Technische Universität Berlin

Powerful Incubator for Digitalization Research

Maik Hesse becomes the first researcher to complete a doctorate at the Einstein Center Digital Future

Maik Hesse is the first person to complete a doctorate at the Einstein Center Digital Future (ECDF). The ECDF is an interdisplinary project of Technische Universität Berlin (TU), Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin (FU), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU), and the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK), as well as a number of other Berlin research institutions. In just over two years between January 2019 and March 2021, Hesse completed his doctorate on trust, reputation, and data sovereignty in the digital platform economy with Professor Timm Teubner, head of the Trust in Digital Services research group at the Faculty of Economics and Management at TU Berlin. Here, he tells us what makes a doctorate at the ECDF so special.

Dr. Hesse, how did you come to find out about the ECDF?

I wanted to do my doctorate in Berlin, the city I have adopted as my home. I first became aware of Professor Teubner and the ECDF when I began reading academic literature about platform business models in fall 2018. I was really impressed by the interdisciplinary approach to digitalization research involving a number of different institutions. What makes the ECDF unique is that it brings together a range of different perspectives and a broad approach to digital infrastructures, digital society and change, as well as digital industry and services.

What do you value most about your doctorate at the ECDF?

Particularly before the coronavirus, I really benefited from the opportunity to work with professors and doctoral candidates right at the heart of Berlin as a center of research. This resulted in a number of joint endeavors, such as a research project with Humboldt-Universität for the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) focusing on digitalization in North Africa, as well as a project with researchers at the University of Oxford. In addition, Timm Teubner’s Trust in Digital Services research group is located at the Faculty of Economics and Management at TU Berlin, enabling me to benefit from the best of both worlds.

What was the focus of your thesis?

I looked at platforms where you can evaluate service providers from the perspective of whether the reputation acquired via digital platforms can be transferred to other platforms and service contexts – including offline – and which technologies and business models support digital identity management from the perspective of the user.

What is the digital platform economy?

Digital platforms today have become a significant sector of the economy in their own right. This process began in the mid-90s with the emergence of the first electronic Internet marketplaces, such as Amazon and eBay. At the end of the 2000s, the phrase “sharing economy” became common currency and today we also speak of gig and crowd work, where private individuals offer their services directly to users on a temporary basis via peer-to-peer digital platforms. Examples include Airbnb for accommodation, Uber for driving services, Helpling for domestic work, and the food delivery service Lieferando. The term platform economy refers to the entire service ecosystem which has grown up around brokering services via digital platforms.

How are digital technologies and digital platforms influencing the business world?

Digital platforms have fundamentally changed the way services are procured and brokered. Today we can order everything online via our smartphones. Whether driving or domestic services, meals, or even now fresh food, everything can be delivered to your home in just a few minutes. This makes everything very easy for the consumer. It also means that these platforms are developing an increasing market power. Particularly the big platforms are now establishing monopolies, in part through the storage and proprietary use of key profile data of service providers.

What role do the profile data of users play in creating monopolies?

Reputation, often in the form of stars or text ratings, is an example of such data. Reputation, as acquired through the repeated delivery of services, is generally seen as the most important signal for trust in digital markets. This trust is the basis of transactions and often essential to the purchasing process. However, this system ties providers to a specific platform, as switching to another platform means starting from scratch again without a reputation.

What has been the outcome of your research?

Our surveys, experiments, and conversations with operators, service providers, and users have scientifically demonstrated, for the first time, that reputation transcends contexts and platforms. Even if imported from another platform, reputation is something users can trust and contributes significantly to purchasing decisions. As a result, digital identity management is becoming more and more important. As such, digital platforms should enable the release and portability of data to other platforms. There have also been moves by the German government - especially the Federal Ministry of Labour and the Federal Ministry of Justice - calling for such portability of digital reputation.

Has this resulted in new areas of focus for you?

In my opinion, the issues of how you deal with your own data and strengthening “digital sovereignty” have become even more important. Data-driven business models is a wide field and many stakeholders from business, politics and society are currently grappling with the issues of storing and using data as well as their usability and monetization. Also of interest are those technologies often described as “disruptive,” in other words technologies that bring fundamental changes, such as artificial intelligence or block chain technology familiar to the many users of bitcoins. Finally, the use and development of digital platforms is becoming increasingly of interest to the private sector, where different market participants, such as end consumers, suppliers, and startups, can be orchestrated in parallel.

How do you think things will progress?

More than anything, I see a real need for the public to be educated in dealing with their own data so that they can truly “own” them and act autonomously. We also need to create independent digital infrastructures for business, politics, and society in Europe. All of this taken together is what we mean by “digital sovereignty.” In my own work – I recently returned to working as a strategy consultant – I am currently focusing on digital transformation and data-driven business models, but I am open to other options such working as a postdoc and conducting research.

What would be your advice to anyone considering a doctorate at the ECDF?

I see the ECDF as a powerful incubator for digitalization research, and if I had to decide again, I would always choose to do my doctorate there. From my own experience, I would recommend a certain flexibility regarding choice of topic at the start so that you can use your reading and discussions with other researchers to find the right area of focus for you. Ultimately, you need patience, determination and a certain amount of optimism to deal with difficult project phases and setbacks when working on a doctorate.

Interviewer: Christina Camier