.
A

s the coronavirus pandemic exacts its horrible toll on the world claiming more than 1.5 million lives and infecting more than 70 million people, the human, economic, and political costs of this virus have spared few countries in the world. While it is too early in the crisis to call winners and losers, the countries and companies that have fared comparatively better had a number of key items in common. Beginning with trusted leadership, the provision of high functioning health systems, trust in institutions, and strong technological infrastructure with near ubiquitous access all proved to be difference makers in mounting a credible COVID-19 response. Aside from the world’s dependence and debt of gratitude on the medical and scientific professionals donning lab coats in search for a COVID-19 cure, the other major difference maker in the pandemic has been access to, trust in, and the universal availability of digital commons. On this score, few countries, including the U.S., could successfully deliver even basic services at population scale without leveraging the internet or blurring the lines between public and private assets.

This much is borne by the unprecedented valuations of technology companies, who are showing the competitive market disequilibrium, where many countries may be running single cylinder economies. Apple is now a $2 trillion firm. Zoom, which offered its easy-to-use video conferencing platform at no costs to the U.S. schooling system, became more valuable than all of the U.S. airlines combined—all while surviving potential reputational and cybersecurity crises with uncharacteristically direct CEO-led ownership and accountability. The global economy, which is seeing Depression-like declines in many countries, looked like a single-cylinder engine, with only major technology companies doing well in the crisis. The lines between public and private infrastructure were blurred during the initial phase of the pandemic.  Even recalcitrant private sector firms were coaxed to shift their supply chains to produce N95 masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators.  Public powers traditionally wielded during times of war were used (or implied) to coax private sector balance sheets and supply chains to pivot towards public health needs.

The real failures in containing unmitigated COVID-19 contagion in the U.S., exacerbated by testing shortages and the lag in delivering results, was the lack of technological solutions to support contact tracing and other basic activities of daily life.  Because of these informational gaps, public health officials are functionally flying blind on both the numerator and denominator of infected populations and hotspots around the world, but in particular the U.S., which has been the worst hit country during the pandemic.  So as cabin fever took over, along with the false choice of reopening the economy or mitigating the spread of COVID-19, early gains in flattening the curve have been erased.  

Now, the U.S. faces the grim toll of a COVID-19 surge in the fall and winter, which is likely to be commingled with the common cold and seasonal flu, all in an election year where the prospects of remote or mail-in voting was the subject of a fierce political fight.  Exhortations to put coins back into circulation and the undesirability of physical cash as a potential conveyor of disease (or because of scarcity) makes the best case for digital currencies, as much as politicized mail-in voting underscores the need for secure, national e-voting options.  Similarly, the digital identity and authentication solutions that could scale trust and modernize enfranchisement were also clearly points of vulnerability in the crisis.  This is especially true with the prospect of a post-COVID-19 health passport akin to Yellow Fever vaccine cards, which may be one of the likely approaches to provide assurance for reopening the global economy. These platforms are not about substitutions for traditional money, voting or other forms of civic engagement or providing public services. Rather they are forms of increasing optionality—the lack of which (in hindsight) has proven to be a source of great pre-pandemic vulnerability, for which we cannot buy insurance when the house is on fire.

In the tension between freedom of movement and freedom from the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. and many countries around the world have turned to centuries old pandemic remedies. From face masks, quarantines (derived from the Italian term quarantena, meaning 40 days) to makeshift hospital wards to cope with a surge in patients, institutional trust it would seem, was the other casualty in this crisis. From delivering government stimulus in the form of direct payments to the neediest people, to ensuring educational continuity at national scale, to the most sacrosanct of democratic activities, voting, the lack of trusted, privacy-preserving technological interfaces for the provision of basic citizen services is a major point of vulnerability in building a resilient economy.  The COVID-19 pandemic did not break the global economy, but rather revealed which areas of the system were either broken or vulnerable in the first place.  Prioritizing investments to address the following areas of digital infrastructure will not only shore up post-pandemic resilience, but it will also make it more lasting and equitable, thereby contributing to long term economic competitiveness.  

Solve 21st century challenges with 21st century technology. Virtually every government mounting an effective response to the pandemic—South Korea, Estonia, Taiwan, and New Zealand—powers their institutions with world-class digital infrastructure. We need to learn from these examples. Citizens should have access to secure data wallets that provide individuals with ownership and control of their information and records. The right technology can streamline access to services, facilitate contact tracing, and allow for more rapid recovery from future disasters.

Build using open-source principles to quickly scale digital infrastructure. During crises and even in normal times, time and resource-strapped governments need to accomplish a similar set of tasks to channel resources, information, and people efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of citizens and respond to unanticipated crises. High-quality digital platforms have proven to be critical crisis-response tools, and they can be scaled across borders at minimal additional cost using open-source development principles. A number of governments quickly replicated existing open-source solutions as a part of their COVID-19 response. Open-source development and adoption should become a part of every government’s digital playbook, both in times of crisis and in normal times as communities seek to upgrade the quality of their digital infrastructure.

Ensure universal access to basic digital services. It is almost impossible to participate fully in society without access to digital platforms. The pandemic has further exacerbated the inequalities that flow from disparities in connectivity. An expanded 21st century social safety net should include universal access to: 1) high-speed, low-cost internet; 2) a basic computer or tablet to get online, and 3) foundational digital government and financial services.

Foster options to reinforce resilience. Providing citizens with multiple paths to access vital services creates safeguards when things go wrong.  From low-cost telemedicine as a fallback when in-person care is unavailable to digital and mail-in balloting to supplement in-person voting, the principle of optionality should apply to all essential services and to business and governmental continuity.

Trading resilience for fragility. Prior to the pandemic, organizations in almost all sectors prioritized efficiency at any cost. The pandemic exposed the weaknesses of systems optimized for airtight “just-in-time” delivery as supply chain failures caused cascading shortages for everything from test kits to meat.  Policymakers must build redundancy to reduce risk.  Institutions and firms should adopt digital procurement systems that rely on high-trust, real-time traceability to manage supply chain risk building stockpiles and surge capacity.

No one wins a pandemic, you merely contain it by pushing novel zoonotic diseases back to the natural shadows from whence they come. This comes in the form of containment, breaking the chain of transmission or successfully identifying a vaccine or other treatments, even in the prospect that future communicable diseases are not eradicated but become seasonal.  There are, however, clear lessons that can be drawn from countries and companies on their crisis leadership, their embrace of digital transformation and the speed with which they adapted to entirely unprecedented social, political, market and economic conditions.  These leaders had a number of things in common, chief among them was their ability to leverage technology not as a disruptive force, but as a source of business and operating continuity.  Strong digital strategy is not enough to guarantee resilience, but it is necessary.

About
Dante A. Disparte
:
Dante A. Disparte serves as the Chief Strategy Officer & Head of Global Policy for Circle. He is a member of FEMA’s National Advisory Council and serves on the World Economic Forum’s Digital Currency Governance Consortium. He is also a member of Diplomatic Courier’s editorial advisory board.
About
Tomicah Tillemann
:
Dr. Tomicah Tillemann is the Executive Director of the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) at New America. With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, DIGI is developing the next generation of technology platforms to transform the way governments deliver value for citizens.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Future-Proofing the World with Digital Commons

December 22, 2020

A

s the coronavirus pandemic exacts its horrible toll on the world claiming more than 1.5 million lives and infecting more than 70 million people, the human, economic, and political costs of this virus have spared few countries in the world. While it is too early in the crisis to call winners and losers, the countries and companies that have fared comparatively better had a number of key items in common. Beginning with trusted leadership, the provision of high functioning health systems, trust in institutions, and strong technological infrastructure with near ubiquitous access all proved to be difference makers in mounting a credible COVID-19 response. Aside from the world’s dependence and debt of gratitude on the medical and scientific professionals donning lab coats in search for a COVID-19 cure, the other major difference maker in the pandemic has been access to, trust in, and the universal availability of digital commons. On this score, few countries, including the U.S., could successfully deliver even basic services at population scale without leveraging the internet or blurring the lines between public and private assets.

This much is borne by the unprecedented valuations of technology companies, who are showing the competitive market disequilibrium, where many countries may be running single cylinder economies. Apple is now a $2 trillion firm. Zoom, which offered its easy-to-use video conferencing platform at no costs to the U.S. schooling system, became more valuable than all of the U.S. airlines combined—all while surviving potential reputational and cybersecurity crises with uncharacteristically direct CEO-led ownership and accountability. The global economy, which is seeing Depression-like declines in many countries, looked like a single-cylinder engine, with only major technology companies doing well in the crisis. The lines between public and private infrastructure were blurred during the initial phase of the pandemic.  Even recalcitrant private sector firms were coaxed to shift their supply chains to produce N95 masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators.  Public powers traditionally wielded during times of war were used (or implied) to coax private sector balance sheets and supply chains to pivot towards public health needs.

The real failures in containing unmitigated COVID-19 contagion in the U.S., exacerbated by testing shortages and the lag in delivering results, was the lack of technological solutions to support contact tracing and other basic activities of daily life.  Because of these informational gaps, public health officials are functionally flying blind on both the numerator and denominator of infected populations and hotspots around the world, but in particular the U.S., which has been the worst hit country during the pandemic.  So as cabin fever took over, along with the false choice of reopening the economy or mitigating the spread of COVID-19, early gains in flattening the curve have been erased.  

Now, the U.S. faces the grim toll of a COVID-19 surge in the fall and winter, which is likely to be commingled with the common cold and seasonal flu, all in an election year where the prospects of remote or mail-in voting was the subject of a fierce political fight.  Exhortations to put coins back into circulation and the undesirability of physical cash as a potential conveyor of disease (or because of scarcity) makes the best case for digital currencies, as much as politicized mail-in voting underscores the need for secure, national e-voting options.  Similarly, the digital identity and authentication solutions that could scale trust and modernize enfranchisement were also clearly points of vulnerability in the crisis.  This is especially true with the prospect of a post-COVID-19 health passport akin to Yellow Fever vaccine cards, which may be one of the likely approaches to provide assurance for reopening the global economy. These platforms are not about substitutions for traditional money, voting or other forms of civic engagement or providing public services. Rather they are forms of increasing optionality—the lack of which (in hindsight) has proven to be a source of great pre-pandemic vulnerability, for which we cannot buy insurance when the house is on fire.

In the tension between freedom of movement and freedom from the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. and many countries around the world have turned to centuries old pandemic remedies. From face masks, quarantines (derived from the Italian term quarantena, meaning 40 days) to makeshift hospital wards to cope with a surge in patients, institutional trust it would seem, was the other casualty in this crisis. From delivering government stimulus in the form of direct payments to the neediest people, to ensuring educational continuity at national scale, to the most sacrosanct of democratic activities, voting, the lack of trusted, privacy-preserving technological interfaces for the provision of basic citizen services is a major point of vulnerability in building a resilient economy.  The COVID-19 pandemic did not break the global economy, but rather revealed which areas of the system were either broken or vulnerable in the first place.  Prioritizing investments to address the following areas of digital infrastructure will not only shore up post-pandemic resilience, but it will also make it more lasting and equitable, thereby contributing to long term economic competitiveness.  

Solve 21st century challenges with 21st century technology. Virtually every government mounting an effective response to the pandemic—South Korea, Estonia, Taiwan, and New Zealand—powers their institutions with world-class digital infrastructure. We need to learn from these examples. Citizens should have access to secure data wallets that provide individuals with ownership and control of their information and records. The right technology can streamline access to services, facilitate contact tracing, and allow for more rapid recovery from future disasters.

Build using open-source principles to quickly scale digital infrastructure. During crises and even in normal times, time and resource-strapped governments need to accomplish a similar set of tasks to channel resources, information, and people efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of citizens and respond to unanticipated crises. High-quality digital platforms have proven to be critical crisis-response tools, and they can be scaled across borders at minimal additional cost using open-source development principles. A number of governments quickly replicated existing open-source solutions as a part of their COVID-19 response. Open-source development and adoption should become a part of every government’s digital playbook, both in times of crisis and in normal times as communities seek to upgrade the quality of their digital infrastructure.

Ensure universal access to basic digital services. It is almost impossible to participate fully in society without access to digital platforms. The pandemic has further exacerbated the inequalities that flow from disparities in connectivity. An expanded 21st century social safety net should include universal access to: 1) high-speed, low-cost internet; 2) a basic computer or tablet to get online, and 3) foundational digital government and financial services.

Foster options to reinforce resilience. Providing citizens with multiple paths to access vital services creates safeguards when things go wrong.  From low-cost telemedicine as a fallback when in-person care is unavailable to digital and mail-in balloting to supplement in-person voting, the principle of optionality should apply to all essential services and to business and governmental continuity.

Trading resilience for fragility. Prior to the pandemic, organizations in almost all sectors prioritized efficiency at any cost. The pandemic exposed the weaknesses of systems optimized for airtight “just-in-time” delivery as supply chain failures caused cascading shortages for everything from test kits to meat.  Policymakers must build redundancy to reduce risk.  Institutions and firms should adopt digital procurement systems that rely on high-trust, real-time traceability to manage supply chain risk building stockpiles and surge capacity.

No one wins a pandemic, you merely contain it by pushing novel zoonotic diseases back to the natural shadows from whence they come. This comes in the form of containment, breaking the chain of transmission or successfully identifying a vaccine or other treatments, even in the prospect that future communicable diseases are not eradicated but become seasonal.  There are, however, clear lessons that can be drawn from countries and companies on their crisis leadership, their embrace of digital transformation and the speed with which they adapted to entirely unprecedented social, political, market and economic conditions.  These leaders had a number of things in common, chief among them was their ability to leverage technology not as a disruptive force, but as a source of business and operating continuity.  Strong digital strategy is not enough to guarantee resilience, but it is necessary.

About
Dante A. Disparte
:
Dante A. Disparte serves as the Chief Strategy Officer & Head of Global Policy for Circle. He is a member of FEMA’s National Advisory Council and serves on the World Economic Forum’s Digital Currency Governance Consortium. He is also a member of Diplomatic Courier’s editorial advisory board.
About
Tomicah Tillemann
:
Dr. Tomicah Tillemann is the Executive Director of the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) at New America. With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, DIGI is developing the next generation of technology platforms to transform the way governments deliver value for citizens.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.