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.

Financial Inclusion and Institutional Voids: Are Digital Platforms a Solution?

“What drives development” has long been a fundamental question for many scholars and policymakers. One consensus reached is that financial inclusion – access to and use of formal financial services by all members of an economy – is a central tenet of development [1]. It facilitates efficient allocation of productive resources by reducing the volume of money outside the banking sector, i.e. by shrinking the informal sector [2]. Conversely, exclusion from the formal financial system reinforces social inequalities and deepens poverty.

However, the World Bank’s (2017) Global Findex Database indicates that about 1.7 billion adults across the world are still unbanked and therefore they are excluded from the formal financial system (see figure below). Evidence further indicates that almost all the unbanked population lives in developing countries and nearly half of these live in just seven countries: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan.

But why are developing countries the home for the unbanked? In order to answer this question, we first need to address the cause of market failures leading to exclusion in emerging markets; namely institutional voids.

Globally, 1.7 billion adults lack an account [Source: Global Findex database [1]. Note: Data are not displayed for economies where the share of adults without an account is 5 percent or less.

Institutional theory suggests that institutions shape the conditions that drive socio-economic development and the particular rules that actors follow within a given context [3]. As Scott (1995) points out, institutions are socially constructed and embedded structures that provide the rules and frameworks upon which societies operate. If these institutions are absent or weak, it can create institutional voids that impact economic growth and development [4,5].

Therefore, while every economy should have a range of institutions (e.g. payment processing systems, contract enforcement, etc.) to support financial inclusion, many developing countries fall short. Thus, it is lack of, or weak institutional frameworks, i.e. institutional voids, in developing countries that differentiate them to a great degree from developed countries. The presence of institutional voids is apparent in the inefficiency of the formal financial systems to provide appropriate services, quality of institutions and legal origins [6]. Such institutional voids cause buyers and sellers to experience information asymmetries and uncertainty, thus creating serious operating challenges and higher transaction costs (i.e. the cost of capital) in emerging markets. All these act to constrain financial inclusion, and in effect hamper prosperity and wealth creation.

Digital platforms, which have rapidly grown in number and reach in developing countries, have the potential to generate social and economic value by filling the voids and thus building well-functioning markets. For instance, digital platforms for financial services can enable individuals and businesses to more easily reach and find previously hard-to-locate financial services. They also have the potential to facilitate the accumulation of capital by lowering search and transaction costs, reducing information asymmetries and thus fostering trust between parties [7].

Despite this recognition, however, the linkage between digital platforms and institutional voids in these contexts remains significantly underexplored. Apart from a few studies (e.g. [7]) that explored the importance of digital platforms in institutional development and capacity building in developing countries, the focus of the literature on digital platforms in emerging and transitioning economies has been mainly on the general functioning of digital platforms (e.g. business strategy, platform governance and consumer behaviour) [8]. Therefore, we need more research to better understand how digital platforms could help alleviate the negative impact of institutional voids in developing countries, such as in the banking and financial system.


[1] World Bank Group (2017). The Global Findex Database, Measuring Financial Inclusion and the Fintech Revolution. World Bank, Washington, DC.

[2] Sarma, M. & Pais, J. (2011). Financial inclusion and development. Journal of International Development, 23(5), 613-628.

[3] Acemoglu, D. & Robinson, J.A. (2012). Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Crown Books.

[4] Scott, W. R. (1995). Institutions and Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[5] Khanna, T., & Palepu, K. (2010). Winning in Emerging Markets. Harvard: Harvard Business Press.

[6] Zins, A. & Weill, L. (2016). The determinants of financial inclusion in Africa. Review of Development Finance, 6(1), 46-57.

[7] Drouillard, M. (2016). Addressing voids: How digital start-ups in Kenya create market infrastructure. In B. Ndemo & T. Weiss (Eds.), Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making(pp. 97–131). London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

[8] Koskinen, K., Bonina, C., & Eaton, B. (2018).Digital Platforms in the Global South: Foundations and Research Agenda, Working Paper no.8Manchester, UK: Centre for Development Informatics, University of Manchester.