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
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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
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Technophobia – fear of technology

Although new technology intrigues us and makes us curious about what can be achieved with it, the flipside of the human reaction to anything new is suspicion and even fear. Technophobia means fear of technology, and it can stem, for example, from not fully understanding how something works, possibility of danger and negative impacts or risk of malicious misuse. Another flavour of technophobia is anxiety over our personal competences to deal with new technologies and the downright possibility of social exclusion if we lack the access or skills to adopt them.

Why is this important?

Some of the technology fears connected to the platform economy have been around for a long time, and they apply to pretty much any technologies linked to machines and computing. The archetype of suchlike concerns is the fear of losing our jobs because of automation, something that has been a worry for well over a century.

Another major concern in the context of platform economy is how the disruption to economy will impact us as individuals (for example moving from regulated labour market to the gig economy), as businesses (for example smaller companies being bulldozed by large platform corporations) or as society (for example governments trying to keep up with regulation, legislation and fiscal needs related to platforms).

Fears do not either escape the indirect risks and negative impacts that may arise with platformisation, such as loss of knowledge and survival mechanisms if digitalised assets are destroyed or if there’s a prolonged power cut. Intentional misuse and criminal activity is also a scare experienced by many, and evolving platform configurations may indeed be extremely vulnerable.

Examples of specific fears include:

  • Fear of technology eliminating jobs and the need for human workers.
  • Fear of technology taking over the human (individual or society).
  • Fears related to privacy and cyber security.
  • Fear of losing control and getting lost in the technology mesh.
  • Fear of not learning the skills or not having access to use a technology.
  • Fear of dependence and not surviving without the technology (for example in case of a power cut).
  • Fear of negative social and societal impacts (for example lack of face-to-face interaction).
  • Fears related to fast and vast information flows (for example validity of news).
  • Fear of governments not having the means to monitor and control malicious and criminal activity related to new technologies.

Things to keep an eye on

The important thing is to try understand the root causes of fear of technology in the context of platform economy, regardless of whether the threats are real or perceived. Also, it should we noted that technophobia may influence not only consumers but businesses and policy-makers alike. Through addressing technology-related concerns appropriately we can ensure that individuals as well as companies and other organisations have the courage to make the best of the platform economy opportunities. On the other hand, the assessment of fears helps us to pinpoint risks and vulnerabilities that need to be fixed in technological, regulatory or other terms. To dispel mistrust, impartial and validated information to support technology proficiency and awareness is needed. Similarly important are also investments in for example digital security and technology impact assessment.

Selected articles and websites

Robots have been about to take all the jobs for more than 200 years. Is it really different this time?
The Victorians had the same concerns about technology as we do
Fear of Technology
Hot Technology Pilots in 2016 – Fear & Chaos in Technology Adoption
Why do we both fear and love new technology?
Americans Are More Afraid of Robots Than Death. Technophobia, quantified
Ever-present threats from information technology: the Cyber-Paranoia and Fear Scale
The access – Platform economy: Creating a network of value
Choosing a Future in the Platform Economy: The Implications and Consequences of Digital Platforms

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Center of Finland Ltd
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e-Government

New technologies such as cloud computing, virtual collaboration tools, and ubiquotous smart mobile devices are enabling new forms of public debate and policy making. At the same time, more data is collected, and it is becoming more open and accessible. Active citizens, NGOs and grassroot movements catalysed by social media are challenging the existing societal structures. These developments create both opportunities and challenges for government.

Why is this important?

Governments can use platforms to foster the growth of specific industries by e.g. ensuring open access to all publicly funded data and providing crowdfunding and other platforms for companies. At the same time, platforms challenge the way governments to work by enabling new types of decision making, suited for a truly distributed and self-organising communities. Also, governments have to cope with the impacts of current big platform players, who disrupt existing industries and challenge existing regulation.

Things to keep an eye on

Estonia is the example to keep an eye on when it comes to the digitalization of different government activities; it provides e-residency and has solved the problem of Uber and taxation. Blockchain could offer interesting solutions for “hacking the society”, starting from secure healthcare records and going on to making basic income a platform. Data privacy, access and ownership are key issues to keep in mind.

Selected articles and websites

Government as Platform
These Online Platforms Make Direct Democracy Possible
Open Government Platform – OGPL To Promote Transparency And Citizen Engagement
A federated architecture – choose and combine the tools you need for your democratic process

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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