2023 – Navigating through Bhutan’s digital landscape

Bhutan paves its way towards technological advancement by launching the National Digital Identity (NDI) Bill 2023, and organizing the FAB 23 Conference, amongst others.

The year 2023 was a witness to Bhutan’s sheer determination to evolve along with the global fraternity in the scope of digitalization. The country unveiled various transformative as well as innovative undertakings to launch itself towards a new era of progression.

Technical milestones were achieved through the launch of the National Digital Identity (NDI), the organization of FAB 23, and the passing of a very significant legislative Act in the area of technology.

A groundbreaking milestone for Bhutan in its journey towards Technological progress was the launch of Bhutan National Digital Identification (NDI). Bhutan announced the Bhutan National Digital Identity (NDI), a high-tech digital identity system, to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the royal wedding on October 13, 2023. Bhutan’s National Digital Identification (NDI) system is a revolutionary approach to digital privacy and security.

One of the main goals of the NDI is to enhance digital inclusion, which it means enabling the public to digitally do any work right at their fingertips with the help of their smartphones without having to physically make rounds.

To ensure digital inclusion for all, Bhutan NDI is developing a biometric verification cryptography that can be used by individuals by visiting nearby set-up counters. In addition, Bhutan NDI looks  to integrate voice assistance and dual language, that is, Dzongkha and English to ensure digital inclusion. For instance, Bhutan NDI is currently available to Bhutanese citizens living abroad provided that their CID cards are processed and even better if they have given fingerprint and facial images when they are in the country.

With Bhutan NDI, individuals can experience remote on-boarding on various platforms and online services without having to visit physical offices, reducing both time and cost. With lowered need for face to face interaction, transportation, and energy consumption, Bhutan NDI will significantly reduce pollution and carbon emissions. Further, users will no longer be required to remember multiple login credentials while logging in to various online platforms.

Most importantly, the product ensures the highest level of data security and privacy and also reduces the risk of identity theft and fraud even for businesses, organizations, and service providers by leveraging Bhutan NDI’s trust services. There is a huge potential to improve delivery of services. Additionally, unlike the OTP-based authentication process where the telecommunication provider knows exactly which organization (bank, insurance company) is verifying, Bhutan NDI’s authentication and verification keeps the user at the center of all digital interactions, allowing individuals to share a verified credential (phone number) with a verifier (bank) without the issuer (Tashi Cell) knowing which service provider the user is interacting with.

The NDI app offers twelve government-to-citizen (G2C) services, such as managing land taxes, passport services, and birth and death registration. It also has connections to organizations like Tashicell, the Bank of Bhutan, and the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB), and there are continuous efforts to integrate additional agencies for their customers to have a secure personal identity.

On February 21, 2023, His Royal Highness Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck became the first digital citizen. On July 24, the law governing decentralized digital identification was passed. The NDI is another vision of His Majesty being translated into reality.

In addition, Bhutan NDI has robust security measures in place to keep it safe. Facial biometrics is used to establish private keys, which are essential for access, ensuring that only confirmed users can access the system. To restrict unwanted access to users’ identifying information, a trusted list of accredited institutions is also included.

The innovative move taken by Bhutan in launching NDI raises Bhutan’s profile online and establishes a global standard for identity systems that prioritize privacy.

On July 7, 2023, the Joint Sitting of the Parliament adopted all 151 sections of the historic National Digital Identity (NDI) Bill of Bhutan 2023 marking a significant step towards digital transformation in the country.

All 67 members present voted in favor of the Bill. As of yesterday, there were two debated clauses between the two houses of the parliament. The Bill was submitted to His Majesty for Royal assent and subsequently transformed into an Act.

Tthe 12-member Joint Committee consisting of five members from the National Council (NC) and seven members from the National Assembly deliberated on the disputed clauses between July 4-5. Officials from The Government Technology (GovTech) Agency were also involved in the discussion.

With the theme “Designing a Resilient Future,” the Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck Super Fab Lab at Thimphu Tech Park was at the center of technology and innovation for a week towards the end of July 2023, as over 300 guests, comprising of global experts ranging from NASA engineers to World Bank Climate Financing leaders and other distinguished individuals from 55 countries gathered to explore the potential of digital fabrication in driving transformative change.

Marking momentous events, FAB 23 Bhutan was the country’s first-ever Fab Conference. The events explored how digital fabrication sought to harness digital fabrication to boost the country’s economy through a fusion of local and global knowledge. The theme acknowledged the changes and transformations that the country is currently undertaking and was aimed to foster connections and partnerships for a promising future for the country.

One of the significant highlights was the unveiling of “Bhutanverse” by Druk Holding and Investments (DHI), a metaverse-based virtual space providing a co-created experience for global users to immerse themselves in Bhutan’s culture, history, and philosophy. With unique Bhutanese motifs, arts, and architecture, Bhutanverse aims to be a hub of cultural innovation and diversity, uniting international and Bhutanese Web3 artists, developers, and architects. The platform serves as a gateway for global audiences to engage with Bhutan’s rich heritage while allowing local digital communities to explore the potential of Web3 technologies.

A new addition to the event, the “Bhutan Fab Student Challenge,” proved to be a tremendous success. Launched in 2023, the challenge aimed to tackle the issues faced by students. The challenge collected valuable views and challenges, and the introduction of easier prototypes for student study enhanced learning experiences and contributed to the innovative solutions.

Out of the 120 proposals received from across the country, the Fab Lab selected the top 12 teams, propelling them towards further innovation and impactful projects.

The Conference also hosted engaging activities, including panel discussions on Bhutan’s journey into the metaverse, the carbon market landscape, and advancements in semiconductor industries in emerging markets. Thought-provoking conversations centered on innovations, sustainability, and community, made the event truly enriching and impactful.

International experts expressed their appreciations for the Fab Conference’s impacts, lauding it as a wonderful platform for knowledge exchange and cultural integration. The experts were excited about the potential of the Fab foundation’s focus on local communities and productions, which would usher in new ideas and cultural integration for Bhutan on a global stage.

The Fab Conference was deemed a stepping stone to connect Bhutan with the international world of technology and innovation, enhancing the nation’s potential for growth and development.

Deepak Tamang from Thimphu