Podcast 🎧 & blog: Open innovation is steering digital public goods

15.05.2024 | Federico Plantera

Digital frontiers are constantly reshaping the world, making digital diplomacy and public digital infrastructure critical areas of innovation and policy. Naturally, as governments navigate the complexities of fast-paced technological advancements that actively impact society, the need for a robust digital public infrastructure (DPI) and the effective use of digital public goods (DPG) becomes crucial.

In this last instalment of our Podcast before the upcoming e-Governance Conference 2024, we spoke to Nele Leosk, Ambassador-at-Large for Digital Affairs in the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The paths of digital progress and civic empowerment are tied and bound together, so how nations can benefit from sharing and re-using digital tools to enhance governance?


But first, what is tech diplomacy?

Tech diplomacy is an evolving landscape, though definitely one where governments are showing increasing commitment. Here, the roles of digital and cyber disciplines increasingly intertwine. “Digital will deal with everything bright, and cyber will deal with everything dark, simply put. But currently, these distinctions are not clear cut – something that is exemplified by the impact of artificial intelligence on risk assessments, security, economy, and democracy,” Leosk begins with.

As such, the rapid development of tech diplomacy – within the European Union and globally – underlines its necessity in today’s geopolitically charged digital environment. Because tech diplomacy seamlessly integrates aspects of digital innovation with cybersecurity measures. “Every EU member state has a digital ambassador, and governments are strengthening their units. That’s because digital advancements do not recognise borders, and that is a great thing, as it brings about further globalisation. Everyone potentially can win from using such tech,” Leosk says.

But the increasing interdependence of countries’ technological and geopolitical strategies creates the necessity for tech diplomats, who can navigate this terrain. Tech diplomacy, she argues, is not just about fostering international cooperation on technological advancements; it also involves addressing the inherent risks and ethical considerations these technologies bring. In this sense, the European Union’s approach to tech diplomacy is increasingly becoming a model for other regions, emphasising the need for a perspective that strikes a fair balance between open innovation and safeguarding against cyber threats.


Understanding DPI and DPG – definitions and interconnections

Leosk defines Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) and Digital Public Goods (DPG) as concepts central to advancing inclusive digital ecosystems – in increasingly globalised contexts, made so also by tech itself. And here lies the link with tech diplomacy. DPI refers to the foundational frameworks that enable the likes of interoperability and open-source sharing. “DPI is like the entire system that supports the use of certain products or solutions. It’s not just about the technology but includes legal frameworks, organisational processes, skills, and infrastructure,” Leosk explains.

DPGs, instead, typically indicate tangible products or services beneficial to the public, and that adhere to principles of open access. Leosk highlights the importance of these frameworks in democratising technology access, enhancing societal benefits, and ensuring equitable digital advancement.

Indeed, DPI and DPGs can be instrumental towards creating sustainable and inclusive digital ecosystems. DPI serves as the backbone, supporting various digital operations and services that can be implemented for public benefit, while DPGs are openly accessible resources that enhance global digital cooperation. Open access, sharing, and re-use are key towards better solving problems – across governments and organisations – that after all, perhaps, are not so new as we might individually be brought to think.

“We (societies) have come to realise that our problems and needs are not so different. We all need to authenticate ourselves digitally, share data. This understanding is one of the main reasons why DPI and DPGs, as talking points, are becoming prominent,” Leosk says.


Challenges and effective practices in re-using digital solutions

But the re-utilisation and scaling of digital solutions, at least so far, might not sound as easy as it does. Challenges are plenty, from technical issues to governance barriers. “A lot of governments have started to develop and deploy open-source solutions, and make some available. But still, we don’t see as much reuse of the systems, or adopting or developing further these already existing solutions,” she points out.

For example, despite the availability of open-source solutions and the push toward digital inclusivity, significant barriers persist in implementation. These include infrastructural problems, political resistance, and a lack of adequate skills among organisations’ personnel. “So it’s not mainly a technological issue. Whether the product is open source or not, is not the main determinant of its potential success. It’s about how you implement the solution and actually make it work with the public good in mind,” Leosk says.

However successful strategies for overcoming these challenges exist, and one of those is fostering partnerships between governments, private sectors, and international bodies to share knowledge, resources, and best practices. In this case, it is a matter of sustainability of the solutions envisioned or adopted. “The sustainability of a solution is important. For instance, Estonia and Finland nailed it with the Nordic Institute of Interoperability Solutions in 2016, ensuring the sustainability and effective maintenance of X-Road, the secure open-source interoperability platform.”


Digital public goods, digital public infrastructure and commons are shaping the digital societies of tomorrow. So the question is how can policymakers navigate the challenges of reusing, adopting, and scaling existing digital solutions and create synergies across national, European, and international digitalization initiatives to deliver effective digital public goods. The panel session at the upcoming e-Governance Conference 2024 will give the floor to Mr. Bosun Tijani, Minister of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy, Federal Republic of Nigeria and Tiago Carneiro Peixoto, Coordinator for Digital Government Services at the World Bank to hear some examples and lessons. Join us at the e-Governance Conference on 22 May for discussion on “Uncovering the potential of digital public infrastructure”.

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