Turning common pessimistic beliefs of platforms into positive narratives

In this signal post we tackle four commonly stated beliefs that suggest the platform economy is but a game of global giants and Finland has very little chance to benefit or take part. These critical messages heard over and over again are: 

  • “We cannot compete with giants.” 
  • “It is already too late.” 
  • “Finland is too small.” 
  • “The US or China is going to take it all.” 

While all the above four statements are valid concerns, we will explore them one by one with the aim to extend the discussion from pessimistic caution towards narratives of encouragement. In fact, we’d rather suggest using these statements to challenge practitioners to think of ways to get involved in the value creation networks that indeed are characterised by giant platform companies steering fast-paced developments in a global context. Positive messages have also been emphasised in the national strategy work and ministerial future reviews. Our recommendations for surviving and excelling in this game include the following:  

  1. Join and contribute in an ecosystem. 
  2. Use your unique strengths and find your niche. 
  3. Think digital and global but do not forget about tangible and local. 

“We cannot compete with giants” 

When looking at the successful platform giants, such as AmazonAlibabaSpotifyYouTubeBaiduAppleUber or Airbnb, you may wonder whether there is any room for new entrants. These giants have grown relatively fast and assumed leading or even monopolistic standing in regional and global markets. They are not only dominating the digitally powered business but often disrupting the traditional trade and industries too. 

The point is, however, not to pick a fight and compete with one of these forerunner giants enjoying their monopoly position. Although you could do that too, if you come up with a more efficient, attractive or innovative service than what they offer. In fact, the monopoly status of many of these platforms could start to crumble as soon as strong new competitors with fresh ideas get their act together. An alternative newcomer strategy would be to explore interconnected business openings complementary to those of the giants. After all, the platform economy is the perfect environment to make use of business models based on multi-stakeholder value networks and ecosystems, layered services and synergetic alliances. 

One should also acknowledge the longer-term fluctuations in economic success. Even giants fall, and monopolies may need to make room for a more diverse market situation. Social media platforms are a good example of an “industry”, where we have already seen pioneers and former market leaders such as MySpace and IRC-Galleria to lose their standing to a multitude of new, specialised platforms for private, professional and other purposes. 

“It is already too late” 

Again, if focusing on the incumbent giants, one might think it’s all been done already, and that it is too late to start from scratch. But the fact is that many business sectors are only beginning to warm up to the idea of the platform economy. Futures enabled by digitalisation remain in many business areas just visionary talk, as companies and other practitioners still rely on traditional business models, pipe-like supply chains and one-sided market logics. Innovative thinking and openness to apply the principles of the platform economy will provide countless new business opportunities in sectors like real estate, construction, waste management, manufacturing and agriculture.  

New opportunities are also to be discovered with applying emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics and virtual reality. It is definitely not too late to contribute to the development of these technologies and the yet undiscovered potential they have when applied into digital platforms. New services, business models and delivery channels in sight! 

“Finland is too small” 

As a small, remote country it is easy to think we cannot make a big difference in the global game. Our domestic market is not big enough and we are but a population of some five million. The platform economy, however, is the perfect arena for even a small actor to grow and achieve international success. The European Single Market is our extended home ground, and there are no barriers that couldn’t be overcome in terms of global growth either. And again, platform strategies are all about alliances and partnerships, and the Finnish can surely find their niche as a part of these platform ecosystems. 

The high level of education, expertise and skills in Finland is an important asset in the platform economy. ICT skills, databanks as well as knowledgeable citizens are a key resource in developing platforms as well as in introducing them in the consumer market. The compact domestic market can also be taken as an advantage, if used as a test-bed and proof-of-case to explore and market forerunner services. Well-connected stakeholder ecosystems can collaborate on domestic applications and then expand internationally, as we have seen with the example of mobility as a service business. 

“The US or China is going to take it all” 

The US and Chinese platform ecosystems are undoubtedly dominating the platform business for now, and for the time being Europe is largely dependent on the US-driven ecosystem. Finland and Europe among other countries and regions can nevertheless contribute to the development of these agglomerates. For example, it has been suggested that European public values could be employed to bring important value-centric platform policies into the big picture. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is already one major step forward, and besides privacy, values such as accountability, fairness and democratic control could be similarly promoted. The European strength in the traditional markets to balance power relationships and support stakeholder collaboration among (1) the market, (2) state and (3) civil society makes a strong case in the platform economy too. It could indeed provide a more acceptable alternative to the current focus of the US ecosystem on the market or that of the Chinese ecosystem on the state. 

Another counter-argument to the dominance of the US, China or any other superpower is that even if the platform economy strives on digital solutions on the global level, many practical applications have roots in the tangible, physical world too. These types of local aspects are manifested in e.g. services and products being produced and consumed, which means business opportunities can be found both near and far. 

Selected articles and websites 

Valtioneuvoston kanslia, Työ- ja elinkeinoministeriö, Innovaatiorahoituskeskus Tekes: Digitaalisen alustatalouden tiekartasto 
Finnish Government, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment: From transformation to new growth, Futures Review of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment 
Ailisto, et al. 2016: Onko Suomi jäämässä alustatalouden junasta? Valtioneuvoston selvitys- ja tutkimustoiminnan julkaisusarja 19/2016 
van Dijck (2018): European public values in a global online society, Keynote at the workshop: “Platform Economy: Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Public Policy Perspectives”  

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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