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Digital public infrastructure can fast-track development efforts by decades. With innovative thinking, it could do even more.

4 mins read

Digital public infrastructure has gained enormous traction recently, as governments, development actors, and corporate actors increasingly recognize its potential to close digital inequity gaps around the world.  The G20 Digital Economy’s Outcome Document is the culmination of such global acknowledgement. It emphasizes that governments can act to ensure the digital future benefits all and mitigates the risks of monopolistic practices, exclusion, and data misuse.   

The Outcome Document specifically outlines a multifaceted and nuanced DPI approach, with a focus on three core functions payments, individual identity, and data exchange. These components are critical to almost all aspects of economic activity, such as allowing people to easily apply for a loan, receive government services, or renew a driver’s license. And, considering the many positive impacts we’re already witnessing, DPI has the potential for even broader application. 

With so many opportunities, I think it’s time we expand our thinking.

While the three known components of DPI are essential to a well-functioning society, I can’t help but think that there could be so many other ways for the DPI approach to be helpful. By expanding our interpretation of what DPI is, we stand to gain enormous benefits for people and communities globally. For example:

  • Let’s think beyond national. With the rise of globalization, cross-border movement is more common today than at any other point in history. Imagine if payment systems, digital IDs, and data exchange abilities were designed and implemented to easily operate across political boundaries. The result would be a better-integrated, more connected world- for everyone. One small, yet encouraging, example of this type of innovation can be found in the European Union’s digital COVID-19 certificate. During the height of the pandemic, this app allowed any person residing in an EU member country to provide proof of vaccination quickly and easily via a personalized QR code. 
  • Let’s think beyond personal. This idea first piqued my interest a few months ago while reflecting on my time in Cambodia. While there, the only way to share where I was living was by using landmarks like “across from the Russian Market and behind the white wall.” The same is true for people across the world, whose countries lack national address registries. In these places, building IDs and farm IDs could provide enormous benefits by enabling services and opportunities that, so far, have proven challenging. Things like vaccinations, humanitarian aid, and data collection would be greatly improved if residents were able to record where and with whom they were living. 
  • Let’s think beyond the known. DPI needn’t be confined to the three layers already commonly understood. There are other “layers” that could make the three-part stack even more powerful for driving inclusion, trust, and competition. These could include, for example, a common security framework or a redressal system for grievances to be logged.

While these examples are by no means exhaustive, they illustrate that the DPI approach can have vast potential – if only we imagine the possibilities.  

Innovative DPI is a huge (and exciting) undertaking. Let’s take the steps we need to harness its potential.

By galvanizing interest around the concept of DPI, we’ve made extraordinary progress. But we shouldn’t stop there. There is still so much room to expand our understanding of DPI and leverage its potential to increase inclusion, equality, and wellbeing globally. Let’s make this vision a reality by committing to the following actions:  

  1. Invest. New approaches to DPI will require risk capital that philanthropies and donors are best poised to support. Underpinned by a strong learning agenda, a DPI innovation fund can fuel greater understanding and press the boundaries of DPI. 
  2. Measure. DPI will be limited to a rallying cry without systematic efforts to measure its value and impact. We must evaluate the characteristics of DPI solutions themselves, as well as the outcomes they promote – especially those related to people’s level of participation, agency, and trust in the systems around them.
  3. Connect. Ultimately, the value of DPI lies in its ability to solve real world problems. As existing and new approaches to DPI are being implemented, let’s connect these innovations to changemakers who are looking to accelerate solutions for inclusive growth, climate response, and so much more.  

Digital public infrastructure clearly has a lot to offer – especially for people and communities historically excluded from digital transformation. Ultimately, my hope is that we are able to leverage this newfound excitement and transform it into long-term, sustainable action. With continued efforts to expand and adapt technology to fit people’s needs, I am confident that DPI will drive extreme economic and social benefits – now, and in the future.