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We Should Move From Digital Development to Digital Transformation

By Wayan Vota on October 27, 2022

digital transformation

At the recent event exploring How Mobile Phones are Catalyzing an African Revolution, I was excited to hear Christopher Burns expanding on the idea that we are now transcending the digital revolution – moving from digital development to digital transformation. It’s about time!

Back when I started in international development, candy bar Nokia phones were cutting edge – for those few who had mobile coverage. Now, GSMA reports that 95% of the world’s population is covered by mobile broadband services. Yet only 60% are using mobile internet, which leaves a 40% usage gap that I don’t see closing through private sector initiatives alone.

Chris made a good case that digital development was mainly a market led intervention. The private sector took the lead with opportunistic and somewhat random investments to capture market share, usually starting with rich urban professionals, and only begrudgingly moving into poor, rural, and other typically underserved areas.

This reluctance to create truly inclusive digital development invited justified skepticism. At the same event, Revi Sterling pointed out that it’s not a killer application or any technology alone that will drive change. We need to have a change in the social norms, in the political climate, and in increased regulatory involvement.

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The Shift to Digital Transformation

That’s why Chris had my rapt attention when he talked about how digital transformation is mainly a public sector led model. He noted that developing-country governments are being strategic and deliberate, focusing on foundational aspects of digital public infrastructure to bring broader digital transformation, socioeconomic growth, and holistic development.

Let’s take Estonia for example. In the early 1990s, it received $30 million from USAID to support its transformation from a state-controlled economy under communist rule to a market-oriented democracy. By 1996, it graduated from US foreign assistance, and by 1998 it was launching X-Road, the first step on its journey to becoming a digital state with digital citizens. X-Road is open-source software that provides secure data exchange between systems and powers Estonain digital identify, online payments, data interoperability, and cybersecurity.

Now more than 2,300 public and private services use X-Road, and the digital signature has been used over 350 million times by Estonia’s population of 1.3 million to sign any contract, and access over 99% of public services, even voting.

The focus on reusable core digital public infrastructure services is the basis for the GovStack Model where Estonia is now exporting its insights as a donor. The GovStack building blocks are enterprise-ready, reusable software components that provide key functionality facilitating generic workflows across multiple sectors. They can be used to inform design in various e-government services and reused in multiple government e-services.

We are also seeing this shift to digital transformation in the way governments are moving from a Ministry of ICT to a Ministry of Digital Transformation, appointing Digital Ambassadors and Cybersecurity Directors, and fostering a growing cohort of policy makers that recognize we are doing development in a digital world.

Digital is Development Transformation

It is time that we recognize success in economic and social progress requires digital transformation in everything we do. For example, we’ve focused on financial inclusion for years. Chris pointed out that today we must focus on digital financial inclusion, as finance is digital – you cannot separate the two.

Therefore, as UNDP says, digital transformation is about technology and strategy, organizational change, and new ways of working.  It is a journey, not a destination. We need to stop thinking of digital as separate from development. Digital is development transformation in 2022 and beyond.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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One Comment to “We Should Move From Digital Development to Digital Transformation”

  1. Alissa Stern says:

    Thank you for highlighting the need to change culture and behavior to transform how societies are using — and increasingly benefiting — from the internet. Technological transformation of course is important, but we need changes in behavior to benefit from and improve that technology.