Commons, zebras and team economy

The platform economy is much more than business giants Uber, Amazon or Google. Platforms can facilitate a transformation in ways of organising work, value creation, sharing, and resources. While the currently dominant development direction tends to favour large platform companies with monopoly statuses, alternative undercurrents can be identified.

Why is this important?

The focus in the platform economy has largely been on how it enables new ways to create value. Value comes from both users and producers while the platform adds its value to the ecosystem by providing tools for matching and curating the content. Network effects further multiply the value based on the extensiveness of the network.

The sole focus on value creation has, however, lead to ignoring the mechanisms by which value is distributed in the network. Platforms both mediate value creation and add value through connecting actors, sharing resources, and integrating systems, but the question is, how is this value shared? Especially platforms with near monopoly status tend to aggregate much of the value to the platform itself and not share it back to the users of the platforms in a fair amount. Platform companies, like other companies, give the surplus to their shareholders. In some cases, it could even be said that platforms exploit their users by treating them as workforce without benefits or as sources of data to be sold to advertisers. At the same time, little attention is put into how platforms serve society. The discussion is more about how they disrupt existing industries and navigate in the gray areas of legislation.

Three approaches challenging the dominant platform business

Although the big platform companies produce most of the headlines, there are interesting initiatives for alternative forms of platform economy. One is the revitalisation of the idea of commons. In the context of platforms and peer-to-peer economy, commons is understood as a mode of societal organisation, along with market and the state, and combines a resource with a community and a set of protocols. A key question related to platform economy is what data, tools or infrastructure should be treated as commons, how to govern them and how to build both for-profit and non-profit services on top of them. These and other questions of a “commons economy” are being experimented with in peer-to-peer initiatives, platform cooperatives, and blockchain-based distributed autonomous organizations.

In the same way that commons challenges the notion of ownership, a growing number of companies called “Zebras” are challenging the notion of growth. “Zebras” are companies that aim for a sustainable prosperity instead of maximal growth like “Unicorns”. They can still be for-profit but also do social good. An interesting question is whether platform economy can be used to transform the current growth-based economic system towards a more sustainable version, or will the “Zebras” as well as cooperatives and commons be left to the margins in the dominance of platform monopolies.

A third interesting idea utilising the new possibilities of connecting and collaborating through digital platforms is the idea of team economy by GoCo. It challenges the idea of a permanent organisation. In team economy, groups form around an issue or a problem and disperse once the work is done. In contrast to gig economy, the tasks aren’t simplified or clearly defined, but rather what needs to be done is jointly explored with the customer. A platform is needed to connect and offer a collaborative workplace but also provides a record of everything a person has done, a sort of online CV for the platform age.

It remains to be seen to what extent commons, “zebras” and team economy can influence the development of platform economy, but they are interesting ideas to keep an eye on.

Selected articles and websites

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
Share this
TwitterFacebookEmailLinkedIn

Accounting of information flows: Data balance sheet

Systematic accounting of data and information flows is about to be acknowledged as an integral part of regular internal and public reporting by organisations.  Alongside finances and corporate social responsibility, the topic of data has now found its way to annual reports. Forerunners publish even dedicated accounting reports for data and information flows, something which can be recommended in data-driven sectors.

For example, Finnish Transport Safety Agency Trafi recently published their second data balance sheet (tietotilinpäätös), an annual report describing their data strategy, related architectures and inventory of data and information flows. This supports Trafi in their aim to be a forerunner in collecting data but also opening it up for maximum use for societal benefit. Through digital public sector services and open data policy, Trafi among others encourages data flows between authorities, between authorities and (typically data-producing) users and towards companies to boost business. Examples of Trafi’s data include statistics and registers on vehicles, licences, permits and accidents. Another pioneer in data accounting is the Finnish Population Register Centre, having compiled data balance sheets since 2010, although due to the nature of the registers only a summary of the report is available for the public.

Why is this important?

Platform economy is all about unleashing the cornucopia of opportunities linked to data. Users and producers as well as the functioning of the platform create, process, store and exchange data, and these data and information flows form the key type of interaction in platform economy. Furthermore, many of the emerging technology areas linked to platforms, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain or automation, are extremely data-intensive.

Management of data has therefore become an increasingly critical and strategic part of activities of companies, public sector authorities and even individuals. On the one hand, data is an asset of real value, but on the other hand, this value can only come to fruition and grow through sharing and opening. This challenges existing business logics in many sectors, where data previously had little or no role or where data flows and information systems used to be strictly in-house matters.

Arguments favouring the introduction of data accounting to regular managerial and strategy work of organisations include both discovering opportunities but also addressing threats and uncertainties. Systematic data accounting helps internal monitoring and improvement, and an open approach helps to expand collaboration and partnerships with others (users, customers, companies and authorities). Accounting should also include responses and preparedness for safety and security issues as well as strategies related to data ownership, surveillance and fulfilment of possible regulatory requirements.

Things to keep an eye on

A significant change factor in the topic of data management in Europe is the data protection regulation (EU) 2016/679 that is to be applied in all European Union Member States in May 2018. This regulation addresses the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data.

European Data Protection Supervisor lays out a definition of accountability in the meaning that organisations need to “put in place appropriate technical and organisational measures and be able to demonstrate what they did and its effectiveness when requested”. Suchlike measures include “adequate documentation on what personal data are processed, how, to what purpose, how long;  documented processes and procedures aiming at tackling data protection issues at an early state when building information systems or responding to a data breach; the presence of a Data Protection Officer that be integrated in the organisation planning and operations etc.”

Another great resource on the topic is the recent publication by the Finnish Government´s analysis, assessment and research activities on use and impacts of open data.  The report describes the openness of major data resources maintained by the public administration and on means to assess the economic impacts of open data in Finland. An analysis of the relationship between firms’ use of open data and their innovation production and growth is also provided. To conclude, the report proposes specific recommendations how to enhance the impact of open data in our society, including the use of tools such as data balance sheets.

The European Digital single market strategy and especially the subtopic of online platforms fits well into the above-mentioned discussion. Issues addressed under these activities include for example concerns about how online platforms collect and make use of users’ data, the fairness in business-to-business relations between online platforms and their suppliers, consumer protection and the role of online platforms in tackling illegal content online.

Guidance on how to prepare a data balance sheet is provided by for example the Finnish Data Protection Ombudsman in English and Finnish.

Selected articles and websites

General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679 – EUR-Lex
European Data Protection Supervisor: Accountability
European Commission: Digital single market – Online platforms
Valtioneuvoston kanslia: Avoimen datan hyödyntäminen ja vaikuttavuus
Liikenteen turvallisuusvirasto Trafi: Tietotilinpäätös 2016
Väestörekisterikeskus: Tietotilinpäätös
Data Protection Ombudsman: Prepare a data balance sheet
TechRepublic: Data’s new home: Your company’s balance sheet

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Center of Finland Ltd
Share this
TwitterFacebookEmailLinkedIn

Digital activism

Internet, platforms and digital technologies offer new ways of spreading the message and organising action for different cause-driven movements and citizen activism. This digital activism is not limited to using platforms to support existing forms of activism, but also takes advantage of the new opportunities platforms give for distributing value and providing access for information.

Why is this important?

The clear benefit of platforms for activism is new tools for communicating, deliberating, organising and connecting. Platforms such as Enspiral support a collaborative culture, constructive deliberation and collective decision making. They pool together resources such as money, time and skills to promote a jointly agreed upon set of projects. There are also platforms aimed at explaining obscure policies or laws or doing the increasingly important fact-checking.

In addition to tools, there is a quieter form of digital activism, one aimed at changing societal structures of access of information and distribution of value. Projects building ad hoc digital networks or internet access points aim to circumvent restrictions on the access to information. Platform cooperatives aim to reshape the way value is distributed within the system. In general, the aim is to improve the possibilities of those that are respressed or silenced via digital cencorship, or left out in the winner-takes-all forms of digital economy.

Things to keep an eye on

Digital activism suffers from so called “clicktivism”, where people are eager to support a cause if it just means clicking a button. Then when nothing changes, people lose their faith also in other forms of activism. Therefore digital activism needs also “off-line” activism. At best, digital activism can support other forms of activism, at worst it can undermine them.

There are also interesting examples of what can emerge out of the interface between the physical and digital in the age of smart phones and ubiquitous connectivity. One such example is the “I’m being arrested” app, which is a panic button for demonstrators to let a preselected group of people know that they are in trouble. Using location aware and camera equipped smartphones provides new tools for ensuring transparency and fair treatment.

On the flipside, digital activism raises also questions about ethics and responsibilities. Whistleblowing and the leaking of classified information may be a necessary alarm call in some cases, and in others it may just do more harm through unintended side effects. It is worth noting where the activism rises and what are its underlying intentions. There is also the question of drawing a line between civil disobedience, mischief “for the lolz” and outright criminal activity.

A potential transformation may happen  through the adoption of the tools for collective decision making and deliberation, as they find their way increasingly to more conventional arenas of decision making. It is interesting to see if they change the forms of governance.

Selected articles and websites

How a new wave of digital activists is changing society
Digital and Online Activism
Flex your political activist muscles with these resources
Mobile Justice (Team Human podcast with Jason van Anden)
Enspiral – more people working on stuff that matters
Loomio – making decisions together

See also our signal on persuasive computing

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
Share this
TwitterFacebookEmailLinkedIn

Social impacts of the platform economy

Platforms create value well beyond economic profits, and the topic of social and societal impacts resulting from the emerging platform economy has been getting more and more attention lately. Platform economy undoubtedly has both positive and negative impacts on individuals and families as well as wider communities and entire societies. However, the range and depth of these impacts can only be speculated, as only very early evidence and research on the topic has been produced. After all, the platform economy is only in its infancy.

Why is this important?

Platforms have potential to address major societal challenges such as those connected to health, transport, demographics, resource efficiency and security. They could massively improve our individual daily lives as well as contribute to equal opportunities and progress in developing economies. On the other hand, platform economy can result in negative impacts in the form of disruptions and new threats. Privacy and safety concerns have deservedly been acknowledged, and other possible risks include those related to social exclusion, discrimination and the ability of policies and regulations to manage with whatever platform economy may bring about.

Some examples of positive and negative social impact categories of the platform economy include the following, which may distribute equally, create further division or bridge the gap among various social segments:

  • employment and unemployment
  • livelihood and wealth
  • education and training
  • skills, knowledge and competences
  • health and physical wellbeing
  • mental health and wellbeing
  • privacy, safety and security
  • social inclusion or exclusion, access to services, etc.
  • new social ties and networks, social mixing
  • social interaction and communication: families, communities, etc.
  • behaviour and daily routines
  • living, accommodation and habitat
  • personal identity and empowerment
  • equality, equity and equal opportunities or discrimination
  • citizen participation, democracy
  • sufficiency or lack of political and regulatory frameworks.

Platforms may have very different impacts on different social groups, for example, based on age, gender, religion, ethnicity and nationality. Socioeconomic status, i.e. income, education and occupation, may also play an important role in determining what the impacts are, although it is also possible that platform economy balances out the significance of suchlike factors. One important aspect requiring special attention is how to make sure that vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or those with disabilities or suffering from poverty, can be included to benefit from the platform economy.

Things to keep an eye on

Value captured and created by platforms is at the core of our Platform Value Now (PVN) project, and there are several other on-going research strands addressing social and societal impacts of the platform economy. One key topic will be to analyse and assess impacts of the already established platform companies and initiatives, which necessitates opening the data for research purposes. To better understand the impacts and how they may develop as platform economy matures is of upmost importance to support positive progress and to enable steering, governance and regulatory measures to prevent and mitigate negative impacts.

Selected articles and websites

Koen Frenken, Juliet Schor, Putting the sharing economy into perspective, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, (2017)
The Rise of the Platform Economy
Uber and the economic impact of sharing economy platforms
VTT Blog: Openness is the key to the platform economy
SUSY project: Solidarity economy

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Center of Finland Ltd
Share this
TwitterFacebookEmailLinkedIn

Agriculture in the platform economy

The opportunities with platforms do not limit to specific high-tech industries only, but spread across the society and the economy. One sector that has so far received little attention, yet holds great economic, societal and environmental promise, is agriculture.

Why is this important?

Applying digital technologies to agriculture could improve the quality, efficiency and safety of farming and the down-stream industries such as food, textiles and fuels. Although digitalisation within agriculture has been modest compared to some other sectors, platforms have been or are being developed to for example the following use contexts:

  • farm management information systems
  • machine and equipment management; including asset-sharing
  • irrigation, fertilization and pesticides; including monitoring and optimisation
  • use of automation and robotics
  • food processing
  • management of subsidies.

In the centre of it all is the farm and the farmer, and platforms could, besides boosting performance of the farm as a unit, facilitate interaction between producers and other businesses along value chains and value networks. Platforms could even involve the end-customers as well as the public sector, in their roles as consumers and authorities.

The opportunities of platform economy paint a more sustainable picture of agriculture, enabling better economic performance as well as less environmental burden. Animal health and welfare could be improved and aspects of safety and ethics of end-products could be better addressed and traced. Imagine being able, as a consumer, to make affordable and fully informed choices on food and clothes, matching your personal values!

Things to keep an eye on

Currently most platforms in the agriculture sector are fragmented to small, unique solutions with little or no connectivity or interoperability to other systems. However, the vast potential of more integrated and interactive solutions to connect entire value networks are envisioned, and strategic efforts are on-going for example on the European level. The Digitising European Industry initiative has carried out extensive work, including exploration of platforms for industry, and Smart Agriculture has been identified as one vertical perspective of specific importance.

Empowering the farmers is a prerequisite for boosting digital technologies and platform economy development in agriculture. Technology developers need to establish an alliance with farmers to pinpoint concrete opportunities and co-innovate.

Selected articles and websites

Working Group 2: Strengthening Leadership in Digital Technologies and in Digital Industrial Platforms across Value Chains in all Sectors of the Economy, First report (December 2016)
Digitising European Industry initiative
EIP-AGRI: Agriculture & Innovation
GODAN, Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition
365FarmNet: Agricultural management software
SMAG, Smart Agriculture: Farming information systems, cloud computing & SaaS, mobile applications

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Center of Finland Ltd
Share this
TwitterFacebookEmailLinkedIn

Reputation Economy

Why is this important?

Platform economy often requires trusting strangers. One mechanism for ensuring that everyone plays nicely is to have a reputation system in place. Customers rate the service provider (e.g. Uber driver or Airbnb apartment) and the service provider in turn rates the customer. The ratings or at least their averages are public, which influences who we trust and how we behave in the platform. Reputation is thus a valuable asset in the platform economy.

Things to keep an eye on

Because reputation is valuable, the mechanisms that affect how it is created, shared and used are important. Can the reputation scores be transferred to other services or used in a way not originally intended? Will reputation economy become a new surveillance and control system, as depicted in dystopian images of future, which do not seem so far off given the failed startup Peeple and the Sesame Credit system in place in China.

Selected articles and websites

The Reputation Economy: Are You Ready?
We’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers
The reputation economy and its discontents
China has made obedience to the State a game
Black Mirror Is Inspired by a Real-Life Silicon Valley Disaster

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
Share this
TwitterFacebookEmailLinkedIn

Crowdfunding

Why is this important?

Crowdfunding projects have in the past has been mostly associated with consumer products and not an equity investment. According to Catherine Clifford, of Entrepreneur Magazine, “Crowdfunding is, at its heart, driven by a grandiose, ideological utopian vision of a democratization of finance in which the power of the purse strings is pulled down from the elite circles of legacy hierarchy and put in the hands of the people. It’s born of a rather anti-venture capital ethos”.  But a major change in US  Security Exchange Commision rules has opened the door to equity crowd funding via Reg A+ rules (Read Ruling). Chance Barnett of Forbes estimates that crowdfunding will surpass venture capital: “Just five years ago there was a relatively small market of early adopters crowdfunding online to the tune of a reported $880 million in 2010. Fast forward to today and we saw $16 billion crowd funded in 2014, with 2015 estimated to grow to over $34 billion. In comparison, the Venture Capital  industry invests an average of $30 billion each year”. Crowdfund insider predicts that more and more companies will pursue equity crowdfunding, including new industries such as Agriculture, Sports, Energy, Transportation, and Biotech. Part of this growth is driven by cheap digital tools.

Things to keep an eye on

In Finland, the status of crowdfunding has been problematic, but now the situation is improving, as the government is proposing a new law on crowd funding, which should come into action in July (VNK). The new law clarifies the guidelines and makes it easier for companies to use crowd funding. Nordea has already started a crowdfunding platform for growth companies (Nordea). In addition, a crowdfunding platform for piloting and experiments was proposed in a report to the Prime Minister’s Office (VNK). In the energy sector, there are interesting examples of using crowdfunding for financing new solar power plants, such as the Finnoonportti project by Joukon Voima. Crowdfunding thus is seen to be a tool to fund startup companies aiming for growth as well as enable societal experiments or achieve a shift in the existing system.

Selected articles and websites

Crowdfunding in 2016: Five Predictions
10 Secrets of Highly Successful Crowdfunding Campaigns
An Unlikely Romance Between a Venture Capital Fund and a Crowdfunding Platform Promises to Shake Up Startup Financing
Spurring on the startup industry
Next Generation Crowdfunding Starts May 16. Expect Opportunity and Growing Pains.
How crowdfunding can help save Silicon Valley from its harebrained investors
Proposal: Funding platform for piloting and experiments
Nordea to introduce crowdfunding service to the market

Victor Vurpillat

Global X-Network

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
Share this
TwitterFacebookEmailLinkedIn

Education platforms

Why is this important?

Education platforms such as Class Central or EDX gather a broad range of free online courses from universities such as MIT, Harvard etc. These kinds of platform are said to democratize, demonetize and decentralize our education system. The brick and mortar campuses of the past will give way to education online and on demand. The greatest teachers will be teaching in virtual reality (Tech Crunch), reaching millions of students at an incremental cost of near zero. The educational institution business model will shift to performance based learning with tuition rebates for course completion and job guarantees upon graduation (NY Times). Learning becomes continuous and an inherent part of everything we do enabled by blockchain validated nanodegrees, leading to a learning economy (IFTF). Tenure will be a thing of the past (Super Scholar). An interesting question is what will be the impact to the popularity of different disciplines. For example, the number of liberal arts colleges has continued to decline and the focus has shifted more towards “career-oriented” education (AACU).

Things to keep an eye on

In Finland there are a few interesting examples of using platform thinking in education. One recent example is Funzi, which offers practice-oriented courses tailored to be read on mobile phones (Funzi). It has gained media attention for empowering asylum seekers to learn more about Finland (GoodNewsFinland). Another example is RailsGirls, a community focused on getting more women interested in coding and IT (RailsGirls). Started in Finland, the concept has been transferred to multiple countries and the community is expanding. Another example of exploring new ways to teach coding is SlushSmackdown, which introduces the basics of coding through a game. In basic education, both Rovio’s FunLearning initiative and the Paths to Math learning tool are exploring new ways of learning, drawing from the combination of the top-ranked Finnish education system and the opportunities arising from platforms and digitization. The Paths to math founder Maarit Rossi was chosen among the 10 finalists in the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize (GTP).

Selected articles and websites

When Virtual Reality Meets Education
Where Are They Now? Revisiting Breneman’s Study of Liberal Arts Colleges
Udacity Says It Can Teach Tech Skills to Millions, and Fast
Learning is earning in the national learning economy
Tenure a thing of the past?
Funzi empowers asylum seekers with its mobile service
Finnish game wins Europe’s biggest hackathon

Victor Vurpillat

Global X-Network

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
Share this
TwitterFacebookEmailLinkedIn