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Fairwork vis-à-vis ILO Decent Work Standards

Fairwork logoHow does the Fairwork framework of five decent work standards in the gig economy – fair pay, conditions, management, contracts, representation – compare to more conventional frameworks?

As explained in a recently-published paper, Fairwork is a simplified, revised and measurable version of the 11 elements of the International Labour Organization’s decent work agenda.

Comparing the two, as shown in the table above, Fairwork is not as comprehensive.  Some ILO elements not covered were seen as unrelated to Fairwork’s purpose.  For example, the contextual elements lie outside the control of platforms, and no evidence was found of child or forced labour.  Quantum of employment measures are not directly relevant to Fairwork’s aims though it would be informative to know if platforms are creating new work as opposed to just substituting for existing work.

While outside the scope of Fairwork’s principles, work security and flexibility were investigated via open questions in worker interviews.  Workers did raise the issues of flexibility and autonomy, as positive attributes of their gig economy work.  These supposed benefits are arguably more perceptual than real.  Hours of work are often determined by client demand and shaped by incentive payments offered by the platform to work at certain times or for certain shift lengths.  Work is recorded and managed via the app and platform to a significant extent.

In sum, the Fairwork framework covers the decent work-related issues identified in the research literature on platforms, and covers the majority of decent work elements within the ILO framework.  Its ratings could nonetheless be contextualised in a number of ways by adding in broader findings about national socio-economic context, about any creation of work and autonomy by the gig economy, about dimensions of inequality within and between gig sectors, and about longer-term job (in)security and precarity.

You can find more detail about this and other foundations for the Fairwork project in the open-access paper, “Systematic Evaluation of Gig Work Against Decent Work Standards: The Development and Application of the Fairwork Framework”; published in the journal, The Information Society.

The Rise of Digital Self-Exclusion

Digital ExclusionWhy are marginalised groups self-excluding from digital systems?

The digital exclusion problem used to be people outside the house unable to get in.  For example, the digital divide preventing groups from accessing the benefits of digital systems.

Recently, a new digital exclusion issue is arising: people deciding they’d rather stay outside the house.  Some examples . . .

1. Informal Settlement Residents

In researching for our paper, “Datafication, Development and Marginalised Urban Communities: An Applied Data Justice Framework”, my co-author Satyarupa Shekhar identified this pattern among informal settlement residents:

“businesses such as schools and pharmacies in Kibera did not wish to be [digitally] mapped.  They feared visibility to the state might lead to closure if their location became known and their informal status or activities (e.g. sales of stolen drugs) were then discovered …

… Particular settlements in Chennai refused to participate in data-gathering.  They believed that drawing attention to their existence and informal status – being under the ‘gaze of the state’ – would increase likelihood of eviction”

2. Refugees

The recent Information Technology for Development paper “Identity at the Margins” finds self-exclusion among refugees in relation to registration on UNHCR digital ID systems:

“Some participants were so concerned about the potential consequences of data sharing that they avoided registering altogether. For example, a male Syrian refugee living with his family in a one-room apartment in Lebanon told us:

Everybody was registering with the UN, but we did not. We were suspicious and scared. We don’t know if the UN shares information with anyone, so that is why I did not share many things with them.”

3. Migrants

The chapter, “The Dilemma of Undocumented Migrants Invisible to Covid-19 Counting” in recent online book “Covid-19 from the Margins” outlines the dilemma of those undocumented migrants unwilling to register with health systems despite contracting Covid, for fear of this alerting other arms of government which would then deport them.

4. LGBTQ People

The report, “Privacy, Anonymity, Visibility: Dilemmas in Tech Use by Marginalised Communities” explains how some LGBTQ people in Kenya have been unwilling to use digital systems designed to help them report discriminatory violence because of fears that their identities would become known.

Analysis

In one sense there is nothing new here.  Individuals have for centuries sought to avoid being included in government censuses and other records: to avoid tax, to avoid being conscripted for war, etc.

The difference with digital is the ease with which data can be transmitted, leading particularly to a fear that it will find its way to the agencies of state security. This fear applies not just to data collection by other state agencies but also to NGOs (who were undertaking the community mappings in the first examples) and to international organisations like UNHCR.

Whereas incorporation into historical data systems such as the census offered no individual benefit, this is not true of the digital systems cited above.  In all these cases, the marginalised are foregoing direct benefits of incorporation – better community decision-making, access to UN assistance, access to healthcare – because these benefits are outweighed by the fear of perceived harm arising from visibility to particular arms of the state.

All this in turn can be understood in terms of data justice models such as the one below from “Datafication, Development and Marginalised Urban Communities: An Applied Data Justice Framework”.  At a basic level, the perceived utility of exclusion from these digital systems outweighs the perceived benefits.  But these perception are themselves shaped by the structural and historical context:

– A lack of credible, known data rights for those in marginalised groups

– A structural relation of perceived powerlessness vis-à-vis the state

– A lack of institutions and resources with which that powerlessness could be counteracted

Unless those wider, deeper causes can be addressed, the marginalised will continue to self-exclude from digital systems.

Latest Digital Development Outputs (Data, Economy, Health, Platforms, Water) from CDD, Manchester

Using SmartphoneRecent outputs – on Data-for-Development; Digital Economy; Digital Health; Digital Platforms; Digital Water – from Centre for Digital Development researchers, University of Manchester:

DATA-FOR-DEVELOPMENT

Strengthening the Skills Pipeline for Statistical Capacity Development to Meet the Demands of Sustainable Development: Implementing a Data Fellowship Model in Colombia” (open access) by Pete Jones, Jackie Carter, Jaco Renken & Magdalena Arbeláez Tobón, considers the importance of quantitative data skills development implied by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The success of a partnership programme in the UK is used to explore how ‘data fellowships’ can fulfil some of the unmet capacity needs of the SDGs in a developing country context, Colombia.

Building Information Modelling Diffusion Research in Developing Countries” (open access) by Samuel Adeniyi Adekunle, Obuks Ejohwomu & Clinton Ohis Aigbavboa undertakes a literature review – including current and future research trends – on the adoption of building information modelling in developing countries.

DIGITAL ECONOMY / PLATFORMS

Conceptualising Digital Platforms in Developing Countries as Socio-Technical Transitions” (open read access) by Juan Erasmo Gomez-Morantes, Richard Heeks & Richard Duncombe demonstrates how the multi-level perspective approach can be used to analyse the lifecycle of digital platforms: the process of innovation, rapidity of scaling, and development impacts relating to resource endowments, institutional formalisation, and shifts in power.

Digital Platforms and Institutional Voids in Developing Countries” (open access) by Richard Heeks, Juan Erasmo Gomez-Morantes, Brian Nicholson and colleagues from the Fairwork project, analyses how digital platforms change markets through their institutional actions.  Using the example of ride-hailing, it finds platforms have formed a market that is more efficient, effective, complete and formalised.  At the same time, though, they have institutionalised problematic behaviours and significant inequalities.

Navigating a New Digital Era Means Changing the World Economic Order” (open access) by Shamel Azmeh, discusses the implications of digital shifts for global economic governance.

DIGITAL HEALTH

Cost-Effectiveness of a Mobile Technology-Enabled Primary Care Intervention for Cardiovascular Disease Risk Management in Rural Indonesia” by Gindo Tampubolon and colleagues demonstrates how to determine the economic impact of m-health.  It calculates the cost-effectiveness of a mobile-based health intervention at c.US$4,300 per disability-adjusted life year averted and US$3,700 per cardiovascular disease event avoided.

Delivering Eye Health Education to Deprived Communities in India through a Social Media-Based Innovation” by Chandrani Maitra & Jenny Rowley aims to develop understanding of the benefits of, and the challenges associated with the use of social media to disseminate eye health information in deprived communities in India.

Using a Social Media Based Intervention to Enhance Eye Health Awareness of Members of a Deprived Community in India” (open access) by Chandrani Maitra & Jennifer Rowley reports on a WhatsApp-based intervention to promote eye health communication in deprived settings. This research highlights the potential benefits of WhatsApp in increasing awareness on eye problems, amongst deprived communities where the disease burden remains very high.

DIGITAL WATER

Digital Innovations and Water Services in Cities of the Global South: A Systematic Literature Review” (open access) by Godfred Amankwaa, Richard Heeks & Alison Browne reviews the literature on digital and water in Southern cities.  It summarises findings to date on implementation and impact and sets out the future research agenda.

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.

Digital Platforms as Institutions

platforms-as-institutionsHow should we understand digital platforms from an institutional perspective?

The paper, “Digital Platforms and Institutional Voids in Developing Countries”, suggests a four-layer model of institutional forms, and illustrates this using ride-hailing platforms as an example.

Layer 1: Digital Institutions.  Platforms themselves are institutions into which digitised routines and rules have been designed based on the digital affordances of the platform. Ride-hailing examples include algorithmic decision-making such as driver—customer matching, or price setting.

Layer 2: Digitally-Enabled Institutions.  Some institutional functions rely on digitised routines and rules within the platform but involve human intermediation.  Ride-hailing examples include checks on driver credentials for market entry, or adjudication of deactivation decisions.

Layer 3: Business Model Institutions.  These are broader rules and routines determined by the platform company as part of its business model, which govern participation in the platform but which exist outwith the digital platform.  Ride-hailing examples include control over vehicle entry into the market, determination of driver employment status, or setting the balance of supply and demand.

Layer 4: Stakeholder-Relation Institutions.  These are the connections or disconnections to other market or domain institutions.  Ride-hailing examples include relations to external stakeholders such as government agencies and trade unions.

Analysis of field evidence from Colombia and South Africa suggests that the first two types of institution are associated with the filling of prior institutional voids, and with market improvements.  The latter two institutional forms are more related to the maintenance, expansion or creation of institutional voids, and to market inequalities.

We look forward to further work applying and revising this institutional model of platforms.

How Platforms Change Markets: The Lens of “Institutional Voids”

Void

Do digital platforms change markets for better or worse?

To help understand this, we used the lens of institutional voids in the World Development paper, “Digital Platforms and Institutional Voids in Developing Countries”.  This argues that markets don’t work properly because they have institutional shortcomings or voids: inadequate provision of information, limited matching of buyers and sellers, poor management of transactions, ineffective market regulation, etc.

A promise of digital platforms is that they will fill these voids and change markets for the good.  We investigated this using evidence from Colombia and from the South Africa Fairwork project on taxi markets before and after the advent of three e-hailing platforms: Bolt, EasyTaxi and Uber.

The “before” picture was far from perfect.  Institutional voids led to markets with problems including high costs, crime, insecurity, opportunism, informality and discrimination.  As predicted, the gig economy platforms filled some of the institutional voids that led to this profile.  This reduced costs and risks for both drivers and passengers, improved vehicle and service quality, and enabled employment for those excluded from the traditional market.

Yet, in contrast to past research on business and institutional voids in the global South, we found that void-filling is not all that platforms companies do.  They also maintain some voids, such as lack of information and lack of formal employment status for drivers.  They expand some voids, such as lack of information available to government.  And they create some voids by circumventing the regulatory roles performed by government agencies and driver collective bodies.

The core impact of these additional strategies is to increase the relative power of the platform company vis-à-vis other market stakeholders and to make the market much more unequal.  Going far beyond the typical role of business, platform companies have internalised the institutions for the entire gamut of market functions; collapsing an entire organisational field into themselves.  The previously-distributed and -dissipated institutional power that the platform companies have concentrated into themselves is thus unprecedented, particularly given the duopolistic nature of the markets that are often created.

Filling institutional voids is not wholly beneficial – our research also identified problems caused by the digitalisations and formalisations that platforms bring.  But our key recommendation is a need to identify and address the voids that these companies retain or make.  Actions needed include information provision to address customer–driver asymmetries; revitalised state control over market supply–demand imbalance; new legislation to address lack of employment rights for workers; and more effective worker collectivisation.

Our research represents a novel insight into the relation between platforms, institutions and markets, and we look forward to further work applying these ideas to other sectors and contexts.

Digital Platforms as Development Infrastructure

20 April 2021 1 comment
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I’m going to argue here that digital platforms should be understood as development infrastructure[1].

In recent years, there’s been a renewed emphasis on the value and role of infrastructure in international development[2].  Official development assistance for infrastructure has therefore risen but there remains a significant infrastructure financing gap[3].

It may be something of an exaggeration to say, as Paul Collier does, that “the west’s aid agencies ‘pulled out of infrastructure long ago, and started financing social stuff instead. That’s important, but there’s a need to get back to financing the basic [physical and organisational] infrastructure’ because ‘without it countries can’t develop’”[4].  However, while western agencies are still funding infrastructure, it is certainly true that China particularly has stepped in to try to fill the gap left by lack of western funding for development infrastructure; especially via its Belt-and-Road initiative[5].  This gap-filling includes digital infrastructure.

When we think of digital and infrastructure, the focus has been on telecommunications: fibre-optic cabling, mobile networks and the like.  But digital platforms should also be seen as infrastructure.  As development processes digitise and dematerialise, platforms become the “infra-structure” for society: lying beneath and increasingly forming the foundation and site for economic, social and political activity.

Platforms store development assets, just like a grain silo.  Platforms transport development assets, just like a road or railway.  Platforms import and export development assets, just like a port.  Platforms enable transactions of development assets, just like a marketplace.

Digital platforms thus perform the developmental functions not just of physical but also of institutional infrastructure.  For example, as marketplaces, they combine within themselves the institutional infrastructure functions of participant aggregation and certification, transaction facilitation, payment and regulation[6].

The Chinese state has recognised this.  Its Digital Silk Road initiative funds traditional digital infrastructure but it also encompasses support for the spread of Chinese digital platforms to low- and middle-income economies of the global South[7].  These platforms are then becoming a key part of national economic infrastructure in these countries[8]. Will western governments recognise platforms’ infrastructural importance to development?  And, if so, how should and will they respond?


[1] Graphic: https://e.huawei.com/en/publications/global/ict_insights/201810161444/analysts/201906101000

[2] Bhattacharya, A., Romani, M. & Stern, N. (2012) Infrastructure for Development: Meeting the Challenge, London School of Economics; Donaubauer, J., Meyer, B., & Nunnenkamp, P. (2016) Aid, infrastructure, and FDIWorld Development78, 230-245; DFID (2020) International Development Infrastructure Commission Recommendations Report, Department for International Development, UK

[3] UNCTAD (2020) Official international assistance plays a key role in financing for sustainable development, SDG Pulse

[4] Hellowell, M. & Wakdok, S. (2021) Disaster relief, Prospect, March, 48-51

[5] Huang, Y. (2016) Understanding China’s Belt & Road initiativeChina Economic Review40, 314-321.

[6] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J. E., Malik, F., & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, Working Paper no.86, Centre for Digital Development, University of Manchester, UK

[7] Bora, L. Y. (2020) Challenge and perspective for Digital Silk RoadCogent Business & Management7(1), 1804180; Choudary, S.P. (2020) China’s country-as-platform strategy for global influence, TechStream, 19 Nov

[8] Keane, M., & Yu, H. (2019) A digital empire in the making: China’s outbound digital platformsInternational Journal of Communication13, 4624-4641.

Latest Digital Development Outputs (Data, Humanitarianism, Labour, Platforms) from CDD, Manchester

Recent outputs – on Data-for-Development; Digital Humanitarianism; Digital Labour; Digital Platforms – from Centre for Digital Development researchers, University of Manchester:

DATA-FOR-DEVELOPMENT

The Rise of the Data Economy and Policy Strategies for Digital Development” (open access) by Shamel Azmeh, Christopher Foster & Ahmad Abd Rabuh, expands on policy debates around digital development.  It examines the emergence of the data economy and potentials of strategic policy and/or industrial policy in the global South.  Based on a global policy analysis, it identifies four key “policy pathways” by which countries can look to strategically capture value in the data economy.

DIGITAL HUMANITARIANISM

Digital Innovation by Displaced Populations: A Critical Realist Study of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh” by Faheem Hussain, P.J. Wall & Richard Heeks, uses a critical realist approach to understand the three mechanisms the underpin digital innovation by Rohingya refugees.

Lessons On The Digital World From The Charity Sector: The Corporate World Has A Lot To Learn” (open access) by Brian Nicholson, Lisa Kidston, Cris Sachikoyne & Dane Anderton, argues that African charitable organisations and those like the national Citizens Advice in England and Wales are leading the way when it comes to demonstrating exemplary digital leadership.

DIGITAL LABOUR AND DEVELOPMENT

Competing Institutional Logics in Impact Sourcing” by Fareesa Malik & Brian Nicholson, draws on the concepts of institutional logics to  present a case study of a USA-based IT outsourcing vendor “AlphaCorp” practising impact sourcing in a Pakistan subsidiary. The findings show that in cases where actors are located in diverse institutional contexts, competing interests determine the respective priority given to the welfare and market logics.

Digital Labour Platforms in Pakistan: Institutional Voids and Solidarity Networks” by Fareesa Malik, Richard Heeks, Silvia Masiero & Brian Nicholson, conceptualises the theoretical link between labour platforms and socio-economic development drawing on the notion of institutional voids and empirical fieldwork in Pakistan.

Risks and Risk-Mitigation Strategies of Gig Economy Workers in the Global South” by Tatenda Mpofu, Pitso Tsibolane, Richard Heeks & Jean-Paul Van Belle, analyses three strategies (platform-, driver- and driver group-led) that seek to mitigate the risks of ride-hailing work in Cape Town.

The Fairwork Foundation: Strategies for Improving Platform Work in a Global Context” (open access) by Mark Graham, Jamie Woodcock, Richard Heeks, Paul Mungai, Jean-Paul Van Belle, Darcy du Toit, Sandra Fredman, Abigail Osiki, Anri van der Spuy & Six M. Silberman, introduces the work of the Fairwork Foundation to rank and compare gig work platforms against a set of five decent work principles.

DIGITAL PLATFORMS AND DEVELOPMENT

Analysing Urban Platforms and Inequality Through a ‘Platform Justice’ Lens” by Richard Heeks & Satyarupa Shekhar, introduces a model of “platform justice” through which to analyse the impact of urban digital platforms.

Competing Logics: Towards a Theory of Digital Platforms for Socio-economic Development” by Silvia Masiero & Brian Nicholson, seeks to contribute to the nascent literature on platforms in development, unpacking a human-centred development logic as an alternative to the market logic that animates most of the platforms discourse and relying on it to lay the foundations for an emerging theory of platforms for development.

Digital Platforms, Surveillance and Processes of Demoralization” by Sung Chai, Brian Nicholson, Robert Scapens & Chunlei Yang, conceptualises the theoretical link between platforms and morality drawing on an interpretive study of a hotel in Vietnam to examine surveillance.

Delivering Urban Data Justice for “Smart Cities 2.0”

11 February 2021 Leave a comment

What new institutions are needed to ensure smart cities are also data-just cities?

Smart City 1.0 “is primarily focused on diffusing smart technologies for corporate and economic interests”.  Smart City 2.0 is “a decentralised, people-centric approach where smart technologies are employed as tools to tackle social problems, address resident needs and foster collaborative participation”.[1]

Given their people-centrism, a foundation for Smart Cities 2.0 must therefore be delivery of urban data justice: fairness in the way people are made visible, represented and treated as a result of the production of urban digital data.[2]

We already know the constituent parts of urban data justice, as shown in the figure below.[3]

But a key argument of this model is that data justice is significantly shaped by urban social structures.  If those structures are unjust then data practices and outcomes will likely be unjust.  How, then, do we create urban social structures more likely to deliver the data justice that is part of Smart City 2.0?

Setting aside more radical restructuring of the urban polity, three more incremental forms can play a role:

1. Living Labs

“Living labs employ a user-focused design environment, a strategy of co-creation, and, increasingly, an institutionalized space wherein citizens, administrators, entrepreneurs and academics come together to develop smartness into concrete applications. They help identify and join localized expertise, real-life testing and prototyping with strategic networking of resources to address challenges that cannot be solved by single cities or departments.”[4]  Located at the upstream end of the innovation cycle, living labs are well-placed to come up with new, just ways of applying urban data.[5]

2. Urban Data Trusts

Data trusts are “a legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data … an approach to looking after and making decisions about data in a similar way that trusts have been used to look after and make decisions about other forms of asset in the past, such as land trusts that steward land on behalf of local communities.”[6]  These can form an institutional superstructure to ensure justice in the ownership, sharing and use of data; particularly data gathered about urban citizens.[7]

3. Community Data Intermediaries

Community data intermediaries are “organizations that gather data relevant for neighborhood-level analysis and make the information available to community groups and local institutions”.  Alongside their key role in gathering data – for example via community mapping – CDIs may also have features of both living labs (innovating application of that data) and data trusts (acting as stewards of the data for communities).[8]

The devil here will be in the detail: how exactly are these entities structured and run?  Simply attaching a label to an organisation does not make it just, with critiques in circulation of living labs[9], urban data trusts[10], and community data intermediaries[11].  Nonetheless, it is these types of urban institutional innovation that will underlie delivery of data justice in Smart Cities 2.0.  I look forward to further examples of these and similar innovations.

 

[1] Trencher, G. (2019) Towards the smart city 2.0: empirical evidence of using smartness as a tool for tackling social challenges, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 142, 117-128

[2] Adapted slightly from Taylor, L. (2017) What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms globally, Big Data & Society, 4(2), 2053951717736335

[3] Heeks, R. & Shekhar, S. (2019) Datafication, development and marginalised urban communities: An applied data justice framework, Information, Communication & Society, 22(7), 992-1011

[4] Baykurt, B. (2020) Are “smart” cities living up to the hype?, University of Massachusetts Amherst News, 1 May

[5] For a data justice perspective on the activities of one Living Lab in Kathmandu plus related organisations, see: Mulder, F. (2020) Humanitarian data justice: A structural data justice lens on civic technologies in post‐earthquake Nepal, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 28(4), 432-445

[6] Hardinges, J. (2020) Data trusts in 2020, Open Data Institute, 17 Mar

[7] For more on urban civic data trusts, see: Kariotis, T. (2020) Civic Data Trusts, Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne, Australia

[8] For a guide on creating community data intermedaries and examples, see: Hendey, L., Cowan, J., Kingsley, G.T. & Pettit, K.L. (2016) NNIP’s Guide to Starting a Local Data Intermediary, NNIP, Washington, DC

[9] Taylor, L. (2020) Exploitation as innovation: research ethics and the governance of experimentation in the urban living lab. Regional Studies, advance online publication.

[10] Artyushina, A. (2020) Is civic data governance the key to democratic smart cities? The role of the urban data trust in Sidewalk Toronto, Telematics and Informatics, 55, 101456

[11] Heeks, R. & Shekhar, S. (2019) Datafication, development and marginalised urban communities: An applied data justice framework, Information, Communication & Society, 22(7), 992-1011

Revisiting “Leapfrogging” in a Platformised World

11 January 2021 Leave a comment

What difference do digital platforms make to the long-standing argument about “leapfrogging” of development by developing countries?[1]

The idea that latecomer nations could accelerate their passage through development stages via use of new technology has been around for decades[2].  It was no surprise, then, that leapfrogging played at least some part in turn-of-the-century cheerleading for the role that ICTs could play in development[3].  And statistics bore out the concrete example of global South countries jumping fairly quickly to mobile phone-based telecommunications infrastructure during the 2000s and 2010s, having invested much less in relative terms in the previous generation of landline infrastructure than countries in the global North[4].

The flaw in much of the simplistic thinking about technology and leapfrogging is that technology never acts alone in development; it always forms part of a socio-technical system[5].  Lower-income countries might be able to move more quickly than higher-income countries to a more-recent generation of technology.  But they could not repeat the same trick with the social part of their systems.

One way of understanding why the “social part of their systems” constrained development was to identify institutional shortcomings – often called “institutional voids” – that particularly meant developing country markets could be inefficient, ineffective, incomplete and/or inequitable.  While ICTs always had institutional effects, these were limited, with lack of institutional change acting as the brake that prevented economic leapfrogging.

In the past few years, though, this picture has changed with the arrival of digital platforms as an important force in development.  Digital platforms much more readily fill institutional voids than prior ICT-based systems.  They not only provide cheaper and better information, they form the entire institutional infrastructure for new markets; not just the transactional infrastructure but the regulatory infrastructure as well[6].

So digital platforms, being much more complete socio-technical systems than earlier ICTs, can offer developing countries a route for leapfrogging.  Yes, local context matters and platform implementation can be a bumpy road so a platform is not quite “market in a box”.  But, for example, e-hailing platforms have helped dozens of Southern cities quickly improve taxi markets that were beset by insecurity, high costs, long wait times, etc – problems that had existed for years without resolution.

But if leapfrogging, at least in terms of some markets, is now more feasible; exactly what are developing countries leapfrogging to?  The new platform-based markets are more efficient, safer, with less opportunistic behaviour.  But they are also more unequal and less democratic as the platform becomes marketplace, manager, adjudicator, enforcer and regulator all rolled into one; eliminating roles for government, unions, and other stakeholders[7].

Platforms may be offering an opportunity for leapfrogging but they come with a caveat: be careful where you leap.


[1] With acknowledgements to Anne Njathi for asking the questions about leapfrogging that led to this post.

[2] See e.g. Goldschmidt, A. (1962) Technology in emerging countries. Technology and Culture, 3(4), 581-600.

[3] See e.g. World Bank (1998) World Development Report, World Bank, Washington, DC; InfoDev (2000) The Networking Revolution: Opportunities and Challenges for Developing Countries, World Bank, Washington, DC; Steinmueller, W. E. (2001) ICTs and the possibilities for leapfrogging by developing countries. International Labour Review, 140, 193.

[4] UNCTAD (2018) Leapfrogging: Look Before You Leap, UNCTAD, Geneva.

[5] See e.g. Wade, R.H. (2002) ‘Bridging the digital divide: new route to development or new form of dependency?’, Global Governance, 8, 443-466; Alzouma, G. (2005) Myths of digital technology in Africa: Leapfrogging development?. Global Media and Communication, 1(3), 339-356; Kenny, C. (2006) Overselling the Web?: Development and the Internet, Lynne Reiner Publishers, Boulder, CO

[6] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J.E., Malik, F. & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, GDI Digital Development Working Paper no.86, University of Manchester, UK

[7] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J.E., Malik, F. & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, GDI Digital Development Working Paper no.86, University of Manchester, UK

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