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Digital archive of theses discussed at the University of Pisa


Thesis etd-03012022-110205

Thesis type
Tesi di dottorato di ricerca
Thesis title
Evolutionary Dynamics of Digitalization in the Agrifood Sector: Unveiling the Role of Digital Platforms for Firms Ecosystems Resilience
Academic discipline
Course of study
tutor Prof.ssa Tarabella, Angela
  • agrifood
  • digital platforms
  • digitalization
  • ecosystems
  • resilience
Graduation session start date
Release date
The achievement of sustainable and resilient Agrifood models represents, as never before, a crucial and extraordinarily complex challenge whose solution cannot disregard an adequate level of research on technological innovation. The impacts caused by climate change, overexploitation of natural resources, and aggressive agricultural practices are proving to be devastating for the Agrifood sector, on which depend, among other things, the livelihoods of an increasing population and the economic, social, and cultural growth of communities around the world (FAO, 2020). Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, the Agrifood sector in most countries worldwide faced many problems of economic instability, social conflict, and food security. The advent of the crisis caused by the pandemic highlighted many others, including fragile production and distribution systems and business models that lack resilience in times of crisis (FAO, 2021a). Current Agrifood systems require profound change, as they still fail to provide basic food needs for a large portion of the world's population while being responsible for an unsustainable burden on the environment. The world's population is expected to reach approximately ten billion by 2050, with a projected 50% increase in food demand compared to 2013 (FAO, 2017b; UN/DESA, 2019). An additional critical issue related to population growth is the increasing scarcity of available resources, land, water, and biodiversity. To meet these challenges, the Agrifood sector, at every scale, from small family farms to large farms, will need to become more efficient by using fewer inputs to produce more food sustainably and with greater resilience to contextual changes over time (FAO, 2021a). Indeed, it should be emphasized that effective management of sustainability challenges should come through greater awareness of resilience, which is strongly linked to increasing changes in the world and future uncertainties. The Agrifood sector, characterized by dynamism, is increasingly exposed to multiple internal and external drivers of change, ranging from sudden shocks to long-term stressors, increasing the vulnerability of systems (Lemine, 2015; Meuwissen et al., 2019). Building sustainable and resilient Agrifood systems requires the engagement of all stakeholders: from citizens, called to choose healthy and sustainable food, to farmers through the use of digital technologies to reduce the impact of agriculture; from the private sector to scientists, institutions, and policymakers, who can contribute through educational programs and monetary incentives (Valentini et al., 2019).

A paradigm shift is needed, and the world's most influential institutional actors are helping to promote programs and initiatives to ensure a new path to sustainable growth and development, such as the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development (SDGs) (UN, 2015), the European Green Deal and “Farm to Fork Strategy” promoted by the European Commission (EC, 2019). Addressing critical issues in the sector and achieving the goals set by regulators will require Agrifood systems that are more productive, efficient, sustainable, inclusive, transparent, and resilient (FAO, 2017c). Digital innovations and technologies can be part of the solution (FAO, 2019; 2021a).
There is a growing recognition of how digitization and so-called "new technologies"- including all available tools and innovations that fit into the 4.0 paradigm- can help make Agrifood systems resilient (Miranda et al., 2019; Lezoche et al., 2020; World Bank, 2017). In the wake of the 4.0 paradigm, new "smart" business models have spread around the world, such as the phenomenon of "Smart Farming" or "Precision Agriculture", which, thanks to the use of so-called "disruptive" technologies, such as ICT, Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, Digital Platforms (DPs) and the evolution of "field" technology applications such as smart robots, sensors, drones, optimize production processes with economic, environmental and social benefits (Sundmaeker et al., 2016; Wolfert et al., 2015; 2017).
Among the most potential digital technologies, Digital Platforms (DPs) have recently attracted the interest of many scholars, as they were born for the purpose of "integrating" heterogeneous, isolated, and open technological solutions (Lezoche et al., 2020; Yablonsky, 2018). However, understanding the phenomenon of DPs is not a simple challenge. The literature on DPs is deeply fragmented, and its conceptualization is necessary for framing a research study (de Reuver et al., 2018). To bring order to the literature, Gawer (2009) helped provide a much-appreciated and acknowledged classification among scholars - albeit not exhaustive - by dividing DPs into Internal Platforms, Supply Chain Platforms, Industry Platforms, and Multi-sided Platforms, each of which has application domains and characteristics that distinguish them from one another. In particular, the concept of Internal Platform, whose field of study is that of DPs within companies, shows a strong connection in the literature with studies dedicated to Firm Information Systems (IS), which have explored this phenomenon by adopting the lens of socio-technical theory (Bonina, 2021; de Reuver, 2018; Hughes et al., 2017). In this perspective, the focus of studies is on "Digital Software Platforms", understood as a socio-technical assemblage that includes technical elements (software and hardware) and associated organizational processes and standards (Tilson et al., 2012; Tiwana, 2014). According to this perspective, DPs rarely exist in isolation, and their existence, use, and evolution are embedded in a more comprehensive set of economic, organizational, institutional, and spatial forces (Bonina, 2021; de Reuver, 2018; Hughes et al., 2017). In DPs studies, this invokes in each domain (Internal, Supply chain, Industry, Multi-sided) the concept of "ecosystem", i.e., the set of "actors" that create value for the company and with whom the company has relationships of mutual dialogue, including providers, producers, competitors, and consumers, in its broadest sense (den Hurtigh and van Asseldonk, 2004; Zhu and Iansiti, 2020).
In Agrifood studies, the need to include contingencies as critical factors in sustainable development research that embody the concept of resilience (Folke et al., 2002; 2003; 2010), coupled with more recent developments in digital technologies embedded in DPs, opens up new research scenarios that need to be shed light on. This research aims to understand how DPs contribute to resilient Agrifood ecosystems. Specifically, this Monograph seeks to answer the following research questions:

- RQ.1 - How do Digital Platforms contribute to Agrifood Ecosystems Resilience?
- RQ.2 - What types of Digital Platforms contribute to the Agrifood Ecosystems Resilience?
- RQ.3 - What are the strategic approaches behind the use of Digital Platforms? For what purposes are they used?

To fully grasp the complex nature of the phenomenon of DPs, it was necessary to answer these questions by following an approach from the general to the particular by successive levels of investigation. Therefore, the monograph consists of two parts. The first part (Chapters 2, 3, and 4) provides a general overview that considers the multiple aspects in which DPs can contribute to the resilience of Agrifood ecosystems. Specifically:

- Chapter 2 provides contextual background on the current critical issues facing the Agrifood sector, the most recent and influential international policy interventions on sustainability and resilience, and an overview of digital technologies defined as "disruptive" in the 4.0 era, within which DPs assume strategic importance as "integrators" of technological solutions (Lezoche et al., 2020; Yablonsky, 2018).
- Chapter 3 contextualizes the phenomenon of DPs in the literature. The varied nature of DPs and the different application areas will be noted. A greater emphasis will be placed on DPs in the Information Systems (IS) domain and their connection to the concept of "ecosystem", as the socio-technical study lens offered by the relevant literature, will interpret the behavior of a DP in the Case Study (Ch. 6).
- Chapter 4 presents the results of the Systematic Literature Review (SLR) on how DPs contribute to the resilience of Agrifood firm ecosystems. The SLR, adopting the protocol of Tranfield et al., (2003), consists of different steps and a rigorous article selection process (Bettinelli et al., 2021). A descriptive and conceptual analysis of the articles offers the possibility to understand the different types of DPs adopted, highlighting the strategic mechanisms behind their use.

The second part of the Monograph aims to give a deeper look at the phenomenon of DPs through a qualitative empirical study, with the methodology of the Case Study (Yin, 1993) following an Interpretive approach (Orlikowski, 1991; Walsham, 1993). The research work aims to interpret the behavior of an Internal Digital Platform (IDP) (Gawer and Cusumano, 2014; Robertson and Ulrich, 1998) through the socio-technical lens of Information Systems (Bonina et al., 2021; de Reuver et al., 2018; Hughes et al., 2017) to understand how it contributes to the resilience of the firm ecosystem of a start-up operating in the Agrifood sector. Specifically:

- Chapter 5 outlines the methodology (Interpretive) and method (Case Study) employed, recalling the philosophical, ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions underlying this research. In addition to this, it details the firm selection process, interview protocol, data collection, data analysis, and data validation.
- Chapter 6 presents the results and discussion of the Case Study. After discussing the sustainable strategy, the concept of resilience, and framing the firm ecosystem of the start-up understudy, the Case Study focuses on the application of the Internal Digital Platform (IDP) and understanding how it operates.