Working paper

How can digital public technologies accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals?

Digital transformation Sustainable Development Goals Digital communications

Rapid shifts in digital technologies are changing the context for pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the best cases, these technologies have contributed to massive improvements in access to public services and economic opportunities for millions of people. In the worst cases, they have opened the door to new forms of government surveillance, exacerbated inequalities, and encouraged social divisions. Many private firms also have enormous influence in shaping the interface between digital technology and societal well-being. Against this backdrop, a growing movement is emphasising the need for digital public goods and digital public infrastructure.

This paper focuses on 'digital public technology' (DPT), meaning digital assets that create a level playing field for broad access or use—by virtue of being publicly owned, publicly regulated, or open source. We consider how they could support greater progress toward the SDGs’ overarching 2030 deadline, with an emphasis on issues of extreme deprivation and basic needs. None of the relevant SDG indicators are fully on course for success by 2030, although some—like child mortality, access to electricity, access to sanitation, and access to drinking water—are on track to achieve gains for more than half the relevant populations in need. Some indicators are on a path to less than half the needed gains, including stunting, extreme income poverty, maternal mortality, access to family planning, primary school completion, and non-communicable disease mortality. Other issues like undernourishment and children overweight are moving backwards.

At least three levers can help “level the playing field” of platform infrastructure such that a wide array of service providers can utilize the infrastructure equally:

1. Public ownership and governance: The most straightforward way in which platform infrastructure can be designed to serve the public good is through public ownership. When a government owns the underlying platform and makes it freely available to utilize, the government is creating the conditions for interoperability on top of its platform.

2. Public regulation: A platform need not be publicly owned and governed for it to be non-excludable. There are several examples whereby ownership is private, but government regulators take a proactive role in setting rules that will maximize interoperability and, thus, non-exclusionary tendencies. Regulation can also create structural separation such that an infrastructure provider cannot be a service provider.

3. Open code, standards, and protocols: The design of platform infrastructure can be opaque in nature or opened to broader scrutiny and technical support using open-source code, standards, and protocols. The value of relying on the opensource community depends on a sufficiency of active participants who are ensuring platform infrastructure is secure and inclusive and fosters trust with users. 

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Brookings Global Working Paper 174