An Explosion of DPI

India’s digital public infrastructure has transformed daily life, with UPI processing billions of transactions monthly. However, global innovations, like mPESA in Kenya and DCash in the Eastern Caribbean, highlight the worldwide growth of DPI. At a recent knowledge-sharing event, global participants recognized India’s leadership in DPI and sought guidance on its design and governance. India’s experience positions it to guide other nations in developing robust digital ecosystems.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

In India, we experience on a daily basis the many manifestations of our digital public infrastructure in almost everything we do. We use the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) to pay anyone, anywhere—from high-end restaurants to street-side vendors selling tender coconut water. We store our credentials in the DigiLocker app on our phones, rarely carrying identity cards on our person because we know that every authority figure—from the traffic policeman to the CISF guard at the airport—is bound to accept our digital identity as proof that we are who we say we are. With applications like DigiYatra, we are experiencing previously impossible levels of convenience when we travel.

The success of this digital public infrastructure (DPI) is evident in the numbers. UPI now regularly clocks in excess of 8 billion transactions a month and is on target to doing over a billion transactions daily. Almost everyone in India has an Aadhaar (India’s unique digital identity), which has so far been used to complete over 89 billion authentications. With over 5.5 billion documents stored on DigiLocker, there is little doubt that Indian citizens repose enough faith in it to use India’s digital infrastructure as a repository of their personal credentials.

Small wonder that so many of us have come to assume that for all things DPI, India is the global epicentre of innovation.

Global Explosion

This, as it happens, is not entirely true. Over the past decade or so, there has been a veritable explosion of digital public innovation around the world. A number of countries have built and deployed digital public infrastructure to deliver a range of different solutions to their people.

In Sierra Leone, the use of digital wallets during the Ebola crisis allowed response workers to receive fast, accurate and secure payments while in the field, significantly augmenting the country’s ability to contain the disease. The mPESA service in Kenya, widely acknowledged to be the world’s earliest mobile money service, has been responsible for lifting an estimated 1 million people out of poverty. In the Eastern Caribbean, DCash, a recently launched central bank digital currency, is already available across four countries, making it the only currency union in the world that has set up a common virtual currency.

The BPNT programme in Indonesia has moved over 1.4 million recipients of subsidised rice to a digital voucher system that has been rated by nine out of 10 recipients as resulting in them getting more and better-quality food. The Safe Water Network’s ‘pay-as-you-drink’ solution in Ghana uses prepaid ‘smart’ metres that can be unlocked using SMS codes that are triggered by mobile payments to improve water service delivery to villages in arid areas. According to the latest Off Grid Solar Markets Trends Report, the availability of PayGo digital solutions to deliver user subsidies has accelerated off-grid solar electrification and improved resilience during the pandemic.

Knowledge Sharing

A couple of weeks ago, at a knowledge and experience sharing programme for emerging economies from the global south, participants from all over the world had the opportunity to get together to discuss how digital public infrastructure had transformed lives in their countries.

While most of the innovations they spoke about had to do with digital payments, there was near universal consensus that this DPI approach had significantly accelerated the achievement of their societal objectives. Almost everyone wanted to learn how they could build on all that they had already achieved to avail even more of the benefits that digital public infrastructure had to offer.

In this, most participants were looking to India for guidance. As much as the programme made it clear that the use of digital public infrastructure was not unique to India, it was evident that nowhere else had it scaled as much or been used to provide solutions across such a wide range of different areas. India’s stack approach made it possible for new innovations to be built on top of those that preceded it, resulting in a deeply enmeshed ecosystem of products that re-used and extended components of the infrastructure in synergistic ways.

All of this was of considerable interest to countries of the Global South, which had already got a taste of what digital public infrastructure could do for them and were eager for more. They wanted to learn about the design principles underpinning India’s digital infrastructure framework and the governance frameworks around which it had been built. While every country has to build digital public infrastructure in its own way so that it can best respond to the specific priorities that it defines, the opportunity to learn how India had leveraged open, interoperable protocols, a modular, extensible design philosophy and federated data storage to create an ecosystem of digital products was widely appreciated.

A Leadership Role

This is the leadership role that India must play on the world stage in the years to come. With over a decade’s worth of experience at building digital systems at population scale, no country is better suited to guide the path of countries looking to achieve the same results. Given the number of different digital ecosystems we have successfully executed at home, India is uniquely positioned to extract the key design principles of universal applicability upon which all digital public infrastructure should be based.

By sharing this knowledge with the world, we can play a significant role in accelerating development.