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Platforms for the People

As years of a growth-at-all-costs model start to bite, the platform economy is looking increasingly unsteady. Now's the time to take back the tech from the venture capitalists.

A Deliveroo rider near Victoria station on 31 March 2021 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

2022 will be remembered as the year in which platform capitalism trembled.

As tech stocks plummet and investments go sour, the venture capital firms that have bankrolled the platform economy for the past decade are reeling. Platform workers are mobilising around the world, from Sheffield to Shanghai and from Dubai to Dhaka. Sales for on-demand services have slumped amid the global cost of living crisis. Regulators are catching up, taking aim at the monopoly powers accrued by Big Tech companies while finally proposing employment rights for the gig workers on whom the platform economy relies.

These developments have left some of the most ubiquitous platforms rocking. In just two years of existence, instant delivery grocery service Gorillas has gone from being Europe’s fastest ever ‘unicorn’ to near failure, retreating from key markets and slashing staff numbers against a backdrop of mounting worker revolts. Deliveroo has withdrawn from four countries in the last three years. Just Eat lost over €1 billion in 2021 alone. Thirteen years after its founding, Uber reported its first profitable quarter last month, but even that was set against wider net losses and a squeeze on drivers’ pay.

If this is a moment of profound anxiety for those who have profited from a decade of techno-capitalist hype, it is also an opportunity to radically reshape the digital economy. But first, we need to understand how we got here.

At the dawn of the last decade, the proliferation of Apple’s iPhone and the development of its app store infrastructure gave rise to the platform economy as we know it. By rapidly connecting service providers and users on a mass scale, it offered a kind of convenience most people had never known, widening access to everyday services from online shopping to grocery deliveries and private transportation.

However, this technology was quickly captured by the worst of extractive capitalism. In the early 2010s, unproven companies like Deliveroo and Uber found themselves looking for sources of capital willing to take on the large risk that digital technology presents to early financial backers. In that same period, a class of venture capitalists were on the hunt for investments that could generate the same high returns they had enjoyed before the 2008 financial crash.

They saw in these platform companies a chance to generate mouthwatering returns via the seemingly limitless growth offered by their data-driven technologies. Once they had grown to a place of dominance, so the argument went, these companies could use their powerful position to make enormous profits through economies of scale and price gouging tactics. And, if this failed, the venture capital funds could always offload their shares to mainstream investors via a public offering on the hyper-inflated tech stocks market.

In these early years, tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists exploited the public’s relative ignorance to establish vast privately owned networks that lined the pockets of a wealthy few. Venture capitalists pumped billions of pounds into platform businesses on the promise that these companies could aggressively expand their market share, inflate their valuation, and offer shareholders an outsized return on their risky investments. Meanwhile, users, platform workers and service providers were left with no power over this increasingly central infrastructure in their lives.

As it came to dominate the platform economy, this funding incentivised an extractive, growth-at-all-costs model, distorting the market with unprofitable companies while, in the case of the transport and delivery sectors, leaving workers to absorb the risks of their business operations. If this drive towards expansion bordered on the pathological, platform executives soon learned to ‘embrace the chaos’, in the words of one Uber chief.

They leveraged their venture capital millions to capture key urban infrastructure through massive exploitation, data mining, and illegal lobbying. Once they were established, the platforms focussed on extracting as much value as possible from their workers, providers, and customers, and aggressively converting it into market share. The consequences can be seen across our communities: streets littered with discarded rental bikes, struggling independent businesses, and exhausted, underpaid workers pushed to the very margins of local economies.

The model created companies that were simultaneously exceptionally powerful and chronically unstable: without constant expansion, they could not attract high-risk capital, and without high-risk capital they could not cover the losses incurred through that expansion. Now, as their sources of capital dry up, companies like Deliveroo and Gorillas are counting the cost of their ultra-aggressive growth strategies, and facing up to the prospect of their financial life support being switched off.

Still, as a former Deliveroo rider, I find it difficult to triumph in the potential downfall of this extractive industry. Over the course of the last decade, for better and worse, platform technologies have transformed what it means to live, work, and travel in our cities. Millions of the world’s most precarious workers rely on platforms for their income, as well as hundreds of thousands of local businesses and community organisations. It’s these people who will feel the pain if the sector collapses entirely.

Instead, this is a chance to rethink platform technologies away from the corporate growth-at-all-costs model. Last year, myself and a group of former Deliveroo riders set up Wings, a food delivery platform co-operative based in North London. Without obligations to wealthy shareholders, we’re free to define who our platform serves. As workers, we get the final say in how we operate, from the shifts we work to who we do business with, while enjoying the security of proper employment rights, benefits, and protections.

We partner exclusively with independent local restaurants to ensure that all the profits we generate are retained within the local economy, while working alongside food bank providers to deliver to vulnerable local residents. And we’re just one part of a wider constellation of cooperatives around the world taking the fight to the corporate platforms and building a digital future on the principles of collective ownership and worker power.

The conventional narrative of the last decade is that Silicon Valley and venture capital millions alone hold the power to remake our cities and civic infrastructure. Wings is proof that this is not the case. By rejecting platform capitalism and its models of funding, governance, and ownership, we’ve been able to redistribute wealth and power towards communities and workers.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. Cooperatives alone can’t undo the racialised urban geographies and hostile immigration regimes that have provided the conditions for platforms to flourish. When current employment law forecloses the livelihoods of undocumented and other precarious workers, simply creating adequate employment opportunities will do little for a vast swathe of the most vulnerable platform workers. To heal the wounds inflicted over the last ten years, we need to build an alliance of wider movements, encompassing calls for worker ownership, migrant justice, and community wealth building. But that will only happen if we start to create alternatives.

Now, more than ever, we need resilient local infrastructure, built on mutual care, cooperation, and shared ownership across all of society. By building from the ground up alongside municipal authorities, workers, and community organisations, we’ve seen the possibility of embedding tech within local economies rather than selling a dream of outsized returns through aggressive expansion. It’s time to reclaim the technologies of the platform economy, and start building a new, equitable paradigm for tech infrastructure that will outlast the boom-bust cycle of venture capital funding.