Digital Platforms and Entrepreneurship in Trinidad and Tobago: Examining the Complexities of Technology Affordances and Constraints

This is a report on my Web Science PhD thesis ‘Digital Platforms and Entrepreneurship in Trinidad and Tobago: An examination of their Relationships using Technology Affordances and Constraints’. It summarises the findings and provides recommendations to entrepreneurs and policymakers supporting entrepreneurs. I adopted an interdisciplinary approach by integrating computer science, and social science (including business, and economic geography) concepts. I also developed a methodology to help reveal how complex technological, socio-cultural, historical, political, economic, and infrastructure factors connect to influence our interconnected societies. The executive summary from the report is provided below, and the full report can be accessed here: The Influence of Digital Platforms on Entrepreneurship in Trinidad and Tobago: Examining the Complexities of Technology Affordances and Constraints

network diagram 2

The Influence of Digital Platforms on Entrepreneurship in Trinidad and Tobago: Examining the Complexities of Technology Affordances and Constraints

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Digital platforms which are used by entrepreneurs globally have changed the way many Trinidad and Tobago entrepreneurs interact. However, while it is commonly accepted that digital platforms change the processes and practices of entrepreneurs, their influence on entrepreneurship is insufficiently examined and understood. At the time of this research, the COVID-19 global pandemic was not yet a reality and the prospect of living and working in a physically distanced world was not on our radar. With an anticipated rise in unemployment, and higher dependence on digital technology, and e-commerce, understanding the best way to develop and use digital platforms for entrepreneurship locally is now critical. This research is timely as it asks questions about the influence of digital platforms on entrepreneurship in Trinidad and Tobago and provides insights that can inform the development of frameworks to support and grow e-commerce ecosystems and initiatives. The problem is that existing research tends to focus on developed countries and high-growth entrepreneurship, and this leaves a gap in our understanding of low-growth entrepreneurship, which represents most entrepreneurial activity. Trinidad and Tobago is classified as a high-income country by the World Bank, ranked above average on the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), a measure of human development using indicators such as life expectancy, health, knowledge, and standard of living, yet is continuously categorised as a developing state by the United Nations. Notably, the country is attempting to diversify its oil and gas economy through supporting entrepreneurship.

The study began with a pilot study followed by interviews and focus groups with entrepreneurs and entrepreneur stakeholders and the use of secondary data. Platforms used by entrepreneurs in the study are diverse and include multifaceted social media platforms (such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube), messaging platforms (such as WhatsApp) e-commerce platforms (such as Amazon, Shopify), gig-economy platforms (such as Uber), payment platforms (such as PayPal) and e-learning platforms (such as FutureLearn). Locally created platforms are also studied. The research provides insight into a country with low levels of high-growth entrepreneurship but high levels of opportunity-driven entrepreneurship, and relatively good levels of internet access, and telecommunications infrastructure. It sheds light on entrepreneurship in a twin-island state, and a multi-cultural society, with a distinctive creative sector and an informal, fragmented entrepreneurial ecosystem. Its major findings highlight the extent to which historical socio-economic, and cultural forces comprise both drivers and barriers to entrepreneurial activities and outcomes in Trinidad and Tobago.  It concludes that increased visibility on digital platforms and online collaboration are helpful but insufficient because offline social interaction and networks are essential for entrepreneurs. Importantly, as well, the research examines the merits and limits of digital communication and online learning, and unpacks the potential for the development of locally created digital platforms and services when entrepreneurs tap into deep-seated local culture and historical knowledge about the environment within which they operate and make the best use of resources available.

The study also examines why online payment has had limited success for local entrepreneurs, while a billion dollars of goods are bought overseas online annually in Trinidad and Tobago. It explores the difficulties entrepreneurs face with copying, distraction and manipulation even though benefiting from the visibility, ease and speed that come with digital platform use. It found that when entrepreneurs use digital platforms, the benefits gained are in tension with platform rules that continuously change creating uncertainty, unpredictability and risk. Technology affordances and constraints, vary by degree, coexist and intertwine with culture, social norms and historically situated economic structures to both support and limit the potential for entrepreneurs to use digital platforms and capitalise on their benefits.  This report summarises the research and provides recommendations to the Trinidad and Tobago government which should help them to understand the influence and limits of digital platforms as they seek to support and grow entrepreneurship in general and e-commerce in particular. For entrepreneurs, it provides recommendations that allow for a deeper understanding of how they may use and create digital platforms successfully.