Open Digital Ecosystems: Next frontier for Digital India

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Mumbai:  India is on the cusp of a paradigm shift in the way digital solutions are being deployed for large-scale societal impact; getting the ‘non tech’ elements right will be critical.

A report by Omidyar Network India, an investment firm focussed on social impact, and consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) states that India is at an inflection point in its digitization journey. Over the course of a decade, India has undergone a digital revolution – from modest beginnings of downloading forms and being able to view the status of an application online to paying taxes online and receiving welfare payments digitally.

And today, we stand at a new frontier – India is leading the world in building shared digital infrastructure that can be leveraged by both government and private sector to unlock new solutions and enhance citizen experience.

The report describes this approach of designing technology infrastructure which can unlock economic and societal value, while minimising risks and possible harms, as ‘Open Digital Ecosystems’ or ODEs.

ODEs are defined as: “open and secure Digital Platforms that enable a Community of actors to unlock transformative solutions for society, based on a robust Governance framework”. It identifies three layers to help bring an ODE to life – digital platforms comprising technology infrastructure and solutions built on top; community comprising builders, facilitators and end users; and a third layer of governance which consists of laws and rules and the accountable institutions that uphold them.

The ODE approach suggests that the government should focus on creating the ‘digital commons’; enable interoperability between siloed systems, so that innovators can build on top, by leveraging open source software, data, standards, licenses and APIs.

The recently announced National Digital Health Mission by the Prime Minister, which aims to create an integrated interoperable digital health platform for all health related services, is an example of the ODE approach.

Efforts like India Stack, DIKSHA and the National Urban Innovation Stack have also adopted a similar approach in other sectors. While the report estimates the potential impact of this approach, it also points out significant risks that may arise, such as the risks of data centralization, which need to be addressed through a robust governance framework and safeguards that protect the citizen’s data.

Speaking on the significance of ODEs, Omidyar Network India MD RoopaKudva said, “ODEs are the new frontier of digital India. India has been a pioneer in the movement to build ‘digital highways’ – we were one of the first developing countries to have a population scale Digital ID initiative, and have built digital payments infrastructure such as UPI.

Even during this pandemic, the government was able to transfer INR 37 thousand crores directly to the bank accounts of 16 crore citizens using India’s digital infrastructure. At the same time, we must take care of critical issues like privacy and agency of individuals over their personal data.

The report estimates that by 2030, 10 high potential National ODEs (NODEs) in sectors like health, agriculture, justice, etc., can collectively create new economic value of USD 500+ billion (INR 35+ lakh crore) or 5.5% of the projected GDP in 2030, and also generate USD 200+ billion (INR 15+ lakh crores) in savings. 

The report builds on the ideas laid out in a whitepaper on National Open Digital Ecosystems (NODEs) which was published earlier this year for a public consultation, by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY), Government of India. In addition to elaborating the impact potential and key risks of ODEs, the report also offers a set of guiding principles and a practical toolkit, that provide a ‘how to’ guide for practitioners, to take this movement forward.

Speaking at the launch of the report, J Satyanarayana, Advisor, National Digital Health Mission and former chairperson, UIDAI, said, “We need to raise the bar from systems-thinking to ecosystems-thinking. Digital ecosystems can evolve faster if we create the right environment, which includes open-standards based architecture, data policies, collaborative design, and innovation. Leveraging legacy systems can help adoption. Well-crafted ODEs will open up a huge world of opportunities for innovation & value added services.”

Dr Rajendra Kumar, Additional Secretary, MEITY, added, “ODEs are an important area of work for India with the potential to make governance and service delivery truly citizen-centric across sectors, while at the same time spurring innovation driven by entrepreneurs who build solutions on top of the core digital infrastructure. MEITY has been working on e-governance and common digital infrastructure in different domains. I believe this report as well as a practitioner’s toolkit will make a valuable contribution in building citizen-centric, responsible ODEs in India.”

Saibal Chakraborty, Managing Director and Partner, BCG stated, “The ODE approach holds tremendous potential for India across sectors, including agriculture, logistics, smart cities, skilling and employment, and MSMEs. These ODEs can unlock new services for individuals and businesses and support digital-first delivery models at scale.”

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