Digital Public Infrastructure is the modern world’s equivalent of roads, bridges and railways.

For a common person, Digital Public Infrastructure, or DPI, can be understood as an intermediate, or an in-between layer in the digital ecosystem. This in-between layer sits on top of a physical layer. The physical layer can mean connectivity, devices, servers, data centers, routers etc. The in-between layer is used to support an apps layer which sits on the top of the in-between layer. The apps layer is something that provides varied solutions to different verticals, for example e-commerce, cash transfers, remote education, tele-health and any other problem that may need a resolution.

DPI therefore acts as a connection bridge. Its uses can be massive – from offering services — from mobile payments to verifying health records at massive scale, to deploying “smart” technologies which help to close the gap between national commitments to environmental and development goals.

Let us do a recap and go back in time to Aadhaar. When it was launched several years ago to build a unique identification system for Indians, there were many questions and many more skeptics. To be honest, I too sat on the fence for quite some time. No one in their dreams would have imagined it would serve as the foundation block of India’s DPI ecosystem. The project was initially envisaged to offer digital identity proof and it was later bundled to establish and confirm identity for availing the various government schemes and subsidies.

When the Indian government first thought of the idea of JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) trinity back in the 2014-15 Economic Survey, Aadhaar came in very handy. The government machinery, together with India’s extremely capable and successful IT sector, worked towards linking Jan Dhan accounts with Aadhaar and mobile numbers to plug the leakage of government subsidies.

This gave Indians the first taste of a digital public infrastructure.

The UPI or Unified Payments Interface saw widespread adoption as it changed the very thesis of payments in India. The development created a new wave of fintech startups. India‘s fintech revolution was aided by products such as QR codes, and giants such as PhonePe, Paytm and Google Pay became well-known household and street names.

Soon the National Health stack and the Government e-marketplace began to take shape. The recent development, which is an evolving work-in-progress is the ambitious Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), which is deploying open protocols to boost adoption of ecommerce in India and bring thousands of smaller merchants on the ecommerce bandwagon.

Some more interesting solutions are in the pipeline.

India, a country which has always been scoffed at for its lack of good quality physical infrastructure, has experienced a radical transformation in the digital space. This is truly remarkable for a country that used cash for 90 percent of its transactions till some time ago.

Digital payments have hugely reshaped the universe of transactions. To quote Inc42, in January 2023 alone, eight billion such transactions, worth nearly $200 billion, were carried out involving 300 million people and 50 million merchants. August 2023 had 10.5 billion transactions.

It is important to note that the word “public” in DPI can be deceptive. Global governments and policymakers, technology companies, NGOs, civil society groups, entrepreneurs, and independent programmers all have major roles to play. While the ultimate responsibility shifts to the government of any country, businesses will need to chip in to step up in many ways. So maybe DPI could be rephrased to DIGITAL PUBLIC-PRIVATE INFRASTRUCTURE.

In building the digital ecosystem’s physical layer and providing services, businesses have taken a good lead. These products and devices are being leveraged for public use. This makes them most convenient for adoption and for providing the quickest, cost-effective solutions.

Having created a strong foundation of the DPI network in the nation, our government has ambitious intentions on taking the India Stack global. At the G20 summit, Indian officials have done a wonderful job by showcasing the India stack products to global leaders and also actively seeking their cooperation to take these products across the world. As more and more people join the digital fold, India could be looking at creating an unparalleled digital public infrastructure juggernaut, provided it continues with the brisk pace of innovation.

If truly sustainable development goals are to be achieved in the areas of in agriculture, education, healthcare, manufacturing, supply chain and financial access, then DPI comes out as one of the strongest global accelerants and contenders.

From this point of view, India has genuinely made the right move by making the digital governance pitch at the G20 Presidency. Hopefully this will be taken by the world in the right spirit and reinvigorate the G20’s relevance in current times.

There is one major stumbling block. Yes, it is possible to offer some DPI services with workarounds to users who do not have internet access. However, eventually the gap will need to be bridged. Yet, achieving universal broadband connectivity across the world will be a hugely daunting and expensive exercise. Therefore, Public-private partnership will be the key to wider deployment of global DPI.

A way to cut the costs of DPI would be to deploy digital public goods (DPGs), as “open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content” with privacy and applicable laws and other best practices.

It is here that India’s IT sector can and will open up a huge business opportunity over the next decade and create a true win-win situation for all global stakeholders.

It’s true. India still has a long way to go. But this time – Game, Set and Match won by India

(This article is written by NIRANJAN GIDWANI, CONSULTANT DIRECTOR | MEMBER UAE SUPERBRANDS COUNCIL | CHARTER MEMBER TIE DUBAI | HBR ADVISORY COUNCIL, and the views expressed in this article are his own)

** Some relevant information sources – credit goes to HBR article and Inc42

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