Experts Agree: Digital Public Goods are the Key to Sustainable Development

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Experts Agree: Digital Public Goods are the Key to Sustainable Development
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Our world faces urgent threats, from climate change to deepening inequality. Fortunately, proven solutions exist to secure more equitable, resilient societies. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ratified by all member states, provide an ambitious blueprint to eradicate poverty and shift economies onto sustainable trajectories by 2030. The digital transformation has catalyzed multinational collaboration to address collective risks and challenges. The United Nations is actively enhancing multi-stakeholder cooperation in science, technology, and innovation through its Technology Facilitation Mechanism to achieve the SDGs. Realizing the importance of digital technologies, the UN Secretary-General convened a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation in 2018. The subsequent Report of the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation emphasized key issues surrounding the digital sphere. The report recommended the promotion of an inclusive digital economy and society, digital public goods (DPGs), digital inclusion, improving digital capacity, establishing digital human rights, responsible applications of AI, digital trust and security, and global digital cooperation (1-3).

However, uneven progress has led to unrealized potential, as the COVID-19 crisis has thrown millions more into turmoil. This is where DPGs offer immense untapped promise, if strategically directed towards the world’s shared objectives. In a recent Scientific Data paper, we report the potential for DPGs to accelerate implementation of the SDGs globally. DPGs encompass open-access digital assets like public datasets, analytical models, and computing code that governments, researchers, and community groups can freely access and build upon. We surveyed 51 senior experts across scientific fields from remote sensing to AI regarding strategies for harnessing DPGs to enable timelier, more equitable gains across the SDGs worldwide.

Insights from Global Leaders on DPGs Serving SDGs

The consulted experts overwhelmingly agreed that effectively implemented DPGs can help achieve sustainable development targets. As one reflected, digital tools and big data capabilities are now central across scientific realms. Another emphasized that open access models encouraging collective contributions can stimulate innovation tailored to context-specific monitoring gaps inhibiting local progress.

However, experts also stressed that significant coordination is vital for DPGs to translate raw data into meaningful, actionable insights across unique regions. As one observed, critical factors remain less about technical capacity than “the will and ability to act” among stakeholders at all levels to apply resulting knowledge.

Proposed Principles to Guide Purpose-driven DPG Efforts

Experts proposed an open science process, shown in Figure 1, to facilitate DPG development and adoption for tracking progress on SDG indicators. Additionally, they identified six core design principles to develop DPGs that effectively serve sustainable development priorities:

  • Accessibility - DPGs should offer free usage rights and public access to fuel research and awareness.
  • Inclusivity - Development and application should proactively engage diverse locales and users.
  • Innovation - Participatory open development can enable tailored solutions bridging monitoring gaps.
  • Standardization - DPGs require verification, documentation, and quality control for reliable adoption.
  • Capacity Building - Practitioner training is key for understanding usage across contexts.
  • Policy Dialogue - Supportive governance frameworks reinforce open access and data sharing.

Fig. Proposed community-driven open-science process to develop DPGs for SDG indicators.

Co-Creating Solutions through Common Purpose

Guided by these principles, an inclusive initiative is proposed where diverse developers co-create modular DPG components tailored to localized monitoring needs. For example, an open rainfall projection model created in India could be adjusted for drought preparedness in Namibia. Exportable training programs centered on applying DPGs would enable broad adoption. Such a collaborative approach allows regular innovation while ensuring the compatibility and quality control necessary for indicator accounting across settings.

Realizing DPG Potential through Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration

Successfully harnessing DPGs ultimately requires cooperation across borders and sectors. But momentum is building, from cloud computing advances to open science policies and investments prioritizing equitable technology access. Our proposed participatory framework offers a starting point to galvanize strategic DPG development for the world’s shared social and environmental objectives. If collectively pursued, DPGs can form an invaluable backbone enabling society to leverage insights from satellite feeds to smartphone data for more sustainable, just futures - the opportunity is ours to grasp.

References

  1. UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. The Age of Digital Interdependence. https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3865925 (2019).
  2. United Nations. Report of the Secretary-General Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. https://www.un.org/en/content/digitalcooperationroadmap/assets/pdf/Roadmap_for_Digital_Cooperation_EN.pdf (2020).
  3. United Nations. Our Common Agenda – Report of the Secretary-General. https://www.un.org/en/content/common-agenda-report/ assets/pdf/Common_Agenda_Report_English.pdf (2021).

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