Written by David Baxter, Senior VP, International Sustainable Resilience Center
5 February 2020

The rapid pace of change in technology raises myriad risks for investors in digital physical infrastructure projects, particularly for public-private partnerships (PPPs) that could require operational and maintenance commitments for many decades into the future. 

Successful innovation will be key to addressing the challenges technological advancement poses for digital infrastructure as both the public and private sectors strive to keep pace with community expectations.

Digital infrastructure underpins the IT capabilities of both the public and private sectors, enabling them to operate efficiently while enhancing the socio-economic and political fabric of nations. Examples of digital infrastructure include:

  • the internet backbone
  • hard network infrastructure
  • data centres
  • telecommunications and
  • internet exchange points.

Partnerships can improve sustainability and resilience

In a world that is constantly seeking out innovative solutions to help create better digital infrastructure, it is important these advances deliver infrastructure that is sustainable and resilient.

In 2013, the World Economic Forum examined the ability of digital infrastructure to keep pace with fast-rising user demands. The report indicated a need for a collective responsibility, with all stakeholders to be part of this initiative.[1] This includes both public and private sector contributors who need to build collaborative, symbiotic and enduring partnerships between their sectors.  

Partnerships can include co-operative alliance agreements that cumulatively define digital infrastructure space and harmonised enabling environments. They can also be formal PPPs that offer the private sector a meaningful role in advancing innovation, risk sharing, collaborative financing, research and development, and enhancing service delivery, in a fast-paced world driven by demanding market forces.

Enduring partnerships - formal or informal – between the two sectors will almost certainly help address exiting gaps in areas such as public sector funding, innovation, digital policy and development; helping advance progress towards national Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Policy approaches

If governments are going to develop robust digital infrastructure ecosystems, it is important they play a reformist role in creating empowering environments that support private sector innovation as an alternative to underperforming monopolistic and moribund cultures in the public sector. This includes regulatory reform that will allow international players to form transnational digital infrastructure ecosystems in a rabidly globalising and networked world. 

Regenerative and evolutionary approaches

It is important that we embrace long-term visions that enable a regenerative and evolutionary approach to digital infrastructure that responds to the contextual risk of rapid technological obsolescence. This is particularly true for physical infrastructure that supports the data delivery and exchange functions of digital infrastructure.

Technological obsolescence is a particular risk for investors in digital physical infrastructure, especially in PPPs which could require operational and maintenance commitments for 30 years or more.

It is the conviction of many that the private sector is more able to provide innovative solutions than their public sector counterpart because of their competitive imperative to survive and make profits (which can then be used for research and development of subsequent iterations of digital technology).

Through public and private partnerships, both sectors will be exposed to innovations including regenerative Artificial Intelligence that would promote future sustainable digital infrastructure. This is how innovation will flourish in the next decade.

[1] WEF - Delivering Digital Infrastructure Advancing the Internet Economy - https://www.weforum.org/reports/delivering-digital-infrastructure-advancing-internet-economy