5 Questions on Digital Sustainability to… Daniel Säuberli, President of DIDAS


Daniel Säuberli is co-founder and president of the Digital Identity and Data Sovereignty Association (DIDAS). This non-profit organisation is working to unlock value for Switzerland by empowering the nation’s citizens with sovereign data services and digital identity services. Daniel has spent the last 25 years at the intersection of business strategy and technology, working for multiple organisations – from startups to multinationals. Here, he explains why digital identity is the missing piece of the puzzle in today’s digital economy, and encourages businesses to start experimenting now to explore ways of adding real value in their clients’ daily digital lives.

“Embedded in processes, digital identity is an enabler for a more trusted and automated world, where the individual is sustainably in control”

How would you define ‘digital sustainability’ and why is it so important? 

In one sense, digital sustainability can mean the use of technology to protect and ensure environmental care and responsibility. But at a higher level, I believe digital sustainability is key to future economic viability. As we become increasingly supported by tech, we need to take an increasingly long-term view to ensure that we remain prosperous as a society while adapting to the contexts in which we exist. So it is about building a digital infrastructure today that will remain resilient for the next 10, 20 or 30 years, even though the tech landscape is continuously evolving. 

A framework of clearly defined principles – whether on ethical use, governance, social inclusion, or openness and modularity of architectures – agreed on and consented to by stakeholders is exceptionally helpful to provide a solid foundation on which to build. So, in my view, digital sustainability is about creating and maintaining an ecosystem of all the aspects that ensure long-term socioeconomic and environmental value creation. 

Importantly, the technology should support the values and be an enabler of aspects such as ESG, rather than the other way round. One example of this is the notorious search for and procurement of ESG data for reporting purposes. Instead, we should think more fundamentally about how digital trade documentation is enabled and product passport standards can be established, so that ESG reporting becomes a meaningful by-product.

Why was there a need for an organisation like DIDAS in Switzerland?

Switzerland is a sovereign, federally organised direct democracy: an exceptional model that is informed by consensus and free speech at all levels. The values Switzerland is representing are dear to its citizens, and should become even more dear in an increasingly fragmented world. This requires us to think deeply about how these values find their way into the digital fabric and infrastructure that serves our citizens. Furthermore, Switzerland is a turntable for global trade. That role has been the foundation of the nation’s prosperity, but unfortunately, we have lagged behind in the digital economy. There has been a worrying lack of awareness within organisations of the importance of digital trade for the future of the Swiss economy. To stay competitive as a country – and to continue to offer our citizens freedom of movement, not only physically but also digitally – we need to become part of the fabric of the global digital economy. Interoperability is absolutely key in this context. Therefore, it is important for Switzerland to develop a framework that works in context with our values, while ensuring digital interoperability makes us a key part of the global ecosystem.

In early 2021, a proposed digital identity law (the ‘E-ID Act’) was rejected in a national referendum. Around that time, I had come into contact with Vasily Suvorov, a forward-thinker who saw opportunities for tech such as blockchain technology to be an enabling foundation to socioeconomic needs. We were both keen to make a positive contribution to the future of Switzerland’s digital economy and he assembled an exceptional group of people to kick this off.

For me personally, the motivating factor was that, as the digital economy had emerged, the people in our generation didn’t have a conscious choice; we simply gave all our data away to the platforms and became the ‘products’ of the data economy. I wanted to change that for my children by ensuring that people could control and manage their data in a sustainable way. This is a complex challenge, but thankfully humanity has become good at solving complex problems; as long as you take into account a multitude of perspectives, it’s possible to solve pretty much anything. So together, we founded DIDAS: a neutral group of companies, experts, individuals, policymakers and researchers. We are all working on a non-profit basis and without a competitive drive to create foundations for the digitisation of everyday processes and interactions in Switzerland, based on new standards and technologies in line with the principles of Self-Sovereign Identity and trust. 

We saw the referendum result as an expression of what Swiss citizens didn’t want – there was resistance to the idea of private-sector companies issuing digital identities, for example, and people had concerns about a loss of control and privacy associated with intermediaries tracking online. So, we decided to advocate for a different way of giving them what they do want by adapting and evolving the Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) framework and principles for tech that would reflect Switzerland’s values. Of course, our country has additional complexity due to four languages and cultures, so finding consensus is not always easy, but it is crucial. 

What progress has been made in recent years? 

Today, DIDAS has approximately 60 corporate members and four major academic institutes within the wider group, amounting to more than a hundred regular contributors. We have become a respected partner of the Swiss government and our perspectives on what citizens and businesses want are helping the government to make digitally sustainable choices. 

For example, we participate with ongoing contributions to the new digital identity law, governance framework and technology landscape which is currently being developed within the E-ID project. This is creating space for broad public participation on the topics electronic identity and digital trust infrastructure in Switzerland. The multifunctional project team is being led by the Federal Office of Justice (FOJ), along with the Federal Office of Information Technology, Systems and Telecommunication (FOITT), the Federal Office of Police (fedpol) and the Digital Public Services Switzerland (DPSS). On our recommendation, they’ve taken a very participatory approach to this, including regular meetings to enable stakeholders to share their feedback as openly as possible. This has helped us to create a lot of consensus and stakeholder alignment, guided by the principles. The success of this initiative clearly illustrates the importance of solid principles for smoothing the path and staying on it.

What are the main challenges?

Adoption is the most pressing issue, because without the involvement of businesses and government services, the electronic identity ecosystem will offer no tangible value to participants. So while it’s important that stakeholders define and reach agreement on the values and principles, it’s equally important to actually get things moving. If you wait until everything is perfect before starting, you’re always going to be late to market. An iterative approach is the best basis for ‘thinking’ and ‘acting’ at the same time.

Businesses in particular stand to gain the most from taking action now – in sectors including manufacturing, healthcare, travel and tourism. And while more companies are starting to experiment, it’s not yet being done at scale, and we still need more. Banks and insurance companies in particular are in a prime position to create benefits by building trusted data spaces and information cohorts to enable more verifiable attribute sharing and consent management. Of course, they can only add real value when the data can be used in the digital realities of their clients’ daily lives. That requires interoperability, which is why a framework is needed to ensure usability, usefulness and privacy. That’s where we align with INNOPAY, which actually became the first non-Swiss member of DIDAS recently. Banks should be crucial enablers of digital society – not only with embedded finance across the board in all sectors, but also by enabling individuals to manage their data more responsibly while preserving full privacy; it’s about becoming a data custodian instead of a data handler.

Within all this, another important hurdle is that there’s still some degree of misunderstanding of what is actually meant by ‘digital identity’. Traditionally, digital identity has been associated access management to servers and systems, but in our context it means a change towards a more citizen-centric service model: one that allows individuals and organisations to rethink the sense of the ‘self’, and how they can execute agency using digital means and privacy mechanisms in both the digital and the physical worlds. This is the missing piece of the puzzle in today’s digital economy. 

And digital identity of individuals is just the start. Eventually, it can be integrated into a broader framework of digital identities of organisations, machines, algorithms and images to verify the provenance and integrity of data. Especially in today’s context of rising concerns about misinformation and disinformation, we need to protect how knowledge is being generated and disseminated. Verifiable credentials and watermarks can help make it possible to track any dataset throughout its lifetime and trace it back to its source for verification purposes. This turns the tech into a transparency tool to support decision-making. The Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity (C2PA) initiative is spearheading this approach with an open technical standard providing publishers, creators and consumers with the ability to trace the origin of different types of media.

An additional example of this is the Global Legal Entity Identifier Foundation (GLEIF), based in Basel here in Switzerland. It started out in the financial sector but is now expanding to other sectors. The foundation supports the implementation and use of the Legal Entity Identifier (LEI), and has already embedded the LEI in as many as 300 laws around the globe to ensure issuance and verify businesses. GLEIF has now pioneered a new form of digitised organisational identity called the verifiable LEI (vLEI). This can be embedded in tech frameworks and processes for the real-time digital authentication and verification of the identity of trade partners and intermediaries, for example. So executing organisational role agency (by one or multiple organisational representatives) or delegating powers and activities further down to companies’ employees, products and services, becomes a reality. With this, the whole chain becomes digitally verifiable at any point in time, which creates the much-needed environment of trust for the global digital economy, potentially in a highly automated way. That’s how we can leverage technology to our advantage and put the individual in control. Because overall, authentic and verifiable data is increasingly essential for good decisions – whether they are made by humans or augmented by machines.

Where do you look for inspiration in the context of digital sustainability? 

On an interoperability level, the Electronic Trade Documents Act in the UK is a prime example of what we need to ensure in Switzerland. If we want to continue to trade with our global partners in the EU and beyond, we must be able to accept digital signatures on trade documents from abroad.

In terms of pushing the topic of digital interoperability forward and building awareness, the International Chamber of Commerce’s Digital Standards Initiative (DSI) provides great guidance on what to do and how to do it. And there are various relevant regulations and initiatives at EU level, such as eIDAS2 and the European Digital Identity Architecture and Reference Framework providing tools to support their implementation.

Looking beyond the European Union, the Digital Identification and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC) advocates for an inclusive, privacy-enhancing digital identity strategy that works for all Canadians and has issued a new ecosystem approach based on SSI principles. They were one of the first in the world to adapt digital identities, so I am interested to see how they transition towards the latest possibilities, optimally supporting their own federalist government model. 

Meanwhile, Bhutan is a great example of how much can be achieved when you actively drive adoption of these new paradigms. Led by the king, the country’s nationwide rollout of digital identity has simplified KYC, annual checks and even elections. In some cases, trucks drive out to the most remote areas to enable online verification for citizens living there – literally bridging the gaps between the digital and the physical worlds so that the whole of Bhutanese society can participate in the global digital economy. Another prime example is Singapore, where the state is pushing its own platforms for global interoperability while investing in private-sector companies to ensure that the necessary innovation can happen to keep the country on top.

As another example, in the USA, the Department of Homeland Security, and specifically the Silicon Valley Innovation Programme, are doing great work with an excellent talent pool when it comes to advancing cryptographic agility, layering and privacy-preserving and authentic synthetic data generation.

At DIDAS, we not only realise that there’s a lot to be learned from looking abroad, but in line with the Swiss values – trust, neutrality, open dialogue and progress – we also want to share our knowledge with the rest of the world. Therefore, we maintain active links with various other associations internationally, such as the Trust Over IP Foundation, the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF) and the Open Wallet Foundation (OWF), of which we’re a founding member. Additionally, we’re in close dialogue with key stakeholders in EU commissions, and we regularly exchange ideas with international experts at events, including through our own ‘Digital Identity unConference Europe’ (DICE). The next edition will be held in Zurich this June, and all being well it will feature the highest level of political representation possible: one of the seven federal councillors of Switzerland. 

By continuing to support the dissemination of information on a global basis and contextualising it for the national situation, we hope to move ever closer to our goal of becoming a Competence Centre for digital identity and verifiable proofs. This will enable us to serve the future of Switzerland’s digital economy in an even broader sense – and we remain open for national and international contributions to further our progress.

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