The Platform Economy (PE) (also referred to as the sharing economy) is the propensity for trade to progressively move towards and favor digital platform business models. Businesses are facilitated by community-based online platforms that allow a wide range of human activities. The digital platforms open the way for radical change in how businesses work, trade, socialize and work together in the consumption and production of goods and capital. The PE is developing at an exponential rate, building substantial interest, and has become a top priority for governments across the world [1
]. Yet, the PE experiences two fundamental difficulties: (1) The PE has positive environmental impacts and promotes a potential pathway to sustainable societies [3
], constituting a paradigmatic change [6
]. However, the PE lacks a holistic framework to assess its sustainability. For example, the sustainable design of the platform has examined economic and technical facets, but has not considered other significant sustainability measures including environmental effects, inclusion, gender, or legal ramifications, therefore, lacking an appropriate multidisciplinary perspective.(2) There is confusion about the PE which presents it as collaborative, in terms of open governance, open technologies and data, while actually other PE models also experience comparable ambiguities [7
]. Unicorn extractionist corporation platforms including Airbnb and Uber are inciting great debate [1
]. Other PE frameworks that are both collaborative and successful do exist, for example, platform cooperativism, open commons and decentralized organizational structures where decision-making authority is based on free knowledge and the social economy, yet researchers and policymakers have not acknowledged the importance of these alternative PE models. Furthermore, there is an absence of a framework that is able to compare, classify and contrast different PE models.
Overall, the PE creates paradigmatic change, but in order to redirect the PE towards a sustainable future, researchers need to focus on these two limitations.
The present work will produce a sustainability democratic quality balance of the PE to overcome the aforementioned challenges [8
]. The quality balance enables researchers to analyze digital platforms and compare different PE models by exploring the PE initiatives in terms of their democratic and sustainable features. The quality balance examines the economic strategy, governance, technology, data policy, impact and social responsibility towards platform externalities.
2. A Quality Balance to Assess the Sustainability of the Platform Economy
The possibility of the PE to promote sustainable societies has been highlighted since its initial characterization [3
]. Nonetheless, research surrounding the socio-economic and environmental impacts of the PE is ambiguous and inadequate. Less than 9% of the literature regarding the PE has investigated the potential benefits, costs and welfare impact of the PE [1
Sustainability qualities of the PE have integrated economic, social and environmental sustainability dimensions [3
]. The ex-ante analysis regarding its impact and effectiveness in terms of sustainability has examined environmental impacts, self-employed work, job stability and consumer welfare; however, researchers have not conducted a comprehensive analysis of the integration of sustainability into economy, community and social aspects [9
Previous research investigating the sustainability and democratic qualities of PE initiatives remain limited and incomplete. In terms of the social aspect, Richardson (2015) regards PE sustainability as a determinant of change which contributes to the reduction of social inequalities [10
]. Some studies argue that peer-to-peer activities, such as sharing the access to goods and services benefit those of below median income more than those of above median income. Some researchers go further and suggest that sharing companies can help redistribute income and reduce inequality. Schor’s empirical work has detailed the importance of sharing-oriented platforms for promoting social connections and reducing ecological and economic concerns [13
From an ecological viewpoint, Demailly et al. (2016) argue that in spite of the fact that sharing platforms and their users may be positively affected by sharing-oriented platforms, it can have negative effects, as instead of promoting collective consumption behavior, the PE can, in fact, encourage compulsive buying behavior, which is supported by empirical research [14
]. Researchers suggest that better governance models are required to create shifts in collective consumption behavior However, sharing-oriented mobility, including the increase in ride-sharing, could influence travel behavior norms and contribute to restoring environmental and social demands. The multidisciplinary approach to sustainability is ideal, as it embraces the phenomenon’s complexity; however, this approach is methodologically challenging [16
Research strategies for investigating PE sustainability are often based on sustainability indicators adopted from corporate sustainability literature and readily available data [5
]. But this research approach has several limitations. To start with, researchers do not agree on which sustainability indicators to utilize, and more often than not, the indicators are not suitable to the features of the PE (due to the activities being of a non-monetary nature), are focused on small scale entrepreneurs [17
], and generate rebound effects which reduce the effectiveness of valuable contributions [18
]. In regard to the PE’s economic sustainability, current work has concentrated solely on the effect of unicorn models on vehicle-sharing [5
], rental industries, tourism accommodation [21
] and online labor [23
].Additionally, research has focused on current incumbents and the negative impact of the unicorn model [25
]. Besides, the stakeholders involved in such controversies are also involved in presenting the findings of the work. Thus, to determine the environmental effects of PE companies, researchers must thoroughly analyze their supply chains. Although companies like Airbnb and Uber have released an abundance of reports, information regarding the methodologies utilized and data obtained regarding their environmental effectiveness are not transparently outlined or outwardly available to analysts and researchers [26
]. Thus, the reliability of their claims cannot be independently validated.
In contrast, this research will reside with the sustainability in commons-oriented modalities study [28
]. The study creates a framework of PE sustainability that aims to incorporate socio-economic, environmental, political, Internet and gender dimensions of sustainability. Compared to prior PE research, the three other democratic sustainability qualities: digital sustainability of the Internet as a commons, gender as a cause of inequality and political sustainability, will be considered. The Internet is a living ecosystem of common resources which need to be protected in regard to openness, decentralization and net neutrality, according to the net environmental approach [29
], while the literature surrounding the PE refers to the Internet as an unchangeable source, just accommodating sharing-economy platforms. As part of the sustainability framework, the degree in which the models add to policy system quality and regulatory requirements has also been considered.
6. Discussion and Conclusions
The present research has provided a framework of democratic sustainability qualities of PE to assess its sustainability. It takes into account governance, economic model, technology, data policies, social responsibility and impact. The framework has been tested empirically in 100 commons-based peer-to-peer production cases identified in Barcelona.
The framework of democratic sustainability qualities aims to address the current challenges of the PE regarding the lack of analytical tools to distinguish models and analyses sustainability and impact. In order to address these challenges, in the present work, the quality balance tool was employed to categorize the platforms and compare and contrast different PE models by examining their democratic sustainability qualities to provide greater understanding of sharing-orientated platform sustainability from several different perspectives. The results suggest the relevance of the dimension considered. It was observed in approximately one-third of the sample that democratic sustainability qualities in platforms are neither irrelevant nor prevalent. The cases which were more democratic in one dimension were less democratic in other dimensions. This finding implies that one aspect of a platform’s ecosystem can be characterized as more democratic, while a larger segment is not based on any openness methods. The results revealed an association between the democratic sustainability indicators that define technological and knowledge policies, which are also linked with the economic model and governance. For example, the study discovered that democratic openness in data and technology are also reflected in other economic and governance models.
The analysis result of each of the dimensions also provides interesting insights. Regarding governance, it was observed that the majority of platforms allow users’ participation, publishing without many constraints and facilitating the creation of groups in order to promote new content or rate, and demand products and services. In addition, most of the platforms, with different legal entities, involve the community in the decision-making processes. Furthermore, the majority of platforms allow their members to access the economic balance, and some platforms have spaces where the community can decide the destination of benefits. The correlation between the subdimensions of governance demonstrates how important the type of entity is in the way that contributors are managed, and their role in the destination of economic benefits.
Focusing on the economic model, the PE has a rich and varied universe, balancing organizations that have a more pro-public community character and more private and pro-market ones. In spite of that, the majority of platforms do not encourage economic exchange, reinvest their benefits and do not have a speculative approach. At the same time, ethical banking services, public funding and non-monetary donations have a great role in the model of sustainability. Thus, the voluntary work associated with the central role of the community is the main capital for the sustainability of the projects [27
On the other hand, public policies are fundamental, since approximately two out of three projects receive funding from the public. Barcelona City Council, for example, has supported some projects through match-funding campaigns, whereby projects obtain sources from the community and public administration. While traditional models of funding (bank loans, merchandising, advertising, donations, etc.) have less presence, some new types of businesses, like the commercialization of data, have hardly been explored by researchers. In relation to internal economic correlations, we observe how legal entity impact in the model of funding and the large interactions among the different types of funding.
Focusing on technology policies, the majority of platforms are private, but open licenses are also represented. There are two possible explanations for this result. First, the restriction of website software use to platform owners only. The second explanation for platform privacy is the lack of attention to content licenses, software and open data exportation. In the same sense, technological architecture balances open and closed models, while projects are exploring blockchain, especially those which promote open code. At the same time, data policies replicate private licenses contents and non-downloadable data domination.
In regard to social responsibility and impact, even though most of the platforms have social and ecosystem responsibility, considering inclusion or collaborations with other actors (focusing on local) of their sector, the gender gap is sizable, and environment attendance is dismissed. Correlations show a great connection between the size of the community and their active participation.
One of the main observations is the key role of the platform governance model, which has a strong correlation with the economic model and technological and data policies (which are also correlated between them). Thus, it is concluded that the more democratic the platform governance is, the more democratic the platform’s economic model will be. The research and analysis conducted to examine this connection have provided further support by reinforcing this relationship, particularly in terms of community involvement and participation. Therefore, in order to generate sharing economy platforms which improve both economic and environmental efficiency, democratic platform governance and transparency is the key. Another major conclusion regarding dimensions interactions is the disconnection between social responsibility and impact dimension with the rest of the dimensions analyzed. The traditional disconnection between open commons and social and solidarity spheres can explain that.
In sum, the present study’s findings highlight the need for democratic governance economic models rather than data, knowledge and technological ones. The findings also demonstrate the relevance of the interconnections among governance, economic model and technological and data policy dimensions in promoting the collaborative economy. In addition, the results point to a disconnection between social responsibility and impact with the rest of the dimensions. Nevertheless, in future research, this part of the analysis could be repeated and validated to enrich the indicators and improve the potential correlations with the other dimensions. Future research could also aim to identify causal rather than correlational relationships among dimensions.