Manzanedo and Trepat on “Positive Platforms”

Many people see the gig economy to be the “new way of work”, enabled by a variety of software “platforms” implementing on-demand labor markets (think ‘Uber’) (e.g., this, this, this).

Whatever the merits of this platform technology might be, it is clear that they are often not particularly beneficial for the workers or local economies.  The prospect of a future of marginal, exploitative employment is certainly problematic, and more efficient peonage is scarcely the original promise of the internet.

It is important to note, though, that these labor platforms are enabled by contemporary internet technology, but are not determined by the technology. By that I mean that there are many ways that such markets can be organized, operated, and governed while using the exact same ubiquitous digital technology.

The door is open to experimentation.

For example, the Platform Cooperativism movement proposes to use the same technology with user/worker owned cooperative models. The disrupters are easily disrupted.  “Seize the means of production“. Etc.

Platform Cooperativism is scarcely the end of the story, though.  Just what should we build from this technology?

This fall, Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat published a report for the Institute of the Future, “Designing positive platforms” [2].  Their focus is “governance”, i.e., how the operation is run, and how decisions are made. While they take internet technology as written, they believe that it can be used in “positive” ways, by which they mean positive from the point of view of the workers, i.e., those who create the value via the platform.

The gig economy runs entirely on online social platforms that connect people, knowledge, and opportunities for meaningful collaborative work.” ([2], p. 2)

What they want to do is come up with and promote concrete design principles, to transform the gig economy for the better.

By breaking down the designing of positive platform into concrete steps and actions, Manzanedo and Trepat hope to persuade more start-ups, cooperatives, nonprofits, and even corporations to integrate positive principles in their governance — and potentially transform the gig economy for the better.” [1]


They define “positive” to mean shared decision making and adequate benefits from the work.  Their approach focuses on governance, which is the design of decision making.  They break this down into three important facets ([2], p.3):

  • Ownership (property of capital and its entailed rights / accountability instead of ownership in the case of networks)
  • Value (value generation and value distribution processes within the organization)
  • Power (rights, processes and structures for decision-making)

The paper sketches five design principles (which are related and overlapping):

  1. Inclusion
  2. Participation
  3. Autonomy
  4. Recognition of the Generated Value
  5. Welfare

The report discusses examples from existing organizations, and points out known challenges.  They also highlight “positive practices”, i.e., good examples from the organizations examined.

One recurring challenge is scale. Some approaches work fine for a handful of people who can know and trust each other well.  But the approach may well break down at larger scales, where people cannot know each other.   Similarly, fully democratic decision making that works for a small group is difficult to maintain at large scale for many reasons.

Overall, I don’t think there is anything completely new here, but it is an interesting and pretty comprehensive survey of the challenges and prospects for democratic governance.

Personally, I’m not as sold on digital technology as these researchers are. There is really good reason to think that digital interactions are less personal and less pleasant than face to face.  This may or may not be an issue for governance and decision making.  I tend to think it is inherently depersonalizing and promotes many hidden biases (e.g., by privileging digital skills and amplifying some voices over others).

Nevertheless, digital technology is ubiquitous, so we need to learn how to use it well.  This report is a useful guide to start thinking about better ways to do things.


  1. Nithin Coca (2018) Institute for the Future report outlines a worker-centered design for gig economy platforms. Shareable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/report-outlines-how-gig-economy-platforms-that-takes-workers-rights-into-account
  2. Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat, Designing positive platforms: a guide for a governance-based approach. Institute For The Future, Palo Alto, 2017. http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/ppj/DesigningPositivePlatforms_for_IFTF.pdf

 

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