Trade digitalisation has accelerated amid the pandemic with platforms recording more users and the volume of digital transactions rising. But industry challenges, such as a lack of standards and protocols, are hindering its progress, and will continue to do so.

Trade digitalisation efforts to date have been largely disjointed, with platforms unable to connect to each other, resulting in digital islands that can be complicated and costly to navigate. In the case of SMEs, participation may sometimes prove too resource intensive, meaning they avoid digital methods of trading altogether, and continue using paper.

The Digital Standards Initiative (DSI), an independent entity overseen by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and with seed funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the government of Singapore, aims to change this, developing open trade standards to facilitate interoperability among the various blockchain-based networks and technology platforms that have surfaced in the trade space over the past few years.

In September, Oswald Kuyler, a former head of data strategy at mining giant BHP, was appointed managing director of the DSI.

In this interview with GTR, Kuyler explains why he decided to take up the job, the importance of the DSI and the challenges it faces, and he also sheds light on what is happening in Asia specifically when it comes to the scaling up of digitalisation efforts in trade.


GTR: Tell us about the DSI and how it is progressing. What is the focus at the moment?

Kuyler: In September, we concluded our final framing workshops focused on defining the critical path enablers needed to digitise trade at scale. In addition to these workshops, we worked with an expanded group of organisations to confirm our assumptions and optimise our strategy. It is essential to ensure we have clarity on the challenge, capabilities required, and the most effective approach.

The remainder of the calendar year will see us engage with alliance partners, standard-setting bodies, industry participants and governments to establish the capabilities to solve the challenges we face. Some engagements will be long term, such as continuing our journey advocating for the adoption of Uncitral’s Model Law on Electronic Transfer Records. Other engagements are shorter, quarterly sprints, focused on identifying standard requirements, setting them, testing the impact and scaling as required.

My northern star is not to duplicate efforts or reinvent solutions but to lean on great work done, fill gaps where needed, and enable trade digitisation at scale.


GTR: You are new to the DSI, what made you want to take on this role?

Kuyler: I started my professional career 15 years ago, enabling companies to transition from physical paper to electronic records and information. This transition helped companies move towards higher productivity levels, new products and services, using technology to enable more significant risk mitigation. As I progressed through my career, the value of quality data became increasingly apparent yet harder to source as our processes became more integrated globally throughout value chains.

This complexity hinders the various types of use cases technology can enable, impacting our ability to increase productivity in trade processes, increase participation in trade and reduce the risks associated with paper-based processes. It’s a challenge that needs a resolution quickly, and both my passion and capabilities align here. I’m looking forward to working with partners globally to help solve this challenge.


GTR: Why are initiatives like the DSI important when it comes to the digitalisation of trade?

Kuyler: In short, the world is struggling to transition to digital at scale. Today, there are many excellent trade platforms, but they need standards to help them transition from being digital islands to platforms that can engage in a rich ecosystem of platforms. The challenge is connecting these platforms and processes on a technical, schematics, legal and governance level. The DSI is essential as it brings the ICC’s scale across 45 million companies and 100 countries and capabilities in setting standards, building capability and arbitration to the table.


GTR: How has the pandemic impacted the digitalisation of trade?

Kuyler: What has changed is the utilisation levels of digital in trade. We have seen an increase in the membership count in the various digital platforms (traditional and blockchain-based) and the number of digital transactions executed. The pandemic has uplifted the trade digitisation value from productivity-centric to expansion towards business resilience and a critical enabler of meeting UN SGDs through trade.

What needs further attention is still the key enablers for digital trade at scale. Many countries still require physical documentation, physical bills of lading, for example. Beyond the legislation, most platforms today are still digital islands. They don’t integrate and enable the free flow of processes within a broader ecosystem of platforms. This is mostly driven not by choice but rather the complexity of interoperability and legal harmonisation.


GTR: In Asia, many governments are putting out their own digital initiatives. What progress are they making?

Kuyler: The progress countries like Singapore are making inspires me, from creating Singapore’s networked trade platform a few years ago to the investments in unifying frameworks like IMDA’s TradeTrust. Beyond Singapore’s borders, I find inspiration in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s public recognition of blockchain’s opportunities and the various trade digitisation initiatives happening within China. A third example is the Philippines approving more than 16 cryptocurrency exchanges, clearly showing great progress in adopting digital technologies. These are only a few examples of Asia accelerating when it comes to trade digitisation.


GTR: How do you expect Asian trade digitalisation to progress?

Kuyler: On legislative harmonisation, we should see an Apac nation adopting the Uncitral Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records in 2021, laying a foundational capability and implementation example in Asia. I see this as a healthy starting point in a five to 10-year journey of enabling legal harmonisation in the region.

On trade digitisation, we will continue to experience innovation from Asian participants; I don’t see this slowing down and it is required for us to succeed. Apac participants continue to register a vast majority of trade digitisation patents globally. Apac leads the world when it comes to central banks piloting digital currencies. This energy and momentum will continue and we should see a few of these efforts transition from pilot to production within the next year or two.