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A Better Way to Research Digital Platforms

Juan Paper Word CloudIn a new European Journal of Development Research paper – “Conceptualising Digital Platforms in Developing Countries as Socio-Technical Transitions” – I and my co-authors argue that there is a better way to research digital platforms.

Digital platforms play an ever-growing role within international development, and a body of research has emerged as a result.  This research offers valuable insights but we find three lacunae:

– Current work collectively identifies a whole set of factors at micro-, meso- and macro-levels that shape the trajectory of digital platforms.  But no research to date can encompass all of the factors and levels.

– Current work has been narrow and a-historical: it analyses the platform but not the existing ways of organising or delivering the particular social, economic or political activity that the platform competes with.

– Current work looks at either implementation and growth of platforms, or at their impact, but not both.  Yet implementation, scaling and impact of platforms are inextricably intertwined.

Our paper therefore uses a different and more holistic approach.  Understanding digital platforms as socio-technical transitions, it uses the multi-level perspective (MLP: see summary diagram below) as its analytical framework.

Using this framework, it analyses a successful ride-hailing platform – EasyTaxi in Colombia.  Although there were some challenges in applying the MLP framework, it addressed the three shortcomings of earlier work:

– It covers the broad range of factors that shape platforms at micro-, meso- and macro-level.

– By focusing on transition, it encompasses both the before and after of platform introduction.

– It analyses the platform lifecycle from initial innovation, though implementation and growth, to impact.

Thus, for example, the MLP explains how prior context and profile of traditional taxi driving created the landscape of infrastructure and incentives behind rapid scaling of the platform.  It also explains development impact: how resource endowments shifted between stakeholders; the formation and formalisation of institutional forces; and the changing distribution of power in the market.

On this basis, we recommend use of the multi-level perspective to researchers wanting to fully understand implementation and impact of digital platforms.

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