The role of Digital Platforms in Sustainable Development: An analysis of the working conditions, health and environment of digital distributors in the case of Bogotá D.C., Colombia

Project: Research Project

Project Details


In a world of digitally connected global economies, what once seemed so far away is now arriving at the doors of homes; this is the case of the digital economy or the GIG platform economy (Schwellnus et al., 2019). In fact, the development of the economy based on these platforms has experienced dizzying growth in this century, positioning it as one of the fastest growing sectors in the world and with a capacity for transformation unimaginable in today's societies.

Although its direct effect on the global economy is difficult to calculate, it is estimated that these platforms move around 50 billion USD per year (Heeks, 2019); and this, only for the case of platforms dedicated to work, that is, businesses such as transportation of people (Uber, Ola, DiDi would be a good example), home delivery (Like UberEats, Deliveroo, Glovo, Foodora or Rappi), personal services (Nannies: Bambino; Plumbers: Handy; Cleaning: Helpling or HogarU in Colombia), etc (Schwellnus et al. 9).

In the Global South (Rigg, 2015) these technologies have recruited more than 40 million workers representing, in some countries, up to 1.5% of the total workforce (Heeks, 2019). The reasons for the success of these digital businesses, particularly in the countries of the Global South, correspond to the specificities of these places. For example, in Colombia, the region's third largest economy (IMF, 2018), some platforms have found a favourable place at the confluence of: deficient road and public transport infrastructure, growing perceptions of insecurity in public spaces, high rates of informality, the pressure of migration (Forbes, 2018) and a growing need for young people or people with low levels of education to link up with the productive world (Sánchez and Maldonado, 2019; Moed, 2018). But these phenomena are common in various parts of the global South, so digital economies are far from being an exception; and, because of their ability to adapt to the contextual conditions where they are deployed, they are projected as the future of the organization of work. For this reason, and more than ever, comprehensive strategies, methods and approaches are needed to understand and estimate their effects on populations, their health and the transformation of societies.

While this new form of economy has offered previously unimaginable work opportunities for many, becoming the livelihood of thousands of people without formal work, it has also led to precarious employment conditions and human challenges linked to low incomes, profit deduction models, extended working hours and dangerous exposure to occupational and environmental risk factors (Wood et al., 2019), (Muntaner, 2018). In addition, most platforms define themselves as intermediaries rather than employers, making it difficult to estimate these risks and define better working conditions (Graham et al., 2017b). To make matters more complex, governments do not have the tools to regulate these digital markets, nor is it clear how to balance the economic development they promise in a sustainable way with protecting the life and health of those involved.

Thus, this project seeks to contribute to the understanding of working modes in the digital economy as a strategy for overcoming poverty and protecting health, in a sustainable relationship with cities and the environment and, in a more specific sense, as a great opportunity to address the Sustainable Development Goals (hereinafter ODS) (Heeks, 2017). This is a concern that is also shared by public health, with questions that go through the working and employment conditions of those engaged in digital economies, in addition to the most resounding occupational and environmental exposures; but, especially, with a doubt regarding the role and challenges of these digital platforms in the formal economy (contributions, health, pensions, occupational risks, insurance, etc.) in the key of the sustainability of nations.

Thus, Latin America has experienced in recent years the expansion of one of these types of digital businesses that is the object of interest. This is the case of Digital Delivery Platforms (hereinafter PDR) such as Rappi, UberEats, Glovo, etc. The PDRs are based on a digital model of homes and/or courier services for the collection and delivery of products and some services in boxes loaded on the backs of young delivery people (de la Fuente, 2019), mobilized on two wheels -motorcycles or bicycles-, who by means of a mobile application with geolocalization connect suppliers and consumers. These digital distributors embody, in their own bodies and stories, the burden of digital work, making it corporeal, giving it materiality and in that sense they are the observable human expression of the most pressing challenges of digital economies.

However, the effect of RDPs and other GIG platforms always exceeds the workers and expands as a technological wave in the social world. Initially, in the digital distributors they affect their health, work and environmental conditions; but, they also sustain different digital and material interactions with producers/suppliers, with consumers in the processes of satisfaction of their needs, with the territories they inhabit, changing ecosystem logics in key of urban ecologies and, of course, in the political-economic-social macro sphere in global key, so the issue is not minor. For this reason, this work will address, in the key of sustainable development, the emblematic case of the deployment of digital delivery platforms on the ground, using as an illustrative example the experience in Bogota DC, Colombia

For this, the PDRs of Rappi and UberEats were intentionally chosen, displayed as orange and green spots on the streets of Bogota. Rappi is a Colombian company that has experienced significant growth in Latin America. It is estimated that it could be valued in the stock market in more than US 3 billion dollars, being catalogued as the great Colombian unicorn (MONEY, 2019). According to estimates, it has more than 1,500 direct employees and 25,000 digital distributors, with more than 13 million users in Colombia alone (Rappi, 2019). UberEats, on the other hand, is one of the business lines of its mother company: Uber, dedicated to the distribution and delivery of prepared meals. The service was launched in 2014 in Santa Monica (California, USA) and by 2018 it already had coverage in the major European cities and is currently in more than 200 cities around the world. In Colombia it has been operating since 2016. The UberEats service is available in seven cities in the country: Bogota, Chia, Cali, Pereira, Bucaramanga, Barranquilla and Medellin with around 3,000 distribution partners and more than 3,000 restaurants with 4,000 points of sale' (La República, 14 February 2019).

Based on these illustrative cases, this work seeks to make the ecologies of digital work visible, not only by describing the market systems it generates but also its relationship with broader sociomaterial and environmental conditions. In that sense, it explores the effects of the quality of environmental environments on the health of workers and their work dynamics. For example, it extrapolates the possible negative effects on the health of the Bogotá population caused by poor air quality, considering that in Bogotá alone by 2018 each person, and especially street workers, had at least four episodes of ARI (Acute Respiratory Infection). In other words, nearly three million episodes occurred, of which at least 15% required outpatient or emergency care, equivalent to 416,000 visits and a high health cost. However, the other health indicators of these populations and their economic effects are not known.

All this focuses on the need for an exploration of the sociomaterial ecologies of digital work that does not respond to a causal logic, but rather to a propositional one. Thus, in the search for more equitable, fairer and more sustainable societies, RDPs (as well as many emerging digital businesses) are in a privileged position to rebuild the social fabric, the future of all. That is the bet of this work, with the ODS as goals to follow in the search for a sustainable life, it is necessary to make that future concrete, woven daily in the daily possibilities, in the new socio-technological configurations such as those emerging from the digital economy. Thus, it is necessary to face with technical and analytical sufficiency the effects of the so-called "fourth industrial revolution" - of which the RDPs are a part - on the quality of life, health, environment and work, that is, intersectionally and creatively, as this project proposes.


- Value chain characterization model of the selected RDPs
- Digital map of routes (with the geolocated identification of occupational and environmental risks) in the work of the Digital Delivery Companies
- Life stories of digital delivery people and their jobs.
Profile of the working conditions and health of the participating deliverymen.
- Proposals and recommendations for future action on decent digital work and the sustainability of fair digital economies
Effective start/end date2/2/202/18/22

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals

Main Funding Source

  • Competitive Funds


  • Bogotá D.C.


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