Putting People at the Heart of Technological Advancement: A Conversation with UNDP Chief Digital Officer, Robert Opp

June 4, 2024
Eldery people in Cuttack

Last week, at the 20th anniversary of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS +20) and the AI for Good Global Summit, UNDP shared lessons on how it leverages artificial intelligence to ensure the well-being of people and the planet is at the heart of digital transformation.

How are discussions at WISIS+20 mirroring what is happening globally in convenings like the Brazil G20 and the Italy G7 Presidencies, or the Hamburg Sustainability Conference?

WSIS is a multi-stakeholder platform that brings together diverse participants from governments, civil society and international organizations. It addresses some of the world's most significant challenges, particularly leveraging digital technology to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What makes WSIS so effective is its commitment to a ‘people at the centre’ approach to digital technology, aligned with the original goals of the WSIS process. UNDP is proud to serve as one of the conveners of the annual WSIS Forum along with ITU, UNESCO and UNCTAD.

UNDP leads much of the work around building safe and inclusive digital public infrastructure. What is DPI first and foremost, and what does a framework for trust look like in a digital world?

Digital public infrastructure (DPI) is a new phrase describing a set of technology layers which countries have developed over the last 10 to 15 years. We normally explain digital public infrastructure as the digital equivalent of what we see in physical infrastructure. For example, countries and governments put in place physical infrastructure like roads, bridges or airports which are used by individuals, companies and the government itself. Digital public infrastructure is the same but in the digital space. There are layers of technology that work together in an interoperable way — such as digital identity, digital payments platforms — making data exchangeable and interoperable. The end goal is to offer public services to people in a more effective way.

What is UNDP doing in the DPI space?

UNDP has been deeply involved in looking at experiences around the world, how countries are putting different technologies together, to make sure the right digital infrastructures have the right governance frameworks and safeguards in place.

For example, at the G20 last year under the Indian Presidency, we supported the process of defining, with consensus, what digital public infrastructure is. Now, going forward, we work with countries to understand what problems they are trying to solve, what the right kinds of setups are, and where can we draw inspiration from, whether it's India, Bangladesh, Estonia, Brazil, or other pioneers in the digital space.

In conjunction with the Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology, we are working on the global process of creating digital public infrastructure safeguards. This process involves building a framework comprised of principles, practices and processes that are effective in prioritizing people's privacy and people's rights. Beyond the right technology to develop DPI, there must also be the right framework to ensure inclusivity, trust and transparency.

There's a lot of discussion around AI and how it can benefit people, especially now that we're at WSIS and the AI for Good Summit. How is UNDP making sure that AI benefits everybody, everywhere in the world?

For any technology that we would work with our partner countries on, we want to make sure that people’s rights are at the center of everything that we do. That is what we stand for as UNDP. That is what we do as part of the UN System. That means when we sit down with our partners and we think about how we're going to implement technology, we must think about inclusivity. For example, making sure that people are connected to the Internet or ensuring that the right laws and regulations are in place to protect people's privacy.

When introducing new technologies such as artificial intelligence or future developments like quantum computing, we recognize the immense potential of these innovations. However, it's crucial to ensure that people remain at the heart of these technological advancements. From a practical perspective, this means considering people's rights from the outset, ensuring inclusivity and protecting marginalized populations. Every segment of society must be taken into account when planning and implementing technology.

Read more about UNDP's engagement at the WSIS+20