Soft Infrastructure for inclusive digital citizenry

Soft Infrastructure is essential for any data technology to work. Without digital literacy, the access gap will continue to widen and perpetuate human poverties.

Soft Infrastructure for inclusive digital citizenry
Photo by tribesh kayastha / Unsplash

When we started our company, Shanzhai City, in 2015, at that time 50% of the population in China was urbanised. Interestingly, this number is the same for the entire world. There was a very competitive red ocean technology market (for ventures and capital) for the first half of the world. Everyone was redundantly creating solutions to optimise people’s lives slightly better than other solutions. But on the other side, the second half of the world was rapidly lagging further and further from the first half.

Data illiteracy is the next source of future poverty and social inequality. Fifty years ago, China went through a significant movement to solve literacy issues. This is why there are simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese, and why there is a mandarin phonetic system. It is helping anyone in the world to read Chinese characters on the Subway Station.

All these efforts were to kill the illiteracy issue so the country could develop. Coincidentally in 2010, Taobao.com from the Alibaba group started to invest in rural China. An immense contribution to ‘corner the market’ is to solve the data literacy issue. Alibaba spent tens of billions of dollars on that market, not only in China but also in Southeast Asia. There is no trick to that; it's all about the heavy lifting capacity-building work, which is even more than the investment for China Mobile to invest in building a 4G network to cover 99% of China at that time.

What is data literacy?

We see this as the Soft Infrastructure that is essential for any data technology to work. The division between the digitised and the undigitised world is the data divide. The first step is to create data intermediaries to resolve the data divide. ''Letting a small group of people get rich first,'' said Deng Xiaoping, the neo-liberalist leader of China in the 80's, who also kick-started the liberalisation of the capital market in China.

In building such a soft infrastructure of data literacy in the developing context, we follow the same pathway - letting a small group of people get digitised first. We discussed cases in many places and within the Twitter space in China, Brazil and Southeast Asia. The first step is consistently identifying the potential agencies in the community, building capacity for them and letting them serve the rest of the community. Then in the long-term, everyone will be capable.

We also learned banking technologies in developing contexts, like the Philippines. It's a country with many islands, where ‘agency banking’ is the most low-tech but effective solution to get all community members on the island to use bank services. The key is sending a bank officer with a cellphone to the island and helping everyone manage their accounts.

No matter what process we are taking, or at which level of institutions to implement this, we believe the end goal is to bring as many people as possible online ethically - building their own self-sovereign digital identity, realising digital citizenry of freedom and catching up with the development of the rest of the world.