In the morning, Anna packs her backpack and goes to her favourite café. There, she begins her workday: Anna has found an assignment on a website and is now searching for addresses and contact information. In the afternoon, she plans on working on her own company’s marketing campaign in a local co-working space. In the evening, Anna needs to finalise the newest product for her online store, as demand for her alpaca wool socks has been steadily increasing as of late.
Anna could be living in Turku, Copenhagen or Sydney. Digitalisation is changing the contents of work, the ways we work and how work is organised around the world. This is the platform economy, where information and communication technologies enable new methods for providing, seeking and doing work.
‒ The most prevalent form of doing work is gathering in a specific building at a specific time and doing specific jobs. The building acts as a platform of sorts. Digitalisation is basically altering the units of work, when you don’t have to work in a specific place, describes Senior Researcher, Docent Seppo Poutanen. Poutanen is a philosopher and sociologist as well as one of the researchers of the SWiPE – Smart Work in Platform Economy consortium, which is funded by the Strategic Research Council (SRC) at the Academy of Finland and is led by the University of Turku.
The example that Poutanen describes, the change in the units of work, is one sign of the fact that the digital platform economy is already here. The boundaries between different businesses are losing their meaning and the logics of production are changing. Work is changing for the individual, while for companies the logic behind value-creation and business models are changing. Everything is becoming more complex and globally interdependent.
The platform economy decouples workers and employers from one another, both temporally and geographically. One of the most well-known examples of the platform economy is Uber, the transportation network company that was founded in 2009 to connect individual drivers with those who need their services via a service platform.
Other examples include platforms that connect those who sell their services, i.e. workers, with those who buy their services, i.e. employers. The Internet is full of small information work tasks that are often not compensated very well. For example, on Amazon's Mechanical Turk website, companies and developers provide simple tasks that cannot be done with an AI: e.g. tasks where the human eye is needed to quickly interpret photos so that companies can build their catalogue to be recognisable by online algorithms.
The third example is microcompanies that use platforms to reach the global marketplace in a way that was not previously possible.
‒ Any kind of skill, for example writing or programming, is easier to sell than ever before. People can, for example, sell their handicrafts worldwide and profit from their hobby, Poutanen says.
The danger behind dystopian visions and hype
According to Seppo Poutanen, we have already passed the era when it was still relevant to ponder whether digitalisation would eliminate so-called traditional jobs.
‒ Even now, most industrial work is done by robots and machines. Humans supervise these machines and processes to make sure that everything is going smoothly. Of course digitalisation is eliminating certain jobs, but it's also creating new kinds of jobs. We’re talking about the redistribution of work ‒ but it's certainly not the case that there’s only one big pile of work that is being whittled away. We still need nurses, hairdressers, close interaction with other people. The digital economy won’t change that.
From a researcher’s perspective, both dystopian visions and hype are dangerous. It is not true that we will have no need for people ‒ but it also is untrue that the platform economy will benefit everyone.
According to one perspective, these platforms will not create any new jobs as such, but they will move them away from organisations. For example, in a platform economy, the number of solo entrepreneurs will grow, which has been a clear trend both internationally and in Finland during the 2000s. Work is becoming more uncertain.
‒ The rapid increase in the number of temporary workers is a threat. If a person needs to be on standby for 24 hours a day just to get a meagre income with skills that aren't well-paid, that is, of course, a negative vision.
However, since the work does not depend on the time, place or resources, these platforms can provide a frictionless entry point to work that can pay very well. For example, industrial companies are ready to pay for scientific solutions that involve technological applications.
‒ Good ideas and talent can help attain a good income. The younger generations that grew up with various apps have a better chance of understanding work within the developing platform economy and thus achieving success. Older generations have to learn new skills, even some that they couldn't have imagined that they would need.
Poutanen notes that while digitalisation will not eliminate all work, it will change work on every level ‒ even work that is not done on digital platforms. For example, routine tasks that are part of service work will be greatly altered. A car mechanic might update the car's computer while they change its oil or tires. In care work, customer visits will be registered into the individual's health and care database.
The forms of work that are enabled by digitalisation and the platform economy will also be a part of the public sector, affecting both processes and the organisation of work.
‒ For example, some jobs in the healthcare sector can be outsourced. The work of those who record medical reports into text has become so digital that it can be done outside the physical confines of a hospital. If we can build functional models for digital activities on a national level, these could then be scaled into international success stories.
Text: Taru Suhonen
Translation: Sam Parwar