Bridging the Digital Divide – IEEE Bridge Journal

Addressing the Digital Divide and Mitigating the Risk of AI by People-Centered, Collaborative Digital Regulation

Publication Date: October 2023.

Mei Lin Fung and Jascha Stein


The digital divide continues to persist, with profound negative impacts on people’s lives such as poorer health outcomes, social isolation, and reduced access to jobs and education. We explore the various and complex reasons for the digital divide, including regional, demographic, and event-driven factors, highlighting the urgent need for agile and precise policy interventions. To address this challenge, we propose a valuebased, participatory approach to digital regulation, synergizing technological opportunities with a humanitarian ethos. We introduce methodologies like the Cross-Sector Digital Regulatory Sandbox, Independent Trust Agents, and Prosperity Data Networks, creating an artificial intelligence (AI)-supported, people-centered digital world. By prioritizing regional collaboration, public involvement, and the inclusion of Small Medium Enterprises, we envision bridging the digital, economic, and social divides. Our research underscores the importance of tangible and intangible societal contributions and maps a route to a globally equitable digital future enhanced by AI, where technology augments human capabilities and reinforces resilient, inclusive, prosperous societies.

I. Introduction 

“The international community has a long history of responding to new technologies with the potential to disrupt our societies and economies…. The AI for Good summit, convened in Geneva last month, brought together experts, the private sector, UN agencies, and governments to help ensure the groundbreaking technology serves the common good. … We must work together for AI that bridges social, digital, and economic divides, not one that pushes us further apart. I urge you to join forces and build trust for peace and security”. Antonio Guterres UN Secretary General July 21, 2023 [1] Today, digital technology has revolutionized the way we connect, creating a world where communication is instant and borders are transcended. Mobile phones, the devices and symbols of this global unity, have brought people closer than ever before, but they have also exposed a worrying and widening divide. While digital integration extends across the global North and South, reshaping lives, families, businesses, and institutions, the expanding use of technology simultaneously creates a profound digital divide that persists in various forms. This divide is not just a technological challenge but a complex societal issue that demands immediate attention to sidestep a preventable crisis. The digital divide stretches across regional, demographic, and socio-economic boundaries, contributing to disparities in access to technology, information, jobs, healthcare, education, and opportunity. While we expected bridges to connect and bond people living in different worlds, digital bridges highlight and expose stark differences when people living in poverty and facing disasters and hardship watch videos of wealth, waste, and indifference. The mingling is often discordant, causing people, families, and communities to be caught in a tumultuous crossfire between contrasting values and ideals, a collision of western science and ancient philosophies. Moreover, the digital evolution has led to a blurring between our homes, workplaces, and community spaces, while also widening the gap in capabilities between those with access to technology and those without. Children with less access to technology fell behind in schooling during COVID.[2] The promising renaissance of digital innovation is now being overshadowed by the realization that digital tools often best serve elite for-profit entities, restricting opportunities for many, particularly the marginalized, women, poor, rural, elderly, handicapped, and indigenous. Amid this complexity, the rise of AI adds another layer to the dilemma. While many tout the new horizons AI promises, others raise alarms about its potential risks, including exacerbating the digital divide. AI’s transformative potential can either bridge or widen the gap, making the response to these challenges a matter of profound societal significance. The future of our humanity cannot be sorted out based only on maximizing profit or power. People make decisions and act for many reasons, not all of which can be simultaneously optimized for the individual, for the family, or the community. Therefore, we call attention to the critical need for a peoplecentered, collaborative approach to digital regulation. By introducing concepts like the Cross-Sector Digital Regulatory Sandbox, Independent Trust Agents, and Prosperity Data Networks, we identify practical ways to leverage technology’s immense potential while addressing the complex and nuanced challenges of the digital divide. We, the people, must be involved in developing digital regulation that serves the people with participative governance, emphasizing peoplecenteredness and integrity. Our goal is to actively address and humanely and lovingly close the digital divide, crafting a globally equitable digital future that enhances human capabilities and where technology serves as a bridge rather than a barrier. We now have the tools to practically plan and engineer a path to a world where digital inclusion is a driving force, paving the way to an AI-supported, people-centered digitized world that fosters resilient, inclusive, prosperous societies.

2. Fostering Unity through Dialogic Public Participation

In addressing the current digital and other divides, the emphasis on a dialogic approach to public participation emerges as not only crucial but also powerful and transformative. An ongoing, inclusive dialogue among stakeholders can form the backbone of collective decisionmaking, intertwining diverse perspectives to craft policies and strategies that resonate on multiple levels. The essence of this participatory ethos, while idealistic in some aspects, is foundational to the Digital Cross-Sector Regulatory Sandbox Network and builds on research conducted by one of the authors,[3] which documented how networks of communities and multi-sector players achieved breakthrough outcomes through structured collaboration. The network of sandboxes tracking cross-sector impacts, deeply influences the digital regulatory mechanisms, encompassing both design and implementation. Within the contemporary backdrop of swift societal transitions and escalating complexities, there is an evident and pressing need for astute public participation in developing and recognizing insights to shape future regulation. Far from being a mere process, participation, feedback, and collectively learning how to improve how to digitize can serve as a stabilizing anchor in turbulent times. Such active public engagement fortifies societal bonds, bringing about a renewed sense of shared responsibility, shared learning, and shared ownership over policy decisions. This collective approach inherently boosts public trust and broad acceptance of policies, which are in effect the best that we could all come up with together. When structured and executed with care and precision, public participation acts as a catalyst for fostering a harmonious and equitable society. In the broader context, this engagement empowers societies with the essential skills and cultivates the ‘can-do’ resilience needed to tackle challenges, whether they are faced within small communities, expansive states, diverse regions, or on a global scale.

3. Applying the Sandbox Concept for Adaptive Digital Regulation to Evolve Regulation Securely

Originating from software development, the ‘sandbox’ concept provides a controlled environment for testing digital solutions and regulatory frameworks.[4] This method offers real-world testing without posing significant risks to the broader ecosystem. Adopting sandboxes in policymaking is done to foster agility, adaptability, and innovation, ensuring regulations remain relevant amidst fast-paced digital changes. Many countries are exploring regulatory sandboxes. Since 2000, the World Bank and the International Telecommunications Union have worked with 12 countries and are pioneering 5th generation collaboration regulation.[5] Over 70 countries have launched sandboxes,[6] including 14 in Africa.[7] Example: Singapore’s FinTech Regulatory Sandbox Notably, the Monetary Authority of Singapore launched the FinTech Regulatory Sandbox in November 2016[8], sharing insights at the annual Singapore Fintech Festival[9] which in 2022 attracted a global audience of 62,000 from 115 countries.

4. Collaborative, Regionalized Digital Regulatory Sandbox Networks Addressing Individuals and their Community’s Needs

Operating sandboxes within a sandbox network at national, multi-country, and global levels creates opportunities for parallel experimentation. This approach can inspire and accelerate localized learning, collaboration, and teamwork while generating data that can materially guide, align, and harmonize digital regulations, fostering a cohesive digital regulatory environment. Regional collaboration allows countries to not only expedite their learning processes but also share common challenges and co-create solutions with neighboring states. Such collaboration enhances the innovation process and increases the efficacy and pertinence of regulations in both digital and analog spaces. By fostering a collaborative network, individuals from different regions facing similar problems can unite in a continual cycle of experimentation, learning, and refinement to devise collective solutions. In software development, sandbox networks like GitHub and Stack Overflow have received acclaim for their success. Governmental sectors are beginning to adopt similar models. For example, the United States Federal Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) serves 30 million people in underserved communities. Since 1995, a HRSA network of nearly 9,000 US Federally Qualified Health Centers has engaged multisector stakeholders in thematic “Breakthrough Collaboratives” using “Plan-Do-Study-Act” improvement methods. Over the past 27 years, community multi-stakeholder partnerships that materially address nationwide health challenges and improve population health have been documented by professors at Duke University Medical School.[10]

5. Role of Independent Trust Agents for People and their Organizations

The Digital Cross-Sector Regulatory Sandbox Network is built on three core values: participation, peoplecenteredness, and integrity. These principles not only drive decision-making but also assist in resolving conflicts and foster relevance and sustainability. Central to upholding and governing these values is the Independent Trust Agent (ITA). While the decentralized nature of a network of sandboxes could lead to disarray, ITAs play a pivotal role in ensuring structure, integrity, outcomes improvement, and people-focused conflict resolution in the digital regulatory framework. Operating as non-governmental organizations, ITAs serve as bridges, promoting information and data exchange across the private, public, and social sectors. They set standards for data sharing, access, analysis, and aggregation.

We propose merging two distinct types of ITAs—financial and data protection—to forge an ITA tailored for digital regulation. In financial regulation, an independent trust agent is an external body responsible for verifying compliance with financial norms. They ensure businesses uphold rules and prioritize their clients’ or investors’ best interests, using audits and investigations to bolster trust in the financial ecosystem. In data protection and privacy, an independent trust agent is a third-party entity that evaluates and confirms a company’s adherence to data handling standards, ensuring user privacy. They also mediate disputes between data subjects and controllers. Merging the functions of financial and data protection ITAs into a digital regulation ITA harmonizes industry objectives and government oversight, and serves the public interest. By promoting trust and transparency, ITAs have an essential function to assure a solid foundation underpinning an equitable digital ecosystem, so we can nurture inclusive and prosperous societies.

6. Integrating Small Medium Enterprises and Prosperity Data Networks to Enable People’s Participation in Business

Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs), often considered the backbone of the economy, play a crucial role in ensuring a balanced digital regulatory landscape. The integration of SMEs into digital regulation development can offer a vital counterbalance to the dominance of large corporations, particularly multinationals, in the digital regulatory decisions of a region or country. This is especially significant for developing regions and countries that are embarking on their digital transformation journeys. The economist Frederich Hayek emphasized the significance of harnessing diverse “knowledge of specific circumstances in time and space,” which individuals acquire throughout their life experiences.[11] For this unique knowledge to effectively translate into innovative products and services, SMEs require accessible credit avenues.[12] Presently, microenterprises and SMEs in developing countries can access only 42% of the investment funding necessary for growth and job creation. To bridge this gap, we suggest the formation of Data Cooperatives[14] for SMEs, known as Prosperity Data Networks (PDNs).[15] PDNs are envisioned as vital components for broader, risk-managed financing for SMEs, facilitating access to global institutional and private finance. A PDN node is a data repository authorized by SMEs who contribute data to be shared for the purpose of accessing finance or other (intangible) assets. Each data repository within the PDN functions as a cooperative, managed by its data contributors – the people and their respective organizations. Composed of federated (local, state, national, regional, and international) layered AI-powered data repositories, the PDN for a community, a region, or a country may be analyzed and compared with regional, national, or global PDNs in order to facilitate cross-border financing for SMEs. PDNs increase access and participation to valuable information, finance, and (intangible) assets, enabling businesses, especially SMEs, to flourish in a competitive global landscape.

7. Digital Assets for All: Crucial for Inclusive Participative and Fair Economies

Over the last 40 years, the percentage of intangible goods in the S&P 500 has increased from 30 to 90%.[16] Stock markets enable public companies to access finance, particularly in developed markets where intangible assets are prevalent. As the world digitizes, valuing these intangible assets leads to clearer assertions of title or property rights. While established companies and renowned artists capitalize on this trend, SMEs and budding artists face challenges. While top musicians can sell their rights to specialized management groups, emerging artists struggle to find channels to assert and manage their rights.[17] SMEs, pivotal to economies, have historically faced challenges asserting ownership of digital assets.[18] To tackle this, we suggest the establishment of digital registry research labs. These labs would focus on how digital asset registries can empower local businesses and individuals to define, claim, and manage ownership over their digital assets. These assets can be artistic, intellectual, cultural, and more. For example, the prints on batik cloth produced in an Indonesian village could be 1000-year -old patterns, but how does the village “assert ownership” of the national and global digital rights to various uses of their traditional patterns? Beginning to sort out these issues in digital registry research labs can support all enterprises as they digitize, enhancing the innovation and resilience of the business models of the future.

8. The Digital Cross Sector Regulatory Sandbox Network connecting the Regional Sandboxes as Nodes: Addressing Digital, Economic, and Social Divides

Our vision of the Digital Cross-Sector Regulatory Sandbox Network transcends digital regulation and does so to achieve the aim of bridging digital, economic, and social divides, fostering an inclusive environment where every individual, regardless of gender or marginalized status, has a voice. Inclusivity in shaping the digital landscape and the associated institutions and regulations is vital to avoid neglecting the perspective of active members of society who have not, up until now, been included in digital dialogs. By using voice-enabled conversational AI and PDNs to qualify and quantify participation in the informal sector, irrespective of financial valuation, we can collect data that reveals the value of family, friendship, caregiving, and respecting elders who paved the way for us. This broader view promotes equality and dignity and recognizes contributions that extend beyond monetary worth. The proposed regulatory sandbox network, using AIdriven insights into both formal and informal societal and economic structures and prioritizing SMEs, advances social and economic equality. The sandbox network informs our understanding of the task that digital regulation can do, so we can design and apply “law of the land” digital regulation that works for the people in each local community. Furthermore, we can monitor the consequences of the “law of the land” digital regulation in the sandbox network to understand if it is working as intended or if unforeseen consequences are causing harm , and be effective and responsive. The accelerating rate of change in digital transformation requires digital regulatory mechanisms that can keep pace. No one regulatory regime in one sector or in one country can do this, but collectively in regional sandboxes and in global tracking of regulatory decisions, we can learn faster to mitigate risks, prevent harms, be more resilient, and increase opportunities for prosperity. By championing inclusivity, ensuring transparency, and encouraging public engagement, collaborative digital regulation can significantly complement national digital transformation journeys to build fairer societies that are responsible to all who live in them.

9. Conclusion: Closing Digital Divide to Craft a Harmonious, Inclusive Tomorrow

As we navigate the rapidly expanding landscape of digital technology, our journey takes us to the precipice of vast possibility and profound responsibility. The digital divide we confront, shaped by intricate complexities and multifaceted disparities, is not just a hurdle to overcome but stands as a critical challenge to the very essence of our shared humanity. Our exploration of various methodologies and approaches has led us to a deeper understanding, not just of the technology that defines our era but also of the values, principles, and ethics that must underpin our collective digital future. More than a national quest for digital transformation, it is a global call to action for a more just, empathetic, and inclusive world. The future we envision is not one of isolated solution but of interconnected opportunities where digital tools and AI not only augment our capabilities but also strengthen our connections, bridging societal divides and fostering universal access. This goes beyond mere policy interventions or technological advancements; it encapsulates a philosophy, a human-centered ethos, that places people, in all their diversity, differences, history, heritage, traditions, culture, and potential, at the core of the digital revolution. In this vision, small and large enterprises, marginalized communities, and global institutions coalesce in a harmonious symphony of collaboration, where prosperity and opportunity are not just buzzwords but tangible outcomes accessible to all. It’s a world where digital assets are not confined to enriching the elite but are part of a broader social and economic tapestry that enriches everyone’s lives. At the heart of this vision is a commitment to integrity, transparency, and participative governance. It’s a future where technology is not a distant, abstract concept but an intimate part of our lives, a tool that resonates with our values and amplifies our aspirations. The urgency of closing the digital divide is not a fleeting concern but a lasting testament to our ability, or lack thereof, to create a world where technology serves all of humanity. The solutions we have explored and the insights we have gleaned are stepping stones on a path that leads to a future where digital inclusion is not an ideal but is becoming a lived reality. In the end, our collective response to the digital divide will be a defining chapter in our shared story. It’s not just about closing glaring gaps; it’s about weaving a global tapestry of interconnected lives and destinies where technology is a harmonious counterpoint to the melody of our shared commitment to equality, dignity, and the enduring spirit of human connection. It’s a vision of a world not divided by digital lines but united by digital connections, leading to resilient, inclusive, and prosperous societies for all.



1. Guterres, A. (2023) Calls for AI “That Bridges Divides” https://www.‘-bridges-divides’


3. Calvo, A., Fung, M., Peck, J. (2012) US Dept. of Defense Federal Health Futures d/1BBz5lLZ1yLVSIROWeMAEDHp_SNu-seEmG2wbSj2Rqrw/ edit?usp=sharing

4. Goldberg et al. (1996). A Secure Environment for Untrusted Helper Applications (Confining the Wily Hacker). Proceedings of the Sixth USENIX UNIX Security Symposium

5. Digital regulatory sandboxes and more, the World Bank and ITU


7. Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Ghana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Anglo, Eqypt, Uganda, Morocco, South Africa.



10. Michener, L.J. et al (2019) The Practical Playbook II – Building MultiSector Partnerships that Work product/the-practical-playbook-ii-9780190936013?cc=us&lang=en&

11. Hayek (1945). The Use of Knowledge in Society. American Economic Review, 35(4), pp. 519–30.

12. Singh T, et al (2022) Global Public Private Digital Utilities for MSME recovery and transition

13. and research/harnessing-digital-federation-platforms/

14. Pentland A., Hardjono T. (2020). Data Cooperatives.

15. Stein J., Fung M., Ndemo B., Flynn S. (2023) Enhancing Global SME Financing through Prosperity Data Networks: An Integration of Hayek’s and Sen’s Economic Insights in the Digital Age (pre-publication SME Finance Forum) ZtNXLq9ZSomGt7ZRBytRdit?usp=sharing&ouid=1133053543341384 53978&rtpof=true&sd=true

16. Global Intangible Finance Tracker (2022) reports/gift-2022 and

17. “Record labels can keep a cut anywhere from 50-90% of your earnings. It is an industry norm for a new artist to only receive 10-16%” cited from


Bridging the Digital Divide - IEEE Bridge Journal

Mei Lin Fung is Co-Chair and Co-Founder with Vint Cerf of People-Centered Internet. She is an early pioneer of customer relationship management (CRM) and is alumni of Shell, Intel and Oracle. She holds a master’s in management science from MIT. She was sociotechnical lead for US Dept. of Defense’s Federal Health Futures and chair of IEEE Technical Committee on Sustainability. With Douglas Engelbart she organized the 2008 Program for the Future and with Vint Cerf she organized the 2014 40th Anniversary of the Internet. She is a Fellow of the Hasso Plattner Institute, recognized for her work on Clean-IT and energy-efficient computing. She convenes the Digital Cooperation and Diplomacy (DCD) informal network, a monthly forum for UNDP and ITU to interact with public and private sector thought leaders. She catalyzed DCD teams to powerful impact for the inaugural German Think7 in 2022 when DCD and the People Centered Internet led, co-authored and contributed to 11 of the 70 policy briefs for the German G7 Presidency and was the lead author of one of the 16 invited Think7 policy briefs for the 2023 Japan G7 Presidency on the assigned topic: “People-Centered Science and Digital Transformation”. Mei Lin was Vice Chair for Internet Inclusion for the IEEE Internet Initiative and served as one of the two co-chairs of the Expert Roundtable for Asia-Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Middle-East which developed recommendations for the 2023 UN Commission on the Status of Women report on Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age. She was invited to present to the US Dept. of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology IoT Advisory Council in July 2023 (Public Recording). Mei Lin is organizing the 50th Anniversary of the Internet with ITU and IEEE. Mei Lin was born in Singapore, studied, worked and married in Australia and has lived in Silicon Valley, California for four decades. 

Bridging the Digital Divide - IEEE Bridge Journal

Jascha Stein is Executive Chair of PeopleCentered Internet and co-founded OmniBot. ai with its Chief Scientist, Jeff Adams, formerly tech lead of Amazon Alexa. Recognized as a WEF Global Innovator, his dedication to reducing the digital divide was underscored by a personal invitation to Davos from Klaus Schwab and his role as an Executive Member of the WEF’s Edison Alliance and the German AI Association. As founder of, listed twice in UNESCO’s Global AI Top-100, he advocates for broad digital inclusion. With a background in IT and Psychology, Jascha seamlessly blends technology and human understanding for a more people-centered world.