Building Smart Societies -
A Blueprint for Action

How the World’s Most Digitally Advanced Governments Offer a Strategic Choice Framework on Technology for Policymakers

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The twin forces of globalization and digitalization have been the cause for much anticipation and anxiety lately; they have been the source of electoral outcomes, policy debates, and news headlines. On the one hand, emergent technologies bring with them the promise of greater productivity, efficiency, prosperity, and well-being—case in point: the market for smart technologies is predicted to be worth up to $1.6 trillion by 2020, and $3.5 trillion by 2026. On the other hand, as countries, corporations, and communities are realizing that traditional sources of advantage can be upended, the need to adapt to and seek new sources of advantage in the global digital economy have become paramount.

Governments, in addition to being responsible for securing national competitive advantage, have much to gain from embracing digitalization. Digital technologies can deliver services and benefits at scale and, therefore, when combined with other policy levers, have the potential to improve broad societal outcomes, such as the well-being of people, robustness of the economy, and effectiveness of institutions. In parallel, some of the most dynamic digital societies have governments playing a key role. As our ongoing Digital Planet research indicates, some of the most digitally advanced countries are also ones where the governments play an essential role in promoting the use of technology widely across society.

Policymakers keen on fostering digitally advanced and competitive societies would, therefore, do well to go beyond reactive approaches—of adapting themselves and their societies to technological changes—to a proactive stance of envisioning the desired societal outcomes and investing in appropriate digital technologies to realize said outcomes. Achieving such outcomes, through proactive policymaking, with technology as one of the essential policy levers, is what makes a society “smart.” 

We offer this as a working definition for a smart society: 

A smart society is one in which digital technology, thoughtfully deployed by governments, can improve on three broad outcomes: the well-being of people, the strength of the economy, and the effectiveness of institutions.

In this report, we offer a comprehensive framework that covers the essential societal outcomes and a set of benchmarks to measure the progress of any country on the journey towards a “smart society.” For countries aspiring to accelerate that journey, this report offers a dashboard that helps a country’s policymakers locate where the country currently is relative to the benchmarks and what its areas of strength and advantage are. Additionally the dashboard identifies the gaps to be closed, thereby facilitating policy priorities and an action plan.

With an aim to create such a benchmark and put some leading countries to the test, we at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, in partnership with Microsoft Digital, turned to the Digital 5 (D5), a network of nations—comprising Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK— committed to co-creating the “best digital government activity in the world.

We combined the best outcome attributes of the D5 to create a handy global proxy—a benchmark—for smart societies. Next, we compared each of these countries against this composite benchmark to decipher patterns and essential differences.

Our hope is that this analysis serves several purposes:

  • First, it sets a standard for policymakers based on specific outcome measures that are demonstrated to be feasible by at least one of the D5 nations. 
  • Second, with the benchmark designed as a composite of the best outcome attributes, no single nation achieves it and yet each of the five countries’ progress toward the ideal can be assessed in terms of performance against the benchmark. If any country intends to close a certain gap, it can turn to the others to learn about best practices and import knowledge that could help it get to the benchmark.
  • Third, the resulting framework and benchmarking process provides a dashboard for other countries to measure themselves against a composite of the most digitally advanced nations in the world, identify where digital technology can play a role in closing high-priority gaps, and develop a plan for action. 

The outcomes of this exercise are shown in the exhibit below and in the rest of the report. Higher scores along each of the 12 components are represented by the distance from the center. The line connecting each country’s component scores across all 12 components is its “Smart Society Footprint.”


  • How “smart” a society is should be measured in terms of the outcomes that policymakers and other key decision-makers are aiming for, the progress they have made, and the gaps they need to close; technology is simply a means to those ends. 
  • There are multiple archetypal journeys towards “smartness.” Each country’s chosen archetype reflects a combination of the country’s context and priorities. In a world with limited resources, the ability to prioritize and identify areas of focus and particular forms of “smartness” that fit with each country’s circumstances can prove to be essential.
  • As the footprints of the world’s most digitally advanced governments indicate, even the best positioned nations have gaps to close. The gaps, and the technologies to close them, vary. The individual footprints of the D5 countries also offer models for other countries’ policymakers to consider for their own purposes and priorities. This process also sets the basis for identifying the role of technology in closing the prioritized development gaps and enabling progress towards a smart society.
  • A dashboard can be created for any country in the world, identifying its progress relative to the benchmark offered by the composite of the D5, the areas of greatest strength and the areas of greatest need for development. 
  • While the analysis for this particular study is at a country level, our evaluation framework of “smart outcomes” is versatile and applicable for decision-makers in a variety of societal contexts and administrative units—supranational, national, subnational, states, counties, cities, etc.

This research is a part of the IDEA 2030 initiative, made possible by the generous support from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.


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