Let’s rethink: A vision for digital platforms

Digital platforms can be instrumental in building meaningful governance that strengthens civil society. Join us in rethinking how to use them for good.


Take a second to remember the moment you heard the first Covid-19 lockdown measures in your country. Perhaps you felt a dark, dense cloud looming over your head, making you question our society’s capacity to collaborate, to do better, to feel joy. 


Now imagine, for a moment, that our starting point was different. Imagine if the pandemic found us in a world where we understand how our actions affect those around us; a world that comes together to reflect and adapt; a world already aware of the health crisis, long before it came to our doorstep; a world where lockdown measures would be in effect only in communities where the spread is significant


Think about the crises ahead: the climate crisis, job loss, rising inequality. Can we do better at governing collective action before and through those crises? How? 


Imagine governance of collective action that offers: 

  • Pluralism — the ability to recognise differences between distinct contexts and communities and coordinate action accordingly.
  • Anticipation — a way to globally and locally anticipate crises, poverty, war, or whiplash effects in trade, jobs, and production.   
  • Transparency — open, transparent processes available for everyone to see and examine, with access to detailed and small scale effects. 
  • Global-conscious behaviour —  better collective visibility of the impact of actions can create new kinds of norms and practices. 
  • Reflection — tools that distribute learning in science and innovation, facilitate discussion and enable decision-making. 


It is through that vision that we have become interested in what digital platforms have to offer. For the past decade, we have been interested in the idea that digital platforms could play a much bigger and much better role in how we organise public life. These algorithmic systems, if legitimate, can enable human progress, instigate collective action and inspire meaningful governance to build a fair, sustainable and joyful next era. 


5 promising traits of platforms 


Examining platforms not only for what they are but for what they can be, creates a valuable case for why we should rethink their use. Platforms have built-in traits that uniquely position them as worthy tools for 21st-century governance. They are:


1 Precise

With the ability to offer individual or circumstantial precision, platforms accept and enable the pluralism that embroiders our society. Contrary to the flat interventions we are used to, platforms can investigate the complex needs that arise from each case, and determine possible interventions akin to that specific environment. 


2 Transparent

Through open code and the provision of open data, platforms can increase transparency as a commitment towards rebuilding trust in society as a whole. For example, a quarantine app that publishes its code can invite improvements to the code to increase and protect privacy. 


3 Anticipatory

As they use large troves of data and social and behavioural analysis, platforms can act upon probable and possible outcomes before they occur. For example, very early signals of anticipated learning difficulties can be used to nudge a teacher to help a pupil, or a city to help a school. 


4 Behavioural

Platforms don’t have to incentivise only outcomes. They can also incentivise behaviours. For example, a notification could inform you that, as a taxpayer, you have contributed to the build of a new school, incentivising you to keep contributing to your community.


5 Reflective 

On platforms, learning is distributed, and decision-making is centralised. This structure enables finding rapid solutions to massive problems much faster than through markets or by the governments. 


What do we want from digital platforms?


Like you — and like the rest of the world — we have followed the emergence of the platform economy for the past decade with growing concern. During this time, these feelings of anxiety have intensified as the direction in which platforms have developed has been fraught with harmful byproducts for individuals and communities alike. Even the traits outlined above could prove ominous if we don’t evaluate current power structures.


Yet, let’s not forget that we are in the early days of the digital platform era. Decisions made during the next few years will determine whether the next era will be a fair and joyful one. 


That is why, we are embarking on a journey to construct a global, collaborative, imaginative vision that sees digital platforms for what they can offer to our communities. We can imagine an aspirational way forward for digital platforms, and it includes strengthening the power of civil society by creating a new social contract: 


  1. We want platforms to be more than just mechanisms for governing business transactions – they can be more than that.

  2. We don’t want platforms to strengthen only the states or the elites – they can and should empower citizens. 

  3. Platforms are especially well-suited to govern commons – this is exactly what we want them to facilitate. 


In the midst of all the tech hype, platforms provide significant promise for civic society and the planet.  To get there, we must first detach the platform discussion from the Silicon Valley narrative; platforms are not only “disruptive tech giants in the making”, nor are they only a business tool. We can then start connecting them to unexpected and pluralistic debates on the direction of society as a whole. 


Digital platforms can be instrumental in building meaningful governance that strengthens civil society. With conscious action, we can be the ones who shape them. 


Read next: 


This vision will be formulated in an upcoming Demos Helsinki publication, written by Johannes Koponen and Juha Leppänen. You can follow Johannes on Twitter here and Juha here


For any contributions, comments, or suggestions, please contact:
Angeliki Vourdaki