Policy
Public Tech
October 9, 2023

Unpacking Digital Public Infrastructure: Navigating Conceptual Ambiguities

In their policy brief for the Think20, Aarushi Gupta and Aman Nair examine the dominant rhetoric around Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) - characterised at present by its uncritical nature and definitional variation.
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Unpacking Digital Public Infrastructure: Navigating Conceptual Ambiguities
illustration by:
Michael Dziedzic

While there is a substantial amount of advocacy-oriented information around the use of DPI to address a diverse spread of issues including climate change and gender empowerment, little has been written about DPI’s conceptual foundations, its etymological origins, and/or the defining set of features that set it apart from other forms of digital technologies. Despite this paucity of literature, two clear trends have begun to manifest from work that examines their conceptual origins and definitions. The first trend is the use of value-laden concepts as a basis for defining DPIs, with these definitions often either uncritically asserting DPI’s potential benefits or offering a set of desirable standards that DPI must exhibit to achieve the said benefits. We refer to these as normative definitions. The second emergent trend is that of definitions reliant on a set of cherry-picked functionalities for which implementation of all-encompassing digital technologies is either already underway or has supposedly been effective in select contexts. We refer to these as inductive definitions. Both these categories largely latently endorse the use of digital technologies for their stated functionalities and ultimately end up contributing to the ongoing uncritical rhetoric.


Beyond conceptual questions, we examine the existing discourse in the context of argumentation that has emerged in favour of DPIs and their implementation. Two overlapping clusters of arguments have emerged in favour of DPI. The first, emerging primarily from high-income countries, mostly revolves around DPI’s potential to limit the growing market power of private technology corporations over digital infrastructure vital to people’s lives. The second cluster of arguments is markedly different from the first one in that it exhibits a much more aggressive form of fusion between development goals and large-scale digital technologies - with this line of argumentation emerging primarily from low and middle-income countries. Although it is completely justifiable for proponents of DPI to have multi-faceted motivations, it is important to resolve possible paradoxes in the discourse.


The current status of uncritical discourse around DPI can have tangible implications on policymaking, including (i) leapfrogging questions around applicability, (ii) subverting empiricism, (iii) sidestepping questions around risks, and (iv) fundamental shifting responsibility for service delivery from public to private.


Preventing the emergence of these challenges, and sharpening the DPI discourse requires coordinated multilateral action. The G20 represents an ideal forum to facilitate the achievement of these goals through the following measures:
i) Coordinating efforts related to consensus building around DPI’s features and phraseology,
ii) Initiating the development of assessment frameworks that can guide applicability and suitability tests prior to DPI implementation,
iii) Encouraging member countries to direct funding towards longitudinal studies that assess the impact of various kinds of DPI,
iv) Issuing guidelines to member countries regarding DPI implementation- conditions related to public consultation, parliamentary debates, and rights-based frameworks.



You can download the brief from the top-left corner or read it online on the T20 website
here.

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Michael Dziedzic
illustration by:
Michael Dziedzic

Unpacking Digital Public Infrastructure: Navigating Conceptual Ambiguities

In their policy brief for the Think20, Aarushi Gupta and Aman Nair examine the dominant rhetoric around Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) - characterised at present by its uncritical nature and definitional variation.

While there is a substantial amount of advocacy-oriented information around the use of DPI to address a diverse spread of issues including climate change and gender empowerment, little has been written about DPI’s conceptual foundations, its etymological origins, and/or the defining set of features that set it apart from other forms of digital technologies. Despite this paucity of literature, two clear trends have begun to manifest from work that examines their conceptual origins and definitions. The first trend is the use of value-laden concepts as a basis for defining DPIs, with these definitions often either uncritically asserting DPI’s potential benefits or offering a set of desirable standards that DPI must exhibit to achieve the said benefits. We refer to these as normative definitions. The second emergent trend is that of definitions reliant on a set of cherry-picked functionalities for which implementation of all-encompassing digital technologies is either already underway or has supposedly been effective in select contexts. We refer to these as inductive definitions. Both these categories largely latently endorse the use of digital technologies for their stated functionalities and ultimately end up contributing to the ongoing uncritical rhetoric.


Beyond conceptual questions, we examine the existing discourse in the context of argumentation that has emerged in favour of DPIs and their implementation. Two overlapping clusters of arguments have emerged in favour of DPI. The first, emerging primarily from high-income countries, mostly revolves around DPI’s potential to limit the growing market power of private technology corporations over digital infrastructure vital to people’s lives. The second cluster of arguments is markedly different from the first one in that it exhibits a much more aggressive form of fusion between development goals and large-scale digital technologies - with this line of argumentation emerging primarily from low and middle-income countries. Although it is completely justifiable for proponents of DPI to have multi-faceted motivations, it is important to resolve possible paradoxes in the discourse.


The current status of uncritical discourse around DPI can have tangible implications on policymaking, including (i) leapfrogging questions around applicability, (ii) subverting empiricism, (iii) sidestepping questions around risks, and (iv) fundamental shifting responsibility for service delivery from public to private.


Preventing the emergence of these challenges, and sharpening the DPI discourse requires coordinated multilateral action. The G20 represents an ideal forum to facilitate the achievement of these goals through the following measures:
i) Coordinating efforts related to consensus building around DPI’s features and phraseology,
ii) Initiating the development of assessment frameworks that can guide applicability and suitability tests prior to DPI implementation,
iii) Encouraging member countries to direct funding towards longitudinal studies that assess the impact of various kinds of DPI,
iv) Issuing guidelines to member countries regarding DPI implementation- conditions related to public consultation, parliamentary debates, and rights-based frameworks.



You can download the brief from the top-left corner or read it online on the T20 website
here.

Browse categories

Scroll right