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Digital public infrastructure will be key to meeting sustainability goals: Here’s why

Digital public infrastructure can empower citizens and drive digital inclusion.

Digital public infrastructure can empower citizens and drive digital inclusion. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Arushi Goel
Specialist, Data Policy and Blockchain, C4IR India, World Economic Forum
Tenzin Chomphel
Coordinator, Data Policy, World Economic Forum LLC
Priya Vithani
Engagement Lead, Middle East and Africa, World Economic Forum Geneva
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • Data is invaluable in advancing climate and sustainability goals, but issues such as lack of standards prevent us from maximising its value.
  • Digital public infrastructure (DPI) has the potential to fight food insecurity, prepare for extreme weather crises and enable sustainable urban planning.
  • To fully leverage DPI for sustainability goals, more work needs to be done to achieve consensus on definitions and build technological capacity.

Data is increasing efficiency and improving outcomes on all fronts of the economy and society, perhaps most critically in advancing sustainability goals.

From enabling exact tracking of environmental impact of business practices, to identifying vulnerable populations in need of intervention. However, several obstacles exist to realizing these benefits, including data fragmentation and lack of standards.

This is where digital public technologies, or digital assets that “create a level playing field for broad access or use by virtue of being publicly owned, publicly regulated, or open source” can make an impact and support progress toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

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By leveraging the power of open, interoperable and scalable systems, digital public infrastructure (DPI) has emerged as a comprehensive framework that leverages technology to empower citizens and drive digital inclusion.

DPI has the potential to address human development issues, significantly contribute to improving sustainability practices and reducing environmental impact, all by breaking down data siloes. By harnessing the power of digitalization, digital public infrastructure can thereby also help meet the ambition of global sustainability goals.

Digital public infrastructure for better climate action

Digital infrastructure is as integral to our planet and society as physical infrastructure. DPI specifically enables the crucial data sharing needed to drive solutions that mitigate climate change, enable communities to proactively plan for adverse weather events and allow for faster climate response when disaster occurs.

Through the digitization of administrative processes, smart infrastructure development, renewable energy integration, citizen engagement and innovative waste management solutions, DPI can support a country’s journey towards a more sustainable future.

For example, by facilitating the exchange of weather and climate data, DPI can enable governments to develop early warning systems and emergency response plans that help mitigate the effects of extreme weather on areas such as food security, the economy, and the general welfare of the population. In Mozambique, these systems have contributed to the reduction of number of people affected by cyclone-induced flooding by 82% within three years.

Furthermore, the DPI initiative promotes digital access and connectivity, which can lead to reduced travel and transportation-related emissions. As citizens gain access to digital services, they can complete various tasks remotely, such as applying for government schemes, submitting forms or accessing educational resources online.

This reduces the need for physical visits to government offices or other service providers, resulting in decreased traffic congestion and lower carbon emissions from transportation.

DPI also enables the development of smart infrastructure and sustainable urban planning. Singapore for example, has implemented a comprehensive data collection and analytics solution: the Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP).

The SNSP utilizes an extensive network of sensors deployed throughout the city-state, collecting real-time data on various parameters such as traffic flow, air quality, temperature, humidity and noise levels. These sensors are strategically placed across different urban areas and connected through a reliable communication infrastructure.

The SNSP's data integration capabilities extend beyond collecting environmental data. It also incorporates data from transportation systems, public utilities and other urban infrastructure components.

By aggregating and analyzing these diverse datasets, Singapore can optimize resource allocation, enhance energy efficiency and improve the overall sustainability of the city.

DPI for inclusive agriculture and food security

Technological advances in data collection and analytics can help smallholder farmers in developing countries meet rising food demand in harsher climate conditions.

Data obtained from satellite imagery from different regions, on-site measurements of soil conditions, and commodities markets can be combined by computer models to predict supply and demand patterns and crop yields to guide farmers via smartphone applications in selecting seeds, planting and harvesting.

However, availability, accessibility and quality of such datasets creates challenges in utilizing them for developing digital solutions. DPI such as an agriculture data exchange, being piloted in Telangana, India is an example where an open-source interoperable platform enables discoverability and accessibility of important datasets through appropriate consent management mechanisms.

Real-time data on crop yield, crop variety and the market prices from international and local sources combined with real time analytics can help manage import and export of agriculture produce, especially for disease management and price discovery.

Being interoperable, it can connect data providers and users from various sources, both nationally and globally. As more and more users connect to the platform, the network effects will lead to exponential innovation.

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Other governments have started to harness digital public infrastructure for agriculture, as well. The Estonian government, for example, has provided a broad range of digital services to farmers, including digital registers.

These registers provide useful practical information flow for farm management decisions (e.g., machine-readable data for the precision farming machinery) and enable more precise farm data collection with less effort, improving the quality of statistical data and enabling more comprehensive analyses.

In the context of climate change efforts and global food insecurity, these insights can enable remedial actions in a responsible and agile manner. Realizing the benefits of DPI, Norway’s Open Earth Platform initiative, still in its early days, intends to establish an open infrastructure for climate adaptation.

Harnessing DPI for people and the planet

To fully and equitably extract the full value of data and digital public infrastructure for sustainability goals, there is still much to be done. As it exists now, there is not yet consensus on the definition of DPI.

Technological capabilities and the capacity of institutions to implement such projects at scale also remain a significant challenge in the absence of clarity on DPI’s scope and focus across countries.

India’s G20 Presidency this year has made digital public infrastructure a priority, and by way of convening the world’s first Global DPI Summit in June 2023, it offers an opportunity for the global community to build interoperable frameworks and develop domestic infrastructure to enable widespread solutions to meet the UN SDGs.

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

Digital public infrastructure holds tremendous potential in driving sustainability practices and mitigating environmental impact.

With DPI as a priority on the 2023 G20 technology agenda, the current moment presents a ripe opportunity for countries around the world to invest in it and leverage its comprehensive benefits.

By harnessing the power of technology through digital public infrastructure, public and private sector stakeholders can optimize resource usage, reduce carbon emissions, foster environmental awareness, and create a greener and more resilient world.

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