Digital technology and services offered in Asia are primarily run by the private and government sectors. There are two types of infrastructure in the minds of the funder organizations: ‘hard infrastructure’ and ‘soft infrastructure'.
Hard infrastructures refer to physical, material, and built infrastructures such as those in the form of pipelines, roads, railways, tunnels, or bridges. In the context of technology, these are communication lines, networking equipment, servers, and in general any hardware (and software) that enables the creation and maintenance of digital spaces.
Soft infrastructures, on the other hand, refer to the socio-cultural structures and political systems that govern the lives of society and support the development of the human capital necessary to build the hard infrastructures mentioned before. These include the family units, educational and healthcare systems, law-making and law enforcement institutions, monetary and banking institutions that support the operation of businesses that make or break the economy, and so on.
In the context of technology, soft infrastructures also cover the software that enables all of the above to be implemented inside digital spaces. The funding organizations that we talked to mostly fall under the second category with regards to their understanding of digital infrastructure. During the course of this research for the Digital Infrastructure Toolkit, we found that there is a lack of focus given to the soft infrastructure aspect of digital infrastructure development, especially when it comes to governance of technologies.
Therefore, it has to be noted that most funders we interviewed work in the area of the “soft” side of infrastructure, specifically technology policies or policies on technology. This was one of the most common themes that we had to elaborate on when clarifying how digital infrastructures are relevant to their work. Technology policy is not always as obvious as technology innovation. We found a need for a paradigm shift or a change in perspective when it comes to technology innovation to include social policies that parallel the innovation in the tech industry. In other words, it is not only technology that needs to innovate, social policies also need to do the same.
Digital Infrastructure Funding Landscape
While all funders have different priorities to be in line with their mandates, the main objective to help make a positive difference in the digital space is evident. Below are some main takeaways from our interviews with the funders:
What kind of projects get funded?
Grantee projects do not have to be top projects. Funders are more interested to see if grantees have an understanding of what else is out there and what role they play in the ecosystem.
The constant shift in priority
Organizations may face drastic changes in their priorities and therefore in their mandates, which could affect their ability to further fund these types of projects and as a result hamper their sustainability.
When it comes to digital infrastructure, what do funders care about?
Funders care about how technology and innovation democratize access to knowledge and how projects can be scalable to reach the wider community. As a result, while funders support the building of better infrastructure, they also support the building of tools to better understand those systems.
What do funders want to facilitate?
Funders want to help create or at least facilitate the development of platforms that collect and learn on their own to provide relevant and useful data. Most funders are also aware of their low to medium engagement level with the free and open-source communities in general. This is something that the funders have expressed interest in changing in light of increased activity in the space.
What kind of proposals are funders looking for?
In the non-profit sector, while most funders had structured grants, they are generally open to receiving unsolicited open proposals and they are often flexible enough to work with grantee’s programs as long as they align to the funders’ mission or organizational mandates.
What goes into funders’ landscape analysis?
Generally, it is common practice for funders to do a landscape analysis of the region or community before deciding to support projects. We found some elements that are considered for the analysis that might be beneficial for this project in developing the toolkit:
- Where is the energy, excitement, and innovation of the funder's target grantee in the open-source ecosystem?
- What are the overlaps between their funder’s objectives and the grantee’s objectives?
- Have the conversations surrounding topics funders care about reached the target grantees’ community or country?
What are funders looking at in the near future?
Several funders are looking forward to supporting work around emerging technologies, particularly in the areas of openness and governance around Artificial Intelligence to strengthen the resilience of the soft infrastructures around existing and emerging digital technologies.
The scope of ‘’Digital Infrastructure’’ is too broad
Some funders remarked that the term digital infrastructure is a huge umbrella term as it covers different concepts and as a result, in the interest of clarity, a different term should be adopted.
Lack of local funding resources in certain regions
Several territories within our scope face heavy legal and administrative restrictions when it comes to receiving financial support from international sources.
Funders primarily focused on objectives
Several funders are both stakeholder and sector agnostic, actively investing in projects emerging from private sectors and individuals for as long as requirements such as being open source or transparent are met.
Financing technology and innovation projects to strengthen democratic societies
Funders view these projects as an indirect contribution towards promoting democratic societies by integrating open-source frameworks that enable their citizens in areas such as elections or personal privacy.