A Policymaker’s Guide to Digital Infrastructure

Transforming traditional “bricks and mortar” infrastructures into “hybrid” digital infrastructures will unlock new economic opportunities, create jobs, and improve quality of life.

Infrastructure has always been important to nations’ economic growth and success, but the infrastructure needed for today’s economy is rapidly changing with advances in information and communications technology (ICT). This new infrastructure—some of it hybrid infrastructure that integrates both physical and digital aspects, some of it pure digital infrastructure—is critical to delivering the next wave of innovation and economic growth to all but the very poorest of nations.

Some have argued that there is little innovation in infrastructure because—just like 50 or even 100 years ago—cars still drive on roads; planes fly in the air; and trains run on tracks. But while there may be innovations in physical infrastructures (e.g., self-healing concrete), many of today’s opportunities for improvement depend on embedding digital technologies in physical infrastructures.

Successfully building out digital infrastructure (hybrid and purely digital) across all types of infrastructure will unlock new economic opportunities, job creation, and better quality of life. Nations stand to benefit from digital infrastructure in the following areas:

  • Capacity expansion: increased use of both existing and new infrastructures;
  • Time savings and convenience: reduce congestion, simplify operations, and enable more informed decisionmaking;
  • Cost savings: minimize waste, boost efficiency, and create more flexibility in the provision of key services;
  • Improved reliability: reduce unpredictability and interruptions in the provision of key services; and
  • Enhanced safety: improve resiliency to threats and interruptions.

However, there are numerous barriers to realizing the economic and societal benefits of digital infrastructure. These include costly and outdated regulatory policies, a lack of public funding for investment, a scarce talent pool of individuals trained in ICT skills, and largely ill-founded fears about the privacy and security of data.

Given these barriers, governments and the private sector should work together to develop comprehensive national strategies to facilitate more rapid development and deployment of digital infrastructures. In part this will also mean increasing public investment in digital infrastructure and reforming regulatory policies to create a friendlier environment for digital infrastructure. Finally, policymakers will need to prevent overwrought privacy concerns from slowing progress. These technologies can be deployed in ways that protect users’ privacy, despite the often shrill warnings of privacy advocates to the contrary.