Bangladesh’s “phygital public infrastructure” bridges DPI theory and practice
By Anir Chowdhury
As Smart Bangladesh transitions from being merely a service provider to a facilitator of inclusive services, the South Asian country is embracing a unique perspective on digital public infrastructure through physical digital centres and national helplines.
Smart Bangladesh’s inclusive ‘Phygital Public Infrastructure’ innovates with an ‘access layer’ and a ‘service layer’. Image: a2i.gov.bd
In the rapidly evolving realm of digital transformation, Bangladesh has emerged as a standout performer. Its government is undergoing a profound shift, transitioning from being merely a service provider to a facilitator of inclusive services. To date, the simplification, digitization and decentralized delivery of public services through public-private partnerships have saved Bangladeshi citizens $22 billion, 19 billion days, and 13 billion visits.
This transformation, driven by the ambitious vision of Smart Bangladesh 2041, recognises that the role of the state extends beyond conventional governance; it encompasses empowering citizens to thrive in the digital era.
At the core of this transformation lies a nuanced interpretation of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI), a term gaining global prominence. DPI encompasses the critical digital capabilities that underpin modern society.
The universal relevance of DPI
DPI holds the potential to benefit every country, provided it can effectively tailor the concept to its specific context and unique national needs. Unlike physical infrastructure, which has limited construction methods, DPI presents virtually limitless possibilities.
Therefore, a “searcher’s” approach, as coined by William Easterly, is necessary. While the infrastructure itself may require centralised planning, the ideas and innovations should emanate from a decentralised, searcher-driven approach.
In its pursuit of establishing a frugal and inclusive DPI, Bangladesh has adopted this searcher approach, drawing inspiration from India Stack, Estonia's X-Road, and Singapore's Moments of Life initiative, among others. The result is a “phygital public infrastructure” that is quintessentially Bangladeshi.
Key elements of Bangladesh’s ‘phygital public infrastructure’
Bangladesh’s “phygital public infrastructure” is characterised by two key elements:
- Identifying Services as the Entry Point: Bangladesh has recognised services as the gateway to DPI, making the concept more accessible and relatable to policymakers and citizens alike.
- Expanding DPI to include an additional ‘Access Layer’: This layer encompasses physical locations and call centers, enhancing DPI accessibility for persons with disabilities and disadvantaged individuals residing in remote rural areas.
In Bangladesh, DPI is not a mere concept; it’s a tangible force for change. The country embarked on its digital journey in 2008 with the vision of Digital Bangladesh 2021. To realise this vision, the digital transformation program a2i was established as a catalyst for inclusive digital transformation within the Prime Minister's Office.
With a focus on open, modular architecture and the use of open source where possible, Bangladesh’s “phygital public infrastructure” now encompasses all three DPI layers: Identity (ID), Payments, and Data Exchange.
Digital Identity: The National ID system covers over 95% of the adult population, contributing significantly to achieving SDG 16.9. Coupled with birth registration, it creates a unique ID linked to various aspects of life, ensuring individuals receive recognition, dignity, and access to essential services.
Digital Payments: Enabled by the Porichoy digital identity infrastructure and e-KYC regulation, digital payment platforms support Government-to-Person (G2P) payments to 30 million beneficiaries and numerous Person-to-Government (P2G) transactions. This citizen-centric system significantly contributes to SDG 8.10.
Data Exchange: Improved data correlation and triangulation across ministries have enhanced targeting for social safety net payments and supported SDG 6.2, which aims to ensure adequate sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.
Promoting last-mile inclusion and gender equality through DPI
With 2.7 billion individuals worldwide lacking internet connectivity, making digital resources and skills accessible to all is paramount. To achieve this, strengthening DPI partnerships with the private sector and community-based organisations has been Smart Bangladesh’s key objective.
Digital Centres have been established to empower tech-savvy young entrepreneurs, embedding them into local digital ecosystems to facilitate the scaling of services for greater inclusion.
Bangladesh now boasts over 9,000 Digital Centres, conveniently located within walking distance of every villager, serving 6 to 7 million people with over 300 public and private services, including birth registration, land records, passports, financial services, and e-commerce.
These Digital Centers, run by young entrepreneurs, serve as the vital access layer to Bangladesh’s “phygital public infrastructure,” bridging the gap between marginalised citizens and digital government services.
Additionally, Bangladesh is committed to advancing SDG5 by mandating the recruitment of women to operate Digital Centers, encouraging conservative rural women to access digital services. This approach, if replicated in other developing regions, could enhance service delivery for over 250 million more women.
Furthermore, Bangladesh’s 333 service, a voice-enabled National Service Access Helpline, extends access to those without smartphones, addressing the needs of citizens with low literacy and limited technology familiarity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 333 played a pivotal role in redirecting calls from impoverished individuals seeking food relief, demonstrating its potential as a lifeline for the most vulnerable in society.
Championing DPI in the Global South
Bangladesh’s dedication to digital transformation and public service innovation has made it a net exporter of knowledge, particularly in digital transformation and public service innovation.
Initiatives like ekShop – the world’s largest government-backed online eCommerce aggregator – and NISE – a national data platform for skills, employment and entrepreneurship – both digital public goods Bangladesh contributed to the DPG Alliance, are being adapted for diverse development contexts in Jordan, Somalia, South Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen.
In 2010, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and former prime minister of New Zealand and UNDP’s global administrator Helen Clark jointly inaugurated the expansive network of 9,000+ Digital Centers right from the heart of Char Kukri Mukri – a small island off the southern coast of Bangladesh.
Its 150,000 inhabitants live on just 25 sq km of low-lying land, large chunks of which go under water at high tide. Born in a thumbprint of a country with a population of over 160 million, they have settled there because they have nowhere else to go.
Now, in partnership with UNDP, Bangladesh is launching the #ZeroDigitalDivide campaign, an initiative committed to ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital revolution.
This campaign draws strength from research, particularly a forthcoming report from the e-Quality Center authored by Dr Selim Jahan, former Director of the Human Development Report Office of UNDP. It addresses inequalities in technology access and capability, offering a holistic approach to tackling progress in reducing digital inequality in public service delivery, education, health, employment, and gender through the annual publication of a global ‘e-Quality Index’.
The unprecedented number of high-level events and round table discussions during the recent UN General Assembly underscores the significance of these issues. It bodes well for the “2030 Agenda” that the United Nations has prioritized DPI as one of its 'High Impact Initiatives.'
It can maximize the opportunities for digitization to support the SDGs and reduce the risks that digital technologies may bring. Bangladesh looks forward to participating in and contributing to the collective action needed to unlock targeted support for DPI implementation and achieving Zero Digital Divide globally.
Anir Chowdhury is the Policy Advisor of the a2i Program of the ICT Division and the Cabinet Division of the Government of Bangladesh supported by the UNDP and Gates Foundation. In this capacity, he leads the formation of a whole-of-society innovation ecosystem in Bangladesh through massive technology deployment, extensive capacity development, integrated policy formulation, whole-of-government institutional reform, and an Innovation Fund.
His work on innovation in public service has developed interesting and replicable models of service delivery decentralization, public-private partnerships, and transformation of a traditional bureaucracy into a forward-looking, citizen-centric service provider. He is a regular speaker in international conferences on public service innovation and reform, digital financial inclusion, civil registration and digital identity management, SDGs, youth and community empowerment, educational transformation, public-private partnerships, and South-South Cooperation.