Emerging in response to the need for a scalable way to make inclusive group decisions during the Occupy movement in 2011, Loomio, an activist-driven tech co-op, developed an open-source tool for democratic organizing now used by 80,000 people in 93 countries. Change-making communities, social movements and organizations have used it to make more than 25,000 decisions. In this digital world, Loomio is on a mission to empower communities and organizations everywhere to weave diverse perspectives into powerful collective action. Introduction by Matthew Monahan, Namaste Foundation.
This speech was given at the 2015 Bioneers Annual Conference.
Since 1990, Bioneers has acted as a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with practical and visionary solutions for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges.
To experience talks like this, please join us at the Bioneers National Conference each October, and regional Bioneers Resilient Community Network gatherings held nationwide throughout the year.
The “sharing economy” wasn’t supposed to be this way. Aided by the tiny computers most of us carry with us all day, every day, we would be free from the burdens of ownership and making money in our spare time by renting out our unused possessions. The vison was—or at least appeared to be—an idealistic one. Even before they enter kindergarten, every child learns the value of sharing, and here were the beneficent forces of Silicon Valley bringing us innovative new tools to strengthen our communities, disrupt outdated ways of doing business, and maybe even reduce our carbon footprints.
The reality turned out to be a little different. Sure, Uber and its ilk offer remarkable convenience and a nearly magical user experience, but their innovation lies just as much in evading regulations as in developing new technology. Behind the apps lies an army of contract workers without the protections offered to ordinary employees, much less the backing of a union. This new economy is not really about sharing at all. Rather, as Trebor Scholz argues in this study, it is an on-demand service economy that is spreading market relations deeper into our lives.
With these new middlemen sucking profits out of previously un-monetized interactions, creating new forms of hyper-exploitation, and spreading precarity throughout the workforce, what can we do? Scholz insists that we need not just resistance but a positive alternative. He calls this alternative “platform cooperativism,” which encompasses new ownership models for the Internet. Platform cooperativism insists that we’ll only be able to address the myriad ills of the sharing economy—that is to say platform capitalism—by changing ownership, establishing democratic governance, and reinvigorating solidarity. In this paper, Scholz breathes life into this idea by describing both actually existing and possible examples of platform co-ops, outlining basic principles for fairly operating labor platforms on the Internet, and suggesting next steps.
Trebor Scholz has lived and worked in co-ops for over a decade. The author of The Internet as Playground and Factory (2013) and Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy (2016, forthcoming), Scholz is an associate professor at The New School, where he teaches courses on Internet and society. Together with Nathan Schneider, he has been focused on creating a campaign to challenge the system of value extraction that fuels the “sharing economy.” In November 2015, The New School hosted “Platform Cooperativism: The Internet, Ownership, Democracy,” which brought together more than one thousand people to plant the seeds for a new kind of online economy. The results of this conference are reflected in this study.
Platform cooperativism is possible, and it is necessary, but it is by no means inevitable. The current owners of online platforms are willing to offer us seemingly everything except ownership. It is time for us to instead create an online economy based in democracy and solidarity.
Originally published by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung
Alanna from Loomio met Romain Chanut at POC21, a 6 week innovation camp in France focused on open source hardware for sustainability. Romain was there with his “Do It Together”JerryCan – a low cost computer you can assemble from recycled materials. We took a break from hacking on hardware to learn more about his other role, as a digital transformer in a social media collective.
MakeSense is dedicated to helping social entrepreneurs solve their challenges with collective intelligence, and engaging citizens to help changemakers. Since its inception in 2011, MakeSense has mobilized 20,000 citizens in 45 countries to help more than 1,100 social entrepreneurs accelerate their impact.
Romain co-founded Social Media Squad, a cooperative affiliated with MakeSense, which increases the impact of social entrepreneurs by helping them design and implement social media strategy.
The five associates of the cooperative are always on the move.
We work from different places. With our nomadic way of life, we need a place where we can take decisions together in an asynchronous way.
Romain really appreciates the objective distance that making decisions online can afford. There’s less time pressure than in a synchronous meeting, allowing space to to think through issues.
Thanks to the Loomio interface, we have time to think, and can make a comment when we feel like it, not necessarily at that precise moment. It gives a lot of flexibility.
As social media experts, the Squad members are very comfortable with all kinds of digital tools. But they found clear decision-making online a lot more challenging before Loomio.
Facebook, emails, or other interfaces we have in cyberspace are not designed for collective action and collective change. That’s the goal of Loomio – I really love that.
The Squad has found two kinds of Loomio discussions especially useful. The first is straightforward and practical decisions that would waste precious face-time in a synchronous meeting. For example, each month the members declare their hours worked and decide their wages.
Another type of Loomio discussion they value is introducing big subjects ahead of planned face-to-face meetings. By kicking off the topic online and collecting initial comments, they are able to begin their discussion with greater shared information and understanding when they meet.
For decisions, it’s good that it’s not always in a circle of discussion, but in a remote place. If everyone agrees on the decision in cyberspace, it means they have more distance on it. It works.
Originally published on the Loomio blog
Image: The Battle of Yavin where the first Death Star was destroyed. Credit: Fanpop
We have an epic choice before us between platform coops and Death Star platforms, and the time to decide is now. It might be the most important economic decision we ever make, but most of us don’t even know we have a choice.
And just what is a Death Star platform? Bill Johnson of StructureC3 referred to Uber and Airbnb as Death Star platforms in a recent chat. The label struck me as surprisingly apt: it reflects the raw ambition and focused power of these platforms, particularly Uber.
Uber’s big bet is global monopoly or bust. They’ve raised over $8 billion in venture capital, are on track to do over $10 billion in revenue this year, and have an estimated 200,000 drivers who are destroying the taxi industry in over 300 cities worldwide. They’ve done all this in just over five years. In fact, they reached a $51 billion valuation faster than Facebook, and plan to raise even more money. If they’re successful, they’ll become the most valuable startup in history. Airbnb is nearly as big and ambitious.
Platform coops are the alternative to Death Stars. As Lisa Gansky urged, these platforms share value with the people who make them valuable. Platform coops combine a cooperative business structure with an online platform to deliver a real-world service. What if Uber was owned and governed by its drivers? What if Airbnb was owned and governed by its hosts? That’s what an emerging movement is exploring for the entire sharing economy in an upcoming conference, Platform Cooperativism.
Shareable helped break the platform coop story last year in a Nathan Schneider feature entitled, “Owning is the New Sharing” along with Trebor Scholz of the New School. These two thought leaders, also the conference organizers, identified a wave of platform coops forming, but we’re still in the early days.
What forces are driving the rise of Death Star platforms? And what’s at stake?
Uber signifies a new era in tech entrepreneurship. Its leaders express an explicit ideology of domination and limitless, global ambition. In fact, the global tech sector may be one of the most powerful stateless actors on the world stage today. And Death Star platforms are the tech sector’s avant garde.
Death Star platforms deftly exploit today’s growing economic insecurity and political vacuum. Their business model relies on precarious 1099 contractors. They mix technology, ideology, design, public relations, community organizing, and lobbying in a powerful new formulation that’s conquering cities and users around the world. They wrap themselves in the cloak of technological progress, free market inevitability, and even common good. As a result, cities allow them to break their laws with surprising frequency (Uber and Airbnb are simply illegal in most cities). Weak city governments either drink the Kool-Aid or struggle to contain them.
Millennials, who Pew Research described as detached from institutions and networked with friends, may be Death Star platform’s most ardent users. 50% of millennials are political independents, a huge increase over prior generations. And while Millennials are detached from traditional institutions, they increasingly connect through Death Stars. Most use these services and implicitly accept their ideology as Death Stars mask the complexity of their services—and their politics—behind slickly designed apps. As a result, they along with many others unknowingly join a movement with totalitarian goals, all for the sake of often negligible income, savings and convenience. It’s scary but understandable. US Millennials suffer from the highest debt and lowest employment of any generation since the Great Depression. Not to mention that Death Stars often deliver a better service. I use them occasionally too.
Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and leading sharing economy venture capitalist (VC), epitomized this ideology in a 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “Competition is for Losers,” in which he encourages entrepreneurs to establish monopolies. Marc Andreessen, another leading sharing economy VC, wrote a similar op-ed in the same publication three years earlier titled, “Why Software is Eating the World,” in which he declared that there was no industry that couldn’t be disrupted by web technologies.
Behind the bombastic rhetoric are powerful real-world drivers. There are sound, if not self-serving, reasons for these VC’s bold calls to action. A technology gold rush dramatically larger than any before has only begun to unfold, and Thiel and his ilk have the most to gain. Jeremiah Owyang’s Collaborative Economy Honeycomb infographic shows a large and growing universe of companies challenging dozens of major industries. Indeed, a recent IBM survey identified corporate executives’ top fear as the Uberization of everything. Zipcar founder Robin Chase believes that everything that can become a platform, will become a platform. If so, then the sharing economy is just the tip of the spear. Silicon Valley could become the power center of the world, with its leaders joining the small-but-growing ranks of stateless, above-the-law plutocrats.
That’s a big claim, but not out of the realm of possibility. There are some compelling leading indicators.
There’s a surface explanation, but much more below that. Technology startups are building platforms to compete in nearly every brick and mortar service sector, and on a global basis. These platforms coordinate economic activity, but do not need to own the key physical assets or employ any of the end-service providers to profit. Uber owns no cars and employs no drivers, but has decimated the taxi business in San Francisco.
With incredibly low costs, global reach, scientifically developed user interfaces, and massive funding, Death Star platforms have a shot at duplicating this kind of success in every major city and service sector around the world. This has VCs salivating. The multitude of incumbents spread across many industries and geographies that play by the rules face steep odds against the lawlessness, network effects, and focused power of Death Stars.
At a deeper level, fundamental changes in the startup world are underway. Tech startups have to venture into the brick and mortar world as the low hanging fruit in information-intensive industries has been picked. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and more have established their global monopolies. Tech must leave the nest, and its newest startups can because it’s significantly faster, cheaper, and less risky to start companies than before.
Shock and Awe Entrepreneurship
The assembly line creation of technology startups has been largely perfected. Silicon Valley’s VC-driven ecosystem has significantly reduced the considerable cost and risk of starting a venture. Funding is at record levels. There’s large corps of professionals who specialize in building startups. The technology is also cheap, meaning that startups need significantly less funding than before…unless they want to “disrupt” a brick and mortar industry.
These new dynamics explain Uber. Uber didn’t raise record amounts of venture capital to develop a new technology. Their technology is pedestrian. Most of it was developed by taxpayer-funded US government programs decades ago. They have combined old technology in a new way, but that’s relatively cheap to do. The $8 billion they’ve raised is to establish a global monopoly—in the real, physical world—in as short a time as possible. That takes a lot of marketing and lobbying muscle, and that’s really expensive.
What are indicators of the Death Star platform’s rising political power? Uber’s David Plouffe, formerly President Obama’s campaign manager, literally besieged Portland’s mayor, ultimately forcing him to create a favorable policy. Bloomberg’s “This is How Uber Takes Over a City” gives an eye opening account Uber’s strong arm tactics. As of this writing this, Airbnb is running an $8.3 million campaign to defeat a San Francisco voter proposition (Prop F) designed to limit Airbnb’s negative impact on the city’s skyrocketing housing costs. This lobbying activity is just the tip of the iceberg. Uber and Airbnb are using a good bit of their $10 billion+ collective war chest to hire a global army of lobbyists. In their language, they’ve put “boots on the ground” in hundreds of cities.
This is a big departure from the past. Tech investors used to avoid startups with significant regulatory risk because there were plenty of better, less risky opportunities. That’s not the case anymore. Now tech investors must and can take on the physical world.
Moreover, the huge investment raises and regulatory friction add up to much more than the sum of their parts. It’s like 1+1=10. The more money Death Star platforms raise, the more press and customers they get. The more they break the rules, the more press and customers the get, which enables them to raise even more money. Taxi drivers strike? Jackpot! And the cycle repeats. It’s a blitzkrieg. It’s shock and awe entrepreneurship. It’s the sound of a new hegemonic bloc coming to power.
Here’s what’s at stake. As Detroit shaped the world in the image of the car in the 20th century through an alienating and resource intensive system of highways and suburbs, so might Silicon Valley shape the world in the image of Death Star platforms in the 21st.
If you’re outraged by the power of tech giants now, just wait until tech dominates the majority of services you depend on to live. If you’re worried about how tech companies use your personal information now, just wait until they can track you 24/7 online and off. If you’re frustrated by how tech companies wield power over you as user now, just wait until you’re algorithmically fired by a Death Star because of one random bad rating. If you think incumbents like taxi companies suck, just wait until a win-at-all-cost tech titan like Uber’s Travis Kalanick rules the roost. If the diversity of your city’s locally-owned businesses is already suffering, just wait until sterile, centralizing Silicon Valley apps create an even more boring and unresilient monoculture. If you’re worried about housing costs, just wait until every city’s housing market is like San Francisco’s, where one bedroom apartments rent for an average of $3,500 a month, the highest in the US. If you’re pissed by today’s unprecedented inequality, just wait until Death Star platforms destroy millions of jobs (Uber can’t wait for driverless cars, yippee!) while shifting more risk and cost onto providers.
Bottom line, what seems like a bad situation for the 99% today could become much, much worse tomorrow.
Platform Coops, You’re Our Only Hope
If platform coops are our only hope, then we’re in big trouble. The movement is in its infancy. There are several fundamental, interrelated legal, financial, and organizational challenges to the process of forming platform coops. New organizational forms need to be worked out, which will take years. Meanwhile, Death Star platforms will conquer more territory at a new, faster version of Internet time. Their global blitzkrieg will continue apace.
The aforementioned conference, Platform Cooperativism, hopes to address this through what organizers are calling a coming out party for the cooperative internet. Over 1,000 people have registered. Activists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, union officials, financiers, and academics are gathering to conceptualize the movement and begin to work out the key challenges of creating a democratic alternative to Death Star platforms. Its organizers hope to catalyze a movement of provider-owned sharing economy platforms, where the drivers or hosts wield the power, not VCs. The conference is a direct response to rise of Death Stars and their treatment of providers.
The central premise of platform cooperativism is that those who create the most value for the platforms— providers like drivers and hosts—should own and control the platforms. Current arrangements tend toward exploitation of providers as Death Stars shift the cost and risk of providing a service to providers. Unlike most incumbent service providers, such as taxi companies or hotels, Death Stars providers are 1099 contractors who do not enjoy the benefits and protections of employees. Death Stars rely on this arrangement to avoid the costs of managing a workforce and grow quickly. It’s true that Death Stars often provide superior service by leveraging technology, but they probably wouldn’t be viable if they did not exploit this huge labor-related cost advantage.
The Rise of the Rebel Alliance
Examples of platform coops abound. A wave is forming, but most examples are brave experiments at best. Shareable’s “Owning is the New Sharing,” lists many examples. There’s Loconomics, the cooperative version of task marketplace TaskRabbit. One of the most successful experiments is Enspiral Network, a New Zealand-based coworking community plus digital collective that allows hundreds of freelancers and social enterprises to work together for mutual benefit. Lazooz is the blockchain version of Uber where drivers mine digital currency by giving rides, while Swarm is the blockchain version of Kickstarter.
These examples represent three common developmental patterns for platform coops. First, there are legally-defined cooperative versions of sharing economy platforms like Loconomics. Second are hybrids like Enspiral Network, which aren’t legally cooperatives but operate on similar principles leveraging digital technology. Then there’s the most scalable option: blockchain-based platform coops like Lazooz. They leverage the same technology Bitcoin uses —a distributed digital ledger—to coordinate work, govern the platform, and distribute ownership.
All of these paths are worth pursuing. As we do this, we must take care not to duplicate the organizational monoculture of Silicon Valley. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this movement will not produce viable competitors quickly. It took Silicon Valley decades to perfect the assembly line manufacture of startups. It shouldn’t take this movement that long, since Silicon Valley has paved much of the way. The movement can artfully adapt Silicon Valley startup methodology, business models, design, and its innovation ecosystem to launch a wave of platform coops.
How Platform Coops Can Beat Death Stars
1. Incubate the Templates
It will take focused, well-resourced, and consistent effort to work out the interrelated legal, financial, and organizational challenges of forming platform coops. Platform coops aren’t an incremental step up from typical startups, they’re a transformational leap. The path is currently uncertain, expensive, and time consuming. For instance, Loconomics has been working on their structure for going on two years, and aren’t even in beta yet. A better way is needed. Platform coops need to face this challenge together with long-term support of a stable anchor institution, like a university. This high barrier to forming platform coops must be lowered or this new movement will die in its crib.
Part of the magic of tech startups is that there’s a well understood organizational structure, financing method, and developmental path for entrepreneurs to use. In other words, there’s a template. Platform coops need templates too, but ones which support a diversity of organizational patterns. What’s needed is a small number of incubators in different global cities working together to give birth to the first wave of platform coops. The trick is to get the first few platform coops off the ground, and then develop a global ecosystem that encourages replication of working models across industry verticals and geographies.
2. Offer a better service at a competitive price
Let’s not forget business fundamentals. Platform coops must offer a better service at a competitive price to beat Death Stars. A lot hinges on simply executing better day in and day out, but strategy plays a big role too. The key strategic challenge is figuring out how to leverage platform coops’ social mission, democratic structure to help them compete. User ownership and control offers inherent advantages that stem from a more engaging and empowering relationship to other users and the enterprise itself. For instance, platform coops could attract more loyal users at a lower cost than Death Stars by offering user-ownership. All else being equal, user-owners will likely deliver better service than 1099 contractors. Platform coops may be able to create a deeper community experience than Death Stars, which routinely feign community ethos for profit. The social mission of platform coops could help them access less expensive labor and capital like traditional cooperatives. They could also gain a cost advantage by developing a common software infrastructure or using open source platforms by ShareTribeand GNUsocial.
3. Take Cooperation to the Next Level
It goes without saying that platform coops should cooperate, as that is standard operating procedure in the cooperative world. In fact, it’s number six of the sector’s widely embraced Rochdale Principles. However, platform coops should take cooperation to the next level to exploit a potentially decisive competitive advantage over Death Stars. Death Stars’ closed nature which make it nearly impossible for them to engage in the deep collaboration between cooperatives seen in regions like Quebec, Canada, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, and Basque Country, Spain. Clusters of small to medium-sized cooperatives in these regions often compete successfully against large multinationals through networking, formal collaborations, and shared infrastructure such as market research centers, banks, and universities. These cooperatives collaborate in a much deeper way than tech companies. In fact, they act almost as if they’re one organism.
Platform coops must act similarly. For examble, the replacement for Airbnb shouldn’t be another centralizing global platform even if it’s a cooperative. It should be a federation of locally-owned cooperatives that are interconnected technologically (Fairbnb!). GNUsocial’s microblogging platform is an example. Each node is on a different server, but users can interact across nodes. The advantage is a much more resilient, user-controlled, distributed infrastructure. At Somero 2015 last month, GNUsocial took a big leap by unveiling the alpha version of a hospitality module called GNUbnb.
Platform coops can share much more than software including data, digital reputation, knowledge, marketing, public relations, legal, lobbying, and physical space. And share all of this on a global basis — as Michel Bauwens’ open coop proposal advises — and across industries. Cities should get in on the action too. They should cooperate with each other and with platform coops to mold the sharing economy in the public interest as Janelle Orsi of the Sustainable Economies Law Center recently suggested.
4. Create an Ecosystem to Distribute Wealth
Silicon Valley arguably creates and concentrates more wealth than any place on earth. Behind this phenomenon is a powerful ecosystem that includes Stanford University, the biggest venture capital firms in the world, an enterprising culture, top notch professional services, and more. This ecosystem birthed the Death Stars, and they’ve benefited greatly from it. Platform coops need a similarly powerful ecosystem to compete, but one that distributes wealth instead of concentrating it. That’s a tall order, but platform coops may have natural allies in creating such an ecosystem including city governments, unions, nonprofits, universities, the free and open source software movement, and social investors like credit unions, social venture funds, and foundations. It took many decades for the Silicon Valley “miracle” to unfold. Similarly, it’ll take an ecosystem to raise this movement.
5. Build a mass movement
Platform cooperatives have the opportunity to channel the huge amount of negative sentiment around Death Star platforms to power their movement. They can also move into the slipstream of awareness Death Stars are creating about the sharing economy to surge forward. However, the movement must be reframed in at least three ways to take advantage of these powerful forces.
First, platform cooperativism must become a populist, trans-partisan movement. If Platform Cooperativism is the coming out party for the cooperative Internet, then it’s a lopsided one. The guest list reads like the line up for New York City’s liberal all star team. That said, I give them credit for a long list of partners including Shareable. That’s a good start at building a movement; they only need to reach across the aisle more going forward.
Second, it must shift emphasis from moral arguments for platform coops to practical ones which convince ordinary folks that the vision is feasible. Hope is essential! Like traditional cooperatives, platform coops could offer inherent competitive advantages, including superior cost structure, better working conditions, higher pay, better reputations, resilience, and alignment between value creators and rewards. In fact, sharing ownership and control with users may become a necessity, as Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures has argued, for platforms to compete for customers as other advantages are leveled by the market.
Lastly, the emphasis must shift from platform coops formed by providers to a multi-stakeholder model that could include providers, customers, founders, investors, geographic communities, and nature. Provider-driven platform coops are a good start, but they will eventually run into the same problems that arise in any organization when one stakeholder group calls the shots. Investors are a normal part of the mix in traditional coops, so no reason they shouldn’t be here, especially with their power in check as one of many stakeholders.
So an epic choice is before us. Do we accept Death Star platforms’ boring, unresilient, monocultural domination? A domination that will be difficult to shake off once established. A domination that puts the world at each of our individual fingertips while disempowering us collectively. A domination that could permanently damage the richness, resilience, and capacities of our local communities, as Douglas Rushkoff suggests.
Or do we work together to build, as Charles Eisenstein would put it, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible? A world where platform coops manifest the values of the commons in every community. Where our capacity to manage our resources together is deeply respected. Where polycentric control is a given. Where local laws, customs and cultures are honored. Where self-interest and common good are aligned. Where we are truly alive.
The odds against this more beautiful world are the same odds Luke Skywalker faced against the Death Star in the original Star Wars. The key to victory is the same too. We must use the force, but the force in this case isn’t some mystical energy, the force is us.
Originally published in Shareable
Enric Duran of the Catalan Integrated Cooperative has taken the time to comment on Michel Bauwens’ recent article on Open Coops, contrasting Bauwens’ proposals with the practical realities already under way in the CIC’s own forward thinking cooperativist environment. Guerrilla Translation, as a sister collective to the P2P Foundation has copy-edited Duran’s replies.
Bauwens’ summary of these proposals include four key proposals which Duran addresses below. To give some context, the four proposals are:
- That coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good
- That coops need to have governance models including all stakeholders
- That coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons
- That coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.
Here are Duran’s comments to each proposal.
1. That coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good
Enric Duran: In the CIC’s second assembly, a set of general principles were approved:
Then, towards the end of 2013 the following principles were added:
I will now list some of these principles, namely those related to the common good.
From the first part:
A concern for the common good and for one’s own welfare
Building an inclusive cooperative that encompasses the whole of society
Social justice and equity
Sharing our practices throughout society
Democracy: direct, deliberative, participative
From the second part :
a/ Recover common ownership for the benefit of all, with people-centered ownership and control
We have to recover the control of land and the means of production for the common good, enabling its availability through collectivization (communal ownership) for the public good.
b/ Build a cooperative system that is public and self-managed, based upon mutual aid
We work for the common good, to ensure that all of our vital necessities (food, health, housing, education, energy, transportation, etc.) are covered through a truly public system, built by ourselves and based on self-management, cooperating with one another and promoting the values and abilities that are essentially human.
c/ Liberate access to information and knowledge
We share knowledge among us all to build a greater common good.
At the practical level, we need to continue reinforcing our resources (people, self organization, money, spaces…) to expand our activity for the common good.
2. That coops need to have governance models including all stakeholders
The CIC has always included all stakeholders, as we welcome all who wish to be included. Ours in an open government model where everyone can be part of meetings and the decision making process with no need to apply for membership.
To this day, the biweekly in-person assemblies have represented the main decision-making space. At the same time, those involved in different commissions and projects — also carried out in open groups — hold more influence over their particular areas of work. People are welcome to participate in the meetings over the Internet, but in-person attendance is required to partake in the decision-making process.
We have, however, discovered the following shortcomings. The level of involvement of those members that don’t attend meetings is minimal. A possible solution would be to include and implement the use of direct democracy tools. We’re aware of the technical availability of these types of tools, but we feel that a broad social/political discussion is needed in order to assess their implementation.
We need to create ways to recognise and uphold in-person participation and involvement in tasks while also recognizing the right of participation by those who aren’t as involved, by means of votes or assessments which could be considered binding at some level. Discussions need to go straight into the CIC’s decision-making spaces.
Otherwise, at the economic level and given that there are no profits to be shared, the kind of open participation described above does not influence the general budget per se, but it could be interesting to think of other manners of economic involvement.
A way to foster this kind of economic involvement could be through a distributed benefit system tied to a simple project, something independent from the general budget. For example, we could create a kind of “fair shares for shop members and users”, where some portion of the common income is distributed among all sellers and users.
3. That coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons
The CIC is committed to the creation of commons at multiple levels.
We are involved in a number of free software projects, such as:
- https://wiki.enredaos.net/index.php?title=GestioCI-Desarrollo (For Integral Cooperative management)
However, these types of commons are not conducive to monetary income, because our political views are focused on free sharing.
Therefore, these types of initiatives are financed through crowdfunding campaigns or allocations redistributed from other income streams.
At the regional level, the CIC also offers a number of immaterial services and knowledge related to juridical frameworks and legal management. We consider the legal structure of our cooperative to be a functioning commons that benefits all the projects making use of it at a minimal cost. More than 300 productive projects are already making use of this framework.
The CIC’s involvement in the immaterial sphere also includes projects related to health, education, culture, among others.This is because as a project, the CIC surpasses the traditional role of a cooperative and includes a working, self-organised and open societal model.
Regarding the production of material commons we have some labs, such as Calafou or Macus, but we need to improve their development through consolidation and reinforcement.
All of these processes also need to be economically sustainable and we have a lot of work pending in order to be connected at the global level.
This year, we have created a “technology office” to facilitate communication and networking amongst all the manufacturing projects committed to Open Source manufacturing principles.
We would, however, welcome further ties to other groups involved with the material commons to learn how to collaborate together, specially in the immaterial aspects related to this type of material creation (knowledge, designs, funding).
Additionally, we’re interested in opening a dialogue about land commons. In this area the CIC actively promotes access to land, as well as shared housing, land and working spaces. Currently, there are dozens of rural projects in Catalonia linked to the CIC where people are actively sharing their tools, knowledge and land, taking part in forest restoration practises, etc. We understand the land as a commons and we’re committed to the progressive expansion of land commons in Catalonia.
4. That coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.
The CIC is also committed to global change at a social and political level. We are involved in some projects at the global level:
- coopfunding.net/en/ (mostly local for the moment but globally scalable…)
Problem: “Integral Revolution”, the name we chose to describe our project, is not easily understood at an international level, specially for speakers of non-Latin languages. It is also possible that our practises are somewhat too complex to be readily understood.
Solution: We’re thinking about combining the concept behind Integral Revolution with a more easily understood and synergistic concept, such as “Open Cooperativism.” This very article marks a first step in that direction!
We have some contacts and leads of our own, but we’re actively on the lookout for good partners throughout the world in order to have a globally organised network.
Other improvements to think about in the process of becoming a better open cooperative
- Providing better, local, CIC tools for the people in Catalonia.
Not only do we need to be open, we also need to seem open.
I’ve detected a problem and I feel that we need stronger ties to other, local, collectives working for the common good, as well as other general social movements and to civil society.
It’s very likely that our goals are much too innovative and different, and this causes people to have difficulty understanding what we’re really about. – People frequently confuse us with old-fashioned cooperatives. We need to partake in demonstrative actions which are accessible to most people.
- Improving the CIC’s internal participatory economic system.
These are the types of economic transactions currently taking place in the CIC:
- Between CIC members
- CIC on an individual basis <-> outside CIC
- CIC productive members ->> CIC (quarterly quotes from productive projects that trade outside the CIC)
One important aspect to consider is how to make the last arrow bidirectional.
I am thinking of introducing some type of distributed mechanism, like Fairshares, for certain projects. It would go something like this:
CIC members + outside CIC ->> CIC + CIC members
…in an automatic and decentralized way. The pilot project could take the form of a marketplace; a good, experimental space where users collaborate to create value simultaneously destined for the common budget and for anyone involved. For example, the fees for the transaction could be distributed the following way: 50% for the common pool and 50% for the users.
This could be an important initiative aimed at creating a greater awareness of open cooperativism within the CIC, while also overcoming the problem of client-provider relationships between the Commons-oriented structure and productive projects.
NOTE: This great article by @ links to this website with the text “plenty of resources”, which is flattering (and would be true if the 50 or so draft posts I’ve got half-done were published), but where I’ve actually curated plenty of resources is over on the co-operatives shelf of the United Diversity library
Writing for Forbes last December, Cameron Keng argued that if Apple were a co-operative, each of its employees — from mine to production line, in-store genius to CEO — would have earned a $403,000 share of its profits last year, on top of one’s salary. But Apple is neither jointly owned nor democratically controlled by its workers. Nor are the vast majority of digital companies starting-up today.
Companies like online shoe retailer Zappos, now owned by Amazon, have famously adopted holocratic principles that encourage a flatter structure and abolish job titles, but that greater equality ends at wages and stock options. While Zappos looks a far cry from the rigid hierarchy seen at Apple, its approach appears more as a socialization of efforts and privatization of profit, hardly opening up the business for the benefit of all its workers.
“The Internet is built upon global cooperation and collaboration often with people you don’t even know,” said Rhiannon Colvin, founder of AltGen, which helps young people combat youth unemployment and precarious work by setting up their own co-ops. “There is a lot of synergy between the values of the open-source movement and the co-operative movement, but it has yet to be capitalized on.”
She added, “Imagine if new digital and tech inventions such as Facebook or Uber were owned by the people that actually create the wealth — the users of Facebook that generate the content and all the taxi drivers that work with Uber. Of course, there would still be paid staff to run it and innovate, but the shares and growth of the business would be making everyday people richer, not already-wealthy investors.”
In just such a move, Marcos Menendez launched the TheGoodData co-op a few months ago to see if he could help combat growing issues about data ownership by ensuring that “users are part of the solution.” But he’s only too familiar with the challenges that co-ops can bring. Global finance systems are not built for them and there isn’t yet an out-of-the-box solution for setting one up anywhere in the world. There are also questions over whether co-ops can work at scale and, in an increasingly unequal society, how to garner the necessary first-stage startup costs.
La’Zooz, a ridesharing platform launched late last year that offers users community-based tokens for shared journeys, is attempting to get around this complexity by operating without any ownership. “It has governance principles and tools, but has no legal basis,” Menendez explained. “Its members couldn’t set up an office, but they can work together to try and oust Uber and Lyft.”
One of the key things a co-op model could offer tech is a re-engagement with its supply chains and a more holistic approach to tech production. Catherine Williams is a director (alongside all of her colleagues) at workers’ co-op Unicorn, a food store based in Manchester. “Regardless of a member’s primary role, everyone has shop-floor time, whether it’s on the till, managing the store, making soup at the deli or packing commodities on our production site,” she said. “In food, we talk a lot about the farmers, the people doing the hard work in the fields. In tech, nobody really talks about the factory workers, working long hours, or the children out in illegal mines foraging for tin.”
The collaborative message does seem to be hitting home with some unlikely characters at the top of the tech industry. Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist with Union Square Ventures in New York City, has started engaging in online conversations with his peers about community ownership of tech companies. “With more and more web and mobile applications deriving their value mostly or completely from their user base (Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Etsy, Reddit, Kickstarter, Uber, etc), there is a growing sense that the community could or should have some real ownership in these businesses,” he wrote in January.
Some policymakers are also taking note. A $1.2 million investment in workers’ co-ops by the New York City Council announced last year was quickly bettered by a $5 million investment by the mayor of Madison in Wisconsin. “With a co-operative you don’t have to worry about a buyout,” said Mayor Paul Soglin. “You don’t have to worry about a CEO one day picking up and moving the company to Fargo. With a co-operative you can have confidence that the company and the wealth it generates are going to stay local.”
Williams of the food shop in Manchester said, “The main perk for me is, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved,’ and if I had a similar role in a hierarchical business, I’d probably have a lot of sleepless nights. The only negative I can come up with is decision-making. Consensus isn’t always the easiest or quickest method, but the advantages are well worth it. We learn from one another all the time and are able to make strong, well-founded decisions upheld by a unified and active membership.”
Still, Rhiannon Colvin believes the co-operative movement has been “incredibly bad at making itself look cool, sexy and progressive,” which is a real issue for our image-obsessed culture. But, she added, “It fundamentally challenges capitalist structures of power and wealth distribution, which most startups replicate.” Perhaps cooperation simply appears more of a political statement than many apolitical techies are willing to make.
So while it’s unlikely that Apple CEO Tim Cook will swap his comfy boardroom chair for a tin mine in Indonesia anytime soon, there are already plenty of resourcesand hundreds of successful case studies to help organizations that want to give co-ops a go.
Header image: Cooperative, Narbonne, France. Photo credit: Yann Gar/ CC BY-SA 2.0.
Here is the video of Dominik Wind’s presentation about it:
The idea is to create a fully operating replicable cell of a future-proof society.
I’m really excited about the Open State Camp:
A 5-week-camp near Berlin, Germany, marks the start in which we´ll train these people and communicate and open-source their projects. Depending from the time we need to finalize the budget the camp will take place between fall 2014 and summer 2015.
This is a synopsis of the meeting held in Berlin that forms the basis of the upcoming Open : Data : Cooperation event on the 20th October 2014
Open : Data : Cooperatives.
On the evening of the 16th July 2014 in a small bar of SingerStraße in Berlin a group of Open Knowledge Festival attendees came together for a meeting, to discuss whether cooperatives offered the potential to create formalised structures for the creation and sharing of common data assets, and whether this would enable the creation of value for their stakeholders. This discussion is sets the framework for an event that will take place in Manchester UK on the 20th October 2014
The discussion was initially broken down into seven themes of
- Models: How do the varied models of cooperative ownership fit to data, and do new forms of cooperative and commons based structure offer potential solutions?
- Simplicity: Can one model fit all data or do different scenarios need tailored solutions
- Transparency: How can a cooperative that is steered by its membership along ethical grounds also be considered open?
- Representation: Do individuals have enough control over their data to enable third party organisations such as a cooperative, to represent their data?
- Negotiation: How can cooperative members balance control over their data with use by third parties?
- Governance: Is it possible to create an efficient system of governance that respected the wishes of all members?
- Mechanisms of transaction: Can a data cooperative exist within a federated cooperative structure and how would it transact and create value.
This is a synopsis of the discussion
Why create a data cooperative?
Our modern, technologised society exists on data. Our everyday interactions leave a trace that is often invisible and unknown to us. The services that we interact with, the daily transactions that we make and the way we negotiate through our everyday generate data, building a picture of who we are and what we do. This data also enables aggregators to predict, personalise and intervene seamlessly and sometimes invisibly. Even for the most technically literate, keeping track of what we do and don’t give away is daunting. There is a need to stem the unbridled exploitation of personal data by both public and private organisations, to empower individuals to have more control over the data they create, and for people to have more of a say in the services that are built upon and informed by this data. Data cooperatives may help rebalance the relationship between those that create data and those that seek to exploit it whilst also creating the environment for fair and consensual exchange.
Cooperation for the creation of common good is a widely understood concept and in a world where value is often extracted by large organisations with opaque processes and ethics, they are starting to be seen as a way of reinvigorating value transactions within smaller, often under-represented communities of interest, and between organisations that create and use data.
Finding already existing data cooperatives is not easy. Examples such as The Good Data which allow people to control data flow at a browser level and the Swiss-based Health Bank are two known examples, and as the principles of data custodianship for social good become understood there is little to challenge that more would develop.
There are organisations that exhibit cooperative traits but may not themselves be cooperatives or co-owned structures. Open Street Map (OSM) is a resource that is essentially created and administered by the community, with the underlying motivation for OSM being for common good. The open source movement was cited as being the largest example of technological cooperativism, although the largest platform on which cooperative endeavour is expressed (GitHub) is a privately owned Silicon Valley entity.
There are many versions of coops. These have traditionally come out of the needs of the membership who subscribe to them. Structures of these cooperatives have generally been organised around a single class of member – workers, producers, consumers, etc. The single class structure, although creating an equitable environment for those that are members of a particular coop, can tend towards self interest and although they may be bound by the notion of the common good, the mechanism for the creation of the common good or commons is seldom explicit.
Internationally the creation of new forms of cooperatives that explicitly express the development of common good across multiple classes of stakeholders are more abundant. Social co-ops in Italy and Solidarity coops in Canada often provide services such as healthcare, education and social care. Could these types of cooperative be more relevant for our networked and distributed age?
Michel Bauwens founder of the P2P Foundation talks about the creation of these new forms of cooperatives, and how it is necessary to wean ourselves off the notion of cooperativism as a means of participation in a capitalist economy, to one that builds a commons both material and immaterial. This commons would be subscribed to by other commons creating entities and licenced to non-commons creating organisations.
Would a data cooperative necessarily adopt these newer forms of distributed and commons creating structure? There appears to be a consensus that commons creating, multi-stakeholders cooperatives are positive, but is this model easily understood? And can individual circumstances especially when dealing with communities based around sensitive issues, create an environment for sharing beyond a single class? A single class cooperative may seem to be a simpler, immediate solution for a community of people who have specific needs and issues and where strong trust relationships need to be maintained.
It is understood that personal data empowerment is not just about selling data to the highest bidder and any organisation acting as a data intermediary would need to be able to accommodate the complexity of reasons as to why people donate or give. Even though economic gain might seem an obvious attraction for people, motivations are more complex and often financial incentives can be detrimental to the process of participation and giving.
From The Good Data’s perspective data cooperatives should split the data layer from the service layer. The cooperative should control the data layer and enable/choose others to build the service layer as it is likely that data cooperatives would not have the capacity or expertise to create end to end solutions.
The structure of the data cooperative should encourage maximum participation and consent, although 100% participation and engagement is unrealistic. Flat structures have a tendency towards hierarchy through operational efficiency and founder endeavour. Even though the majority of members align with the aims of the cooperative, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be constantly encumbered with the burden of governance.
A certain pragmatism and sensitivity needs to be adopted to the model of cooperative that a group may want to adopt. There are examples of communities maintaining informality to enable themselves to be less burdened by expectation, to maintain independence or minimise liability. Advocates of data cooperatives need to be sensitive to this.
Data Cooperatives need to have a simplicity of purpose. What do they do, for whom and why? Is the building of data cooperative around particular issue enough? Or do we need to take a look at the data cooperative as being a platform that allows the representation of personal data across a broader portfolio of interests?
Although the there is a tendency to see a data cooperative as being a mechanism to generate bulk, high worth data that can then be used to draw down value from large organisations, a more appropriate application might be in enabling a smaller community of interest, perhaps around a particular health condition, to draw down certain services or to negotiate for a better deal. The notion of withholding data from public service providers might be seen to be detrimental to the delivery of that service, but it could also create a more balanced decision making process. It is also known that many providers of service collect more data than they actually need for the delivery of that service. Empowering people to take more control over their data may create a situation where the practice of excessive data gathering is curtailed.
Ideally for a data cooperative to be most effective, the level of data literacy amongst members would need to be raised so that members could make more informed decisions about what data was given away or used. This ideal might be difficult to achieve without a broader awareness raising campaign about the power of personal data. The revealing of the ways that security agencies collect data by Edward Snowdon was sensational and although it highlighted that we unintentionally give away a lot, it didn’t build a wider popular discourse around protection and usage of personal data.
Raising the level of data awareness amongst cooperative members would create more informed decision making, but this task would need to be delivered in a nuanced way and ultimately some people might not engage. This could be the case with people who are dependant on service and have little power or real choice as to their decisions.
For a data cooperative to represent its membership and control the flow of data it needs to have legitimacy, know and understand the data assets of the membership, and have the authority to negotiate with those data assets on the members behalf.
Decisions around data sharing and understanding the potential consequences are difficult and complex. As an intermediary the cooperative would need to ensure that individual members were able to give informed consent. We have to know what we have and what it does for us, in order to utilise it.
Mechanisms of consent
There already exist mechanisms for the creation of consent. These by and large create the environment for proxy voting in decision making processes. A mechanism such as Liquid Feedback – popularised by the Pirate Parties, where an individual bestows voting rights to a proxy who aligns to their position, is a representative democracy process, the ‘liquid’ element allows proxy rights to be revoked at any point in the decision making process. Other mechanisms might follow along the lines of the Platform Preferences initiative developed by W3C, which sought to create privacy policies that could be understood by browsers which was ultimately considered too difficult to implement. A potentially easier solution might work on the basis of preset preferences based on trusted individuals or the creation of archetype or persona based preferences that people can select.
Can one organisation be representative of the broader range of ethical positions held within a membership structure? For practical reasons the data cooperative might have a high level ethical policy but individuals within the cooperative are empowered to make data sharing choices based on their personal ethical standpoint. This could be enabled by proxy or preset data sharing preferences.
The alternative to having data coops with high level ethical aims that also represent multiple ethical standpoints could be to have smaller federated or distributed niche organisations where individuals could allow the organisation to use their data on their behalf.
Right to personal data
In order for an individual to allow an organisation to use data on their behalf we need to have control over our individual personal data. Legislation in many countries offers a framework about how personal data is used and shared amongst organisations, but these don’t necessarily create a mechanism that allows users to retrieve their data and use it for other purposes. Often within the End User License Agreement (EULA) or Terms of Service that come with software products an individual may find that their data is inexorably tied up with the function of the service. A function of a data cooperative might be to help individuals understand these agreements and add to the commons of knowledge about them.
How would the argument for greater individual data rights be made when service providers see that personal data mediated through their product part of their intellectual property? Work has been done through the midata initiative and the development of personal data passports – where individuals grant rights to organisations to use the data for delivery of service. UK Government has supported this initiative, but has backed away from underpinning the programme with changes in legislation. This lack of regulatory enforcement may limit the efficacy of any initiative that seeks to grant individuals’ rights and agency over their data.
The development of a personal data licence may aid the creation of data cooperatives but the form of the licence and the mechanism for compliance might be weakened without an underpinning regulatory framework. At present there is a certain level of cynicism around voluntary codes of practice where power imbalances exist between stakeholders. The lack of legislation might also create a chilling effect on the ability of data cooperatives to gain the trust of their membership.
Data empowerment is promoted in Project VRM (Vendor Relation Management) developed by Doc Searls at Harvard University. The ability for an individual to have control over their data is an integral component of developing an open market for personal data-based services and theoretically giving more choice. The criticism voiced about midata and Project VRM is that they are too individualistic and focus on economic rather than social transaction with ethical aims. Even with these criticisms the development of a market logic to enable large organisations to engage with the process of individual data empowerment might be beneficial for the long term aims of data cooperatives and for the development of innovative service for social good.
Ultimately if the individual isn’t able to have control over their data or the data derived from them then the function of the cooperative would be inhibited.
Creating value from data
It could emerge that scale could dictate the eventual form of the data cooperative. Many potential clients of a data cooperative might require this, which would see the need to build a data asset that contained upwards of 500,000 users. The Good Data cooperative’s aim is to achieve this scale to become viable.
A challenge that all data cooperatives would face would be how they maintain a relationship with their membership so that service based upon, or value that is extracted from the data is not subject to unforeseen supply-side problems. If a data cooperative represented its membership and entered into licensing relationships with third party organisations on behalf of its membership, what would be reasonable for a client to expect, especially if individual members had the rights to revoke access to data at anytime? With larger scale data cooperatives this may not be too much of a problem as scale has the potential to damp down unforeseen effects. The Good Data proposes to get around these issues by only holding data for a limited amount of time essentially minimising disruptions in data supply by creating a buffer.
Smaller scale data cooperatives, especially ones that are created around single issues may have difficulty in engaging in activity that requires service guarantees. Developing a mechanism for federation, cumulatively creating data at scale might be a potential solution, but creating a federated system of consent may be more difficult to achieve. As suggested previously economic activity might be a low priority for such organisations where the main purpose might be to represent members and create the environment for informed service decisions.
The challenge facing federated data cooperatives and how they interact is undefined. It has been noted that building distributed and federated systems is difficult, and that centralised systems persist due to operational efficiencies. The advent of alternative forms of ‘block chain’ transaction could enable distributed organisations to coexist using ‘rules based’ or algorithmic democracy. But alternative transaction systems and currencies often face challenges when they interface with dominant and established forms of currency and value.
How data cooperatives could practically use these new mechanisms for exchange needs to be explored.
this article originally appeared on the P2P Foundation
“The cooperative movement and cooperative enterprises are in the midst of a revival, even as some of their long-standing entities are failing. This revival is part of an ebb and flow of cooperativism, that is strongly linked to the ebb and flow of the mainstream capitalist economy. After systemic crisis such as the one in 2008, many people look at alternatives.
Yet, we can’t simply look at the older models and revive them, we have to take into account the new possibilities and requirements of our epoch, and especially of the affordances that digital networks are bringing to us.
Here are a few ideas from the ‘peer to peer’ perspective, as we develop them in the context of the Peer to Peer Foundation.
First, let’s start with a critique of the older cooperative models:
Yes coops are more democratic than their capitalist counterparts based on wage-dependency and internal hierarchy. But cooperatives that work in the capitalist marketplace tend to gradually take over competitive mentalities, and even if they would not, they work for their own members, not the common good.
Second, coops are generally not creating, protecting or producing commons. Like their for-profit counterparts, they most often work with patents and copyrights, doing their part in the enclosures of the commons.
Third, coops may tend to self-enclose around their local or national membership. Doing this, they leave the global arena open to the domination by for-profit multinationals.
These characteristics have to be changed, and can be changed today.
Here are our proposals.
1. Unlike for-profits, the new cooperatives must work for the common good, a requirement that must be included in their own statutes and governance documents. This means that coops can’t be for-profit, they have to work for social goods, and this must be inscribed in their statutes. Solidarity cooperatives, already active in social care in regions like Northern Italy and Quebec, are a important step in the right direction. In the current capitalist market model, social and environmental externalities are ignored, and left to the external state to regulate. In the new cooperative market model, externalities are statutorily integrated and a legal obligation.
2. Unlike co-ops that draw their membership from a single class of stakeholders, cooperatives must include all stakeholders in their management. Coops need to be multi-stakeholder governed. This means that the concept of membership must be extended to these other types of memberships, or that alternatives to the membership model must be sought, such as the newly proposed FairShares model.
3. The crucial innovation for our times is this though: Cooperatives must (co-)produce commons, and these commons must be of two types.
a. The first type is immaterial commons, i.e. using open and shareable licenses to that the global human community can build on cooperative innovations and in turn enrich them. At the P2P Foundation, we have introduced the concept of Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses. These licenses are designed to create coalitions of ethical and cooperative enterprise around the commons they are co-producing. The key rules of such licenses are: 1) the commons are open to non-commercial usage 2) the commons are open to common good institutions 3) the commons are open to for-profit enterprises who contribute to the commons. The exception introduced here is that for-profit companies that do not contribute to the commons have to pay for the use of the license. This is not primarily to generate income, but to introduce the notion of reciprocity in the market economy. In other words, the aim is to create an ethical economy, a non-capitalist market dynamic.
b. The second type is the creation of material commons. We are thinking here of the creation of commons funding for the manufacturing equipment for example. Following proposals by Dmytri Kleiner, cooperatives could float Bonds, to which all cooperative members (of all other coops in the system) could contribute, creating a commons fund for manufacturing. The coop seeking funds would obtain the machinery without conditions, but the owners would be all the cooperators, which would gradually build up a basic income from the income generated by the fund.
4. Finally we must address the issue of global social and political power. Following the lead of David de Ugarte and the lasindias.net global cooperative, we propose the creation of global phyles. A phyle is a global business-ecosystem that sustains commons and their community of contributors. Here is how this would work. Imagine the existence of a global open design community for the design of open agricultural machines (or any other product or service you can imagine). These machines are effectively manufactured and produced in a system of open and distributed microfactories, close to the of need. But, all these micro-coops would not exist in a isolated fashion, merely connected through the global and ‘immaterially-focused’ global open design community. Instead, they would also be interconnected through a global cooperative uniting the microfactories. The combination of such global phyles would be the seed for a new form of global and social political power, representing the global ethical economy. Ethical entrepreneurial coalitions and phyles can engage in post-market and post-market coordination of physical production, by moving towards open accounting and open supply chain practices.
In summary, though traditional cooperatives have played an important and progressive role in human history, their format needs to be updated to the networked era by introducing p2p and commons producing aspects.
Our recommendations for the new era of open cooperativism are:
1. That coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good
2. That coops need to have governance models including all stakeholders
3. That coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons
4. That coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.”
this article originally appeared in Stir Magazine
In 2002 I described United Diversity as “a member owned and stakeholder governed network of mutual advantage.” In truth, it was aspirational. At the time, the flexible off-the-shelf legal structures and open source tools needed to make such a network a reality simply didn’t exist. Now they do. Co-ops that combine best practices from the international co-operative movement with best practices from the open source software and hardware communities are now possible. Soon anyone will be able to set up an Open Co-op and invite all their stakeholders to help finance, govern and organise the co-op online.
Imagine transparent, democratic and decentralised organising for everyone. A society in which anyone can become a co-owner of the organisations on which they, their family and their community depend. A world where everyone can participate in all the decisions that affect them. This is the world United Diversity and the emerging network of people working on the legal structures and open source tools that enable Open Co-ops are working towards. Here I share some of the projects and ideas that have inspired us on our journey, and some of the legal structures and tools that are now available to put our vision into practice.
The Open Organisations Project
Out of a desire by the Indymedia UK London Working Group to go beyond both the formal top-down power structures found in governments and corporations and the informal ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness’ found in many voluntary and activist groups, The Open Organisations Project emerged. Their goal was “to explain how to set up and maintain transparent, accountable and truly participative communities” and they came up with a useful set of six process and eight functional rules together with some basic guidelines for how to implement them. At the time (2002), it was the clearest guide to organising openly we’d found and we still point people to it today.
A New Way to Govern and Gaian Democracies
Two books, A New Way to Govern: Organisations and Society after Enron by Shann Turnbull (2002), and Gaian Democracies: Redefining Globalisation and People-Power by John Jopling and Roy Madron (2003) were both very influential on our thinking. They introduced us to the principles behind Spain’s huge co-operative network Mondragon, and other large scale business with innovative organisational structures such VISA International and Semco in Brazil.
In A New Way to Govern Turnbull summarised the terminal flaws of command and control hierarchies: the tendency of centralised power to corrupt; the difficulty of managing complexity; and the suppression of “natural” — human —checks and balances. In their place he proposed organisations which are able to “break complexity down into manageable units, and decompose organisational decision-making into a network of independent control centres.” In short, his thesis argued that command and control hierarchies must be replaced by “network governance” and that where this includes stakeholders — not merely staff but customers, communities, suppliers or distributors — a whole new dimension of economic, social and political benefit opens up.
Viable System Model (VSM)
The chapter about network governance in Gaian Democracies explained Arthur Koestler’s term ‘holon’ (from the Greek ‘holos’ meaning ‘whole’, and the suffix ‘on’, meaning ‘particle’ or ‘part’), which he devised to describe entities that are simultaneously self-contained wholes made up of parts, and themselves a part of a larger whole. Stafford Beer used the term ‘viable system’ to describe the same thing and outlined some of their properties in the VSM. In short, the model says that in order to be viable (i.e., able to autonomously adapt and survive in response to a changing environment) a system must have the following five sub-systems:
System 1: Interacting operational units. Think organs in a body, or players in a team.
System 2: Responsible for stability and conflict resolution between operational units.
System 3: An ‘Internal Eye’ optimising and generating synergies between operational units.
System 4: An ‘External Eye’ allows strategies and plans to adapt to a changing environment.
System 5: Where ultimate authority lies and is responsible developing policy.
Bettermeans and The Open Enterprise Manifesto
In April 2010 a project called Bettermeans “formed to promote the values of openness, transparency, autonomy, contribution-based-rewards (meritocracy), democracy, integrity, and values-oriented, purpose-driven work” released The Open Enterprise Manifesto. It was a familiar story: replace “the command and control hierarchy” with “collaboration and open participation;” create organisations “more like living dynamic networks, and less like pyramids;” plus the standard mentions of Linux, Wikipedia, Mondragón and Visa to demonstrate how aspects of the model had already been shown to work at scale. Bettermeans were trying to bring these various aspects together in a single cohesive model, and they made a pretty good stab at building the necessary tools to make such a model widely available and adoptable.
Sensorica are an ‘Open Value Network’ focussed on two primary activities: creating open hardware products; and developing the Open Value Network (OVN) model. OVNs are variously described as “people creating value together, by contributing work, money and goods, and sharing the income” a “framework for many-to-many innovation” and a “model for commons-based peer production.” The basic concept is very similar to the Bettermeans “contribution-based-rewards” idea, but in OVNs contributions other than completed tasks are also accounted for. They are currently working with Bob Haugen and Lynn Foster at Mikorizal Software to develop a prototype open source value accounting platform called ValNet.
The Enspiral Network
Enspiral is made up of three parts: The Enspiral Foundation, Enspiral Services and Startup Ventures. I’d say they’re the best current example of an Open Co-op, but how they actually describe themselves is as “a virtual and physical network of companies and professionals working together to create a thriving society” and as an “experiment to create a collaborative network that helps people do meaningful work.” A core part of their strategy is to open source their model. In short, not only are they doing almost exactly what United Diversity wants to do — they’re also building the open source tools actually needed to do it!
The Enspiral Foundation is the charitable company at the heart of the Enspiral network.
It’s the legal custodian of assets held collectively by the network, and the entity with which companies and individuals have a formal relationship. Decisions are made using Loomio and budgets are set using Cobudget (see below).
A network of professionals work together in teams to offer Enspiral Services, a range of business services under one roof. By default members pool 20% of their invoices into a collective bucket, 25% of which goes to the Foundation. Loomio and Cobudget are then used to decide how to spend the rest. For Startup Ventures, Enspiral works with social entrepreneurs to launch start-ups who then support the work of the Foundation, and Enspiral as a whole, through flexible revenue share agreements: ventures choose their own contribution rate, usually around 5% of revenue.
In some countries there are a fixed set of legal structures that co-operatives must use. Here in the UK we’re more flexible. We do have legal structures specifically designed for co-operative and community enterprise: Co-operative Societies and Community Benefit Societies — but you don’t have to use them; off-the-shelf co-operative model rules for a wide variety of other structures are readily available. That said, pretty much all of the UK co-operative and community enterprises that most inspire us at United Diversity, i.e., those creating community-scale, community-owned renewably-powered infrastructure of all kinds, have chosen to incorporate as societies — and for good reason.
Societies have a number of special attributes that make them particularly suitable for community investment. A big reason most community land trusts, community energy projects, community farms, pubs and shops and so on. register as societies is because doing a Community Share offer is the best way to finance such projects. In recent years such Community Share offers have been growing exponentially and there is now a Community Shares Unit that offers advice and guidance on how to do it.
Rather than being organised around a single class of members the way that most co-operatives are, a multi-stakeholder co-operative is any co-op that draws its membership from two or more different classes of stakeholders. After two decades of local experimentation, Italy was the first country to adopt a multi-stakeholder statute in 1991. Over 14,000 ‘social co-ops’ now exist across Italy and provide social care, health and educational services to over 5 million people. In Quebec, home to one of the most productive and vibrant co-operative development sectors in the world, multi-stakeholder co-ops are now the fastest growing type of co-op, with more than 50% of all new co-ops opting to register what they refer to as ‘solidarity co-ops.’ The movement is just getting here in the UK, but there are now over 20 multi-stakeholder co-ops who have incorporated using the Somerset Rules.
Launched in 2009, the Somerset Rules were one of the UK’s first set of model rules for a multi-stakeholder co-op, and they’re arguably still the best. Packed full of best practice gleaned from decades of co-operative development experience, they’re structured to closely follow co-op principles, written in relatively plain English, and are cleverly drafted to allow for a wide range of different configurations. You can define the percentage of overall control each stakeholder group has. They are also ‘social accounting ready’ and are designed to enable the widest range of options for financing. In 2012 they were fully revised and overhauled and a version for use as a Community Interest Company limited by guarantee was developed. In May 2014 a Community Benefit Society version was created and we’re now in the process of adopting them for the United Diversity equivalent of the Enspiral Foundation.
FairShares is a new brand and model for self-governing social enterprises operating under either Company or Co‑operative Law. It offers a unique approach to enterprise ownership, governance and management through its recognition and integration of founders, producers, employees, customers, service users and investors. At the heart of the FairShares model is a definition of social enterprise based on: Specifying the social purpose(s) and evaluating the social impact(s) of trading activities; conducting ethical reviews of product/service choices and production/consumption practices; and promoting socialised and democratic ownership, governance and management by primary stakeholders. In addition, all intellectual property created by FairShares Enterprises and their members are managed as an Intellectual Commons using Creative Commons licences. This all sounds perfect for Open Co-ops and so we’re really looking to learning more at Inaugural FairShares Conference in Sheffield on July 1st.
Microgenius (and other funding tools)
Originally started by Cambridge-based entrepreneur Emily Mackay, Microgenius is the UK’s first platform for community share offers and is now part of the Community Shares Unit. Societies can also sell shares via Crowdfunder and BuzzBnk, and can advertise share issues on Ethex, the Trillion Fund, and on Shares.coop — where the widest range of live Community Share Offers in the UK are listed. Co-operative Companies Limited by Shares can do equity crowdfunding on Crowdcube (which also powers Microgenius) and Seedrs.
Open source platforms specifically created to help open and/or co-operative projects include: Goteo for crowdfunding the commons; Open Funding and Bountysource for cofunding free software; Gittip for giving small weekly cash gifts to people you love and are inspired by; Snowdrift, a monthly matched patronage system; and Coopfunding.net, a wordpress powered crowdfunding platform for co-ops in Spain (we’ve got plans for something similar in the UK). Catarse, Selfstarter and tilt are other open source options, and there are numerous bitcoin powered platforms out there, too (e.g. Swarm).
One Click Co-op
One Clicks Orgs, a social enterprise whose strapline is “Legal Structures and Group Voting Made Easy,” created the One Click Co-op in partnership with Co-operatives UK and NESTA. Launched in June 2013 and approved by UK regulators it is the first fully-online co-operative structure in the world. The open source platform permits members to contribute agenda items, browse archived minutes and participate in votes electronically. It’s pretty awesome, but having been built on a relative shoestring also pretty basic. Only Co-operatives UK’s multi-stakeholder co-operative rules are supported and you can’t, for example, the balance the interests of stakeholder groups by giving them different proportions of overall control (like you can with the Somerset Rules).
Loomio — a free and open source tool for collaborative decision-making — is what happened when Enspiral met Occupy. Enspiral were committed to being a flat organisation, empowering employees to be autonomous and involved in leadership and decision making. But without the right platform, the overheads of engaging lots of people made it hard to deliver on this grand vision. In practice, only a few people were making most of the important decisions. Similarly, Occupy activists were finding it hard to make consensus decisions with large groups of people. Loud voices dominated and people with less time to commit to the process were being marginalised. They were missing out on the power of including a truly diverse range of perspectives. Together they developed Loomio.
Cobudget is another open source app being developed by Enspiral. It works like this: each month contributions to collective funds are published. Everyone can see who contributed what and how much money is in the budget. Basic core expenses (previously collectively agreed on Loomio) are subtracted and what’s left is the discretionary budget. Each person or company retains the right to allocate their part of discretionary funds and anyone in the network can start a “bucket” — a proposal to do work that requires funding. They write up a proposal making their case for why the work they want to do will benefit everyone and why they are the right person to deliver the project. Everyone then considers the buckets and decides which ones to “fill” with their portion of the discretionary budget. If people collectively feel like a project is a good use of resources, it will get funded. If there are critical budgeting priorities taking precedence, “nice to have” projects won’t get any funds that round. Funders can split up their allocations as they like, or put it all in one bucket. In aggregate, the result is a budget that reflects the collective priorities of the group, determined in proportion to real stakeholding and in the context of the big picture goals. The entire process takes place transparently.
The Open App Ecosystem
Building on the work of Loomio and Cobudget the Open App Ecosystem is an Enspiral project to develop suite of integrated and open sourced apps which support transparent, democratic and decentralised organising. The aim is for the software to act as a delivery mechanism for cultural viruses which decentralise money, information and control and promote happiness, empowerment and wellbeing throughout an organisation. They also have the side effect of helping organisations become more efficient, resilient and adaptable. Bring it on.