Inclusive growth relies heavily on the degree of digital penetration, making digital futures and sustainable development deeply interconnected. Development in the digital sphere is crucial to attaining SDG targets through resilient Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) in which India is a global leader today. G20 is a platform to leverage our mastery of digital innovation for the shared growth of developing and emerging economies and to deliberate on actionables to tackle challenges.

In the coming years, technological capabilities and investment in digital infrastructure are going to play a central role in the achievement of the SDGs. However, the current model is skewed as digital economies are dominated by a handful of actors from a select few industrialized economies. The oligarchic model of digital entrepreneurship could be hazardous owing to limited political accountability, market concentration, and total transgressions with a few actors dominating a wide range of sectors. As for the less industrialized economies, it is critical to reconsider leveraging technology cost-effectively for efficient public goods delivery and sustainable development. 

Digital Public  Infrastructure (DPI) are entities that control, enable, and mediate the flow of people, money, and information. For instance, empowerment via data mechanisms have grown hand in hand with the development of IndiaStack. This has unlocked a new domain pertaining to data ownership and digital transformation, which can address the deepening challenges of waste and sanitation, gender equity, regulatory frameworks and more. Although the link between digital public infrastructure and development is yet to be established, India’s focus on digital public infrastructure is well-placed. India is developing a fairly innovative and new approach in this space by creating a competitive and even-playing field. This stands in stark contrast to the first two generations of public infrastructure including means of communication and transportation which are monopolized to a large degree. Nevertheless, there are genuine concerns regarding breaches of data privacy, data weaponization, and data colonization which require policy thinking through a techno-legal framework.  

India’s successful experiment in establishing all three segments of people-money-information flow through DPI can act as a model for the G20 countries to replicate.  In a world that is increasingly driven by data and algorithms, there is a large scope for operationalizing DPI in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service sectors. Such initiatives must be backed by policies through a synergy of public technology and public policy and coordinated action. For instance, improving the quality of education through e-learning and expanding access to health services can help reduce intergenerational poverty. In addition to this, India’s Open Network for Digital Commerce is a platform that aims to support and widen the digital market access to micro, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through the decentralization of e-commerce. 

A cost-efficient, interoperable, and scalable project to drive sustainability initiatives is the need of the hour for emerging and developing economies. The key challenge pertains to finding a common ground between sustainable development and digital futures. For this, priority should be attributed to strengthening resilience by building hyper-local solutions demanded by sectors such as food security, education, financial inclusion, and minority empowerment. Precision, predictability, productivity, and profitability must form the foundational plank while integrating sustainability initiatives with DPI. 

We require smart and credible authorities and governments to prioritize solution-led initiatives and regulatory frameworks that look at not only gains from the technology but its equitable distribution as well. Hence, the need of the hour is to expedite the role of technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, IoT, nano-based devices and more, through an outlook of using existing and emerging digital frameworks to address persistent national and global challenges. Sharing of technological know-how through platforms like G20 would propel India’s image as a global leader. A case in point is the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), an identity system created by India and adopted by nine countries benefiting 350 million people.  

Caution must be exercised in operationalizing DPI which will determine how closely linked it will be to attaining SDG targets. India should lead the deliberations for creating open standards for all digital public infrastructure so that the public can use it seamlessly. Infrastructural development must be accompanied by a digital literacy program to inculcate common standards so that interoperability becomes a reality. 

On the other hand, the third generation of infrastructure, unlike the first two, must not fall into the trap of authoritarian or monopolistic management. This can be achieved through independent governance mechanisms overseen by multiple stakeholders. A task force or working group instituted by the G20 member countries, but independent of the governments could be adopted to spearhead multi-stakeholder engagement and governance. 

Operational standards must be adopted through plurilateral mechanisms like the G20 where emerging and developing economies and their unique contexts are represented. This would also be crucial in steering away from an oligarchic structure dominated by BigTech where a handful of advanced industrialized economies gain a regulatory upper hand at the cost of the citizen’s agency. India’s robust framework with respect to data has been operationalized at a scale that we haven’t seen in any other part of the world. 

Sharon Susan Koshy is Visiting Fellow at Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement, Kathmandu

Aishwarya Sebastian is Research Intern at the Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi.

This article was first published in The daily guardian

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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