole-of-society transformation in our time. Through a digital mindset of cooperation, knowledge sharing and sustainable finance solutions, the tools to build resilient digital inclusivity already lie within our grasp.

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