The Open Co-op has a vision that we have championed for some time: That an open source platform which provides all the online tools a community needs to thrive could radically catalyse collaboration at scale. We spoke to the Founder and CEO of Open Collective – one of the front-runners in the race to deliver on that vision.
Pia Manicini is a co-founder of Democracy.Earth and the CEO of Open Collective. As an advocate of a more democratic, inclusive and collaborative world, Pia has been developing tools to encourage mass-collaboration at scale for many years. She’s a veteran of open-source, systems-change projects, her TED talk on Upgrading democracy for the internet era has had over 1.3 million views.
We caught up with Pia to find out more about her projects.
OSB: Are you still involved in Democracy.earth?
Pia: Yes, but not on a day to day basis. I sit on the board.
OSB: What’s the latest news there, what are they working on?
Pia: They’re working a lot with distributed identity, which is a major blocker for local democratic processes. They are also building a browser and voting mechanism for DAOs. The first pilot sits live at moloch.democracy.earth. Essentially cooperatives manage a wallet where all decisions are voted by the DAO members on sovereign – democracy earth’s liquid democracy protocol.
OSB: That’s a real challenge – in our blog post about e-democracy Ehud Shapiro highlights how “e-democracies may transcend national boundaries”… and how we need “…a mechanism to endow each global citizen with a truthful, persistent, and globally unique global digital identity; and a global judiciary empowered to revoke fake or duplicate global digital identities.”
Pia: Yes, identity validation outside of nation states is hard. We’re interested in enabling anyone who is a citizen of the world with an effective means to vote. So, one can vote regardless of the territory they live in. This is the most interesting approach – and the hardest. We can’t rely on nation states to validate identities, because then we accept that having agency is an accident of birth, of where you are physically in the world. That’s crazy, we can’t allow for example votes on climate justice issues to be mediated by nations. Borders don’t stop climate change!
OSB: True! So, what’s the plan at Open Collective?
Pia: Open Collective wants to enable people to collaborate on projects, regardless of whether they fit in the current financial system. Forcing projects to be corporations stifles creativity and innovation. It probably kills the majority of initiatives around the world.
Open Collective projects are able to receive funding and pay people, without needing to incorporate. We enable open, collective projects to thrive by providing them with economic power and a space to chat to potential contributors, to hire contributors and provide services.
OpenCollective.com provides a hosted platform for these kinds of collaborative projects, and now Xavier (Co-founder of Open Collective) is starting the .org version, which will provide the Open Collective software as an open-source package that anyone can host themselves. The plan is to develop “an open source platform to provide all the online tools a community needs to thrive.”
OSB: Excellent! We have championed that idea for a while: that a collaborative platform for open source projects that anyone join and can contribute to or fund, could kick start mass collaboration at scale.
Pia: Yes – that’s the plan – we started with money as an enabler. After all, everyone needs money to subsist. Then we can grow collaboration… the .org will run more experiments – and these will be non revenue generating. But at Open Collective inc (the .com) we’re working mostly on financial mechanisms to make the company sustainable.
OSB: How’s that going?
Pia: It’s going OK – we have been growing a lot. We would like to be sustainable without having to raise again. We have investors – but still hold control, the investors don’t have voting rights or board seats, so decision making power remains within the team.
OSB: That sounds well designed! I have another question I have wanted to ask you for a while, about encouraging collaboration. If projects could form, take funding and allocate funds or bounties in proportion to peer reviewed work… without requiring incorporation… I am certain it would catalyse collaboration at scale. So, why do you think that hasn’t happened yet?
Pia: It is happening – we have projects using bounties, others giving contributors voting rights, and several developers working full time for their collective.
[ Xavier points out that Henry from Babel is earning $11k / month – and because all expense data is open you can see that he has earned over $200k from working on the Babel project. By comparison, ‘normal’ employment enriches other people … “most people are working for privately owned entities which create inequalities”, he says. ]
Pia: But even though we are seeing the type of collaboration you describe on Open Collective, we’re not seeing it in the wild. From my experience of social and political movements, it’s cumbersome to make collective decisions, and we need to find ways to be more agile.
In the open source world people are used to looking for existing code to reuse, because it’s more efficient. But that doesn’t seem to happen outside of software development. That may be part of why we’re not seeing more traction… but also, we’re not good at communicating and explaining what we’re doing. We just launched a new website at OpenCollective.com and it’s much better than before. We’re only starting with money… There’s a lot more tools we want to deliver to empower the projects and communities on Open Collective.
OSB: I like the focus on money first, it makes sense. Enabling people to make a living from working on new economy projects should really encourage action. What other plans do you have? For example, it would be great to see mutual credit payments enabled within Open Collective…
Pia: We’re trying to be super agnostic – We want to provide collective governance tools too, but right now our focus is on money. We don’t need to do everything at the same time but enabling collectives with governance structures and open budgeting tools are part of our plans.
OSB: I guess you’ve looked at Co-budget…?
Pia: Yes, Alanna works with us, so we know Co-budget well – it wasn’t really ready last time we looked at it. We tend to think our time is better spent creating our API – so that other tools can be plugged in to Open Collective than tweaking a particular integration with another service. We’re planning to be really open with our API development. We want to work with others to define open standards for community data.
After chatting to Pia I met up with Xavier, the founder of Open Collective. Xavier Damman founded Storify so is no stranger to getting a startup off the ground, or the challenge Open Collective is trying to solve.
XD: We urgently need to organise the world as collectives – with bonus points if they are open. We need to remove excuses for not starting a collective. We need to work together – think globally and act locally. We’ve done it before in the open source world – that led to an exponential growth in software. And that’s exactly what we need to do in the real world to solve the climate emergency. To be resilient we need to decentralise.
OSB: Your model of enabling groups to start collaborating, and even trading reminds me of the ‘statuses’ I proposed for groups as part of the PLANET concept. I think there’s a natural progression whereby groups start as “chat groups” just like a WhatsApp group, then evolve into “working groups” as they agree to work on something together – and are enabled with group tools like Docs and shared calendars etc – and then into “trading groups” if and when they have a financial proposition.
XD: I like that. Our aim is to drastically reduce the friction of moving from “chat groups” to “working groups” to “trading groups”. The more we reduce that friction the more people graduate and go up the ladder and deliver strong local communities. We’re currently heading towards a collapse of institutions. The biggest problem is that today’s institutions are managed through PowerPoint and spreadsheets by people who don’t have ‘skin in the game’ – they’re not impacted by their own decisions.
The top down management model made sense in the 20th century – But now everyone has access to the same information… and citizens have a greater understanding of the needs of their communities – in real time. It’s all about giving the power to the people who actually know better – not those who used to know better. But there’s a lot of ego involved.
OSB: How far do you go – for example, would you advocate the crowd sourcing of policy?
XD: Yes of course. The big system change is the clash between the traditional, hierarchy generation and the internet generation. If you think about the centralised to distributed to decentralised diagram… that’s the challenge. Our role is to empower as many nodes in the network to become a node… like on the internet.
OSB: What other tools will you be developing as part of the decentralised version of Open Collective?
XD: On GitHub you have all the tools you need to get going. The same should be true for any citizen to initiate whatever project they like. For example, we should have a local cooperative bakery in every community that can learn from other bakeries elsewhere, they all need the same tools and should be able to learn from other bakers’ experiences – and their local backers. We need to apply what we have learned from the internet to the real world.
When you register a collective on Open Collective you get a url to share information about your project, where you can describe what you do. We want to enable anyone to register, to follow updates about the project (i.e. a mailing list) and start conversations which any other member can contribute to. To allow anyone to collect money and manage expenses. To provide a way to follow or join projects and, if you get approved, to share your skills and browse a directory of other members… That’s why we’re starting the foundation (OpenCollective.org) so people can build what they need. For example, someone might build the functionality for “buy now” buttons… then any other collective could use that too.
Right now there’s a lot of effort going on, but everyone’s working in silos. And it’s hard to update and maintain a project with just one developer – it’s not sustainable. We need to find a way to work together… hence OpenCollective.org – so more people are able to collaborate.
Look at HappyCow the vegan app – over 1 million people have paid $5 for that app. It just shows that people want to vote with their money, but we need to make it easy for them. We need an app which shows us all the places to eat and drink nearby which are sustainable… whoever delivers that will sell millions of downloads… all the Extinction Rebellion folks will buy it – then you could integrate your mutual credit payment system… into a vibrant, alternative economy.
One goal for the OPEN 2020 conference could be to create ongoing working groups and empower them to develop into active trading groups…
OSB: That’s a definite part of the plan. At OPEN we’re really keen to encourage more people to get involved with doing the much needed work of building an alternative economy, as opposed to just talking about it – and continuing to shop at Tesco!
XD: Exactly – the most powerful way to learn is by doing – give people the opportunity to start working groups and review progress to see what happens.
OSB: How do you avoid the duplication of projects on Open Collective?
XD: We don’t – we just make them open and collaborative. We want as many as possible – so there are multiple experiments running at any one time.
OSB: That makes sense, but how do you ‘merge’ projects if you need to? Merging real world projects is probably not as easy as with software.
XD: You can’t really merge two different projects that started with different programming languages on GitHub, but you can apply what you’ve learned in one project to whichever project you contribute to next. The most important thing is not to be efficient – it’s to start something. We need to learn by doing.
OSB: What about ‘cross marketing’ – Do you have a method to cross pollinate members between different collectives? For example, if I join a working group for The Open Co-op it would be cool if I also saw a message saying “hey would you like to hear about these other projects…?” Then if I click ‘yes’ the other projects have permission to market their products and services to me, or to ask me to contribute. I think that could massively improve engagement and help catalyse collaboration.
XD: We might think about offering that, but not right now – maybe later when there’s more members. We need to make the ‘single player’ mode work well first…
OSB: What languages is Open Collective written in?
OSB: Are you aware of Holochain – what do you think about it?
XD: I’m not super-familiar with it. I’m quite black or white – it could be great but it’s not going to change the game right now – it’s super-interesting but I mainly see it as fundamental research.
We have a climate emergency. We need to work together – to think globally and act locally. We need an open source platform to provide all the online tools a community needs to thrive – That’s what Open Collective aims to be.
If you are interested in learning more about Open Collective and co-creating a new economy please join us for a Webinar with Xavier on the 7th May at 4pm UK time, as part of the intro sessions to OPEN 2020.