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
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