Building a New Economy Through Platform Co-operatives

Can diverse social movements come together and find new synergies for building a new type of economy?  Last week there were some significant conversations along those lines at Goldsmiths College in London, at the Open Co-op conference. The two-day event brought together leading voices from the co-operative, open source, and collaborative economy movements as well as organized labor. The gathering featured a lot of experts on co-operative development, law, software platforms, economics and community activism.

The basic point of the conference was to:  

“imagine a transparent, democratic and decentralised economy which works for everyone. A society in which anyone can become a co-owner of the organisations on which they, their family & their community depend. A world where everyone can participate in all the decisions that affect them.

“This is not a utopian ideal, it is the natural outcome of a networked society made up of platform cooperatives; online organisations owned and managed by their members. By providing a viable alternative to the standard internet business model based on monopoly and extraction, platform cooperatives provide a template for a new type of organisation – forming the building blocks for a new economy.”

The idea of “platform co-operatives” – launched at a seminal New York City conference in November 2015 co-organized by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider – has quickly found a following internationally. People have begun to realize how Uber, Airbnb, Taskrabbit and countless other network platforms are distressingly predatory, using venture capital money and algorithms to override health, safety and labor standards and municipal governance itself.

The London event showed the breadth and depth of interest in this topic – and in the vision of creating a new type of global economy.  There were folks like Felix Weth, founder of Fairmondo, a German online marketplace and web-based co-op owned by its users; Brianna Werttlaufer, cofounder and CEO of Stocksy United, an artist-owned, multistakeholder cooperative in Victoria, British Colombia; and co-operative finance and currency expert Pat Conaty.

There was a lot of talk about building new infrastructures that could mutualize the benefits from local businesses while connecting to a larger global network of co-ops sharing the same values.  Among the tools mentioned for achieving this goal: Mondragon-style co-ops, government procurement policies to favor local co-ops, shifting deposits to local credit unions, and crowdfunding citizen-led community development projects.

One of the more impressive works-in-progress that I encountered is called Reciproka, which proposes a legal, financial and governance structure for federating a network of co-ops, each of which would mutually own portions of the others through a jointly owned trust. The idea is to build a “counter-economy that is able to perpetuate itself on its own,” explained Janosch Sbeih.

To help achieve this goal, Sbeih and his partner Jérôme Birolini proposed a scheme by which aging baby boomer entrepreneurs could retire by converting their conventional businesses into employee-owned coops rooted in local communities.  Participating co-ops would band together and contribute to a common fund.  The federation would work to build a larger, diversified network of like-minded co-ops while building a pool of shared funds. All co-op members would act as voting trustees in a overarching legal structure that would eventually become the sole owner of the co-operatives. There are some refinements that need to be made to the Reciproka plan, but it gives you an idea of the bold thinking at the conference.

There were other fascinating discussions, such as a panel on “Future Makerspaces in Redistributed Manufacturing.”  The focus here was on open design and manufacturing as the core infrastructure for building a new type of circular economy.  Instead of the “extraction – use – disposal” sequence for economic activity, the goal would be to institute cycles and spirals that minimize waste and focus on local needs.  While the future business models for open manufacturing remain somewhat speculative, one idea put forward was a business that would help individuals build their own stuff at reasonable prices – in conjunction with FabLabs, for example.

Proponents of new forms of distributed manufacturing consider it a Fourth Industrial Revolution (the first ones being agriculture; the steam engine; and electronics).  Emerging trends point to a production system that will be distributed, not centralized; digital, not mechanical and electrical; oriented to direct, on-demand production; using mixed forms of intellectual property; and based on open source principles that are accessible to anyone.

There were other fascinating panels – on alternative currencies, collaborative decisionmaking, trust and reputation systems, open data, “bread funds” for the self-employed, and much else.  I participated on a panel introducing the commons and exploring the role of open co-ops (as explained by Stacco Troncoso of the P2P Foundation) and the blending of co-operatives and commons (as described by Nicole Alix of La Coop des Communes).

There is clearly a lot of creative development still needed to actualize the ideas presented at Open Co-op.  But a big barrier, especially among traditional co-ops and trade unions, may be the skepticism or ignorance about these fresh ideas. It can be hard to embrace the unfamiliar.  Fortunately, the Open Co-op conference helped expand people’s imaginations, provide hard evidence of working models, and encourage new experiments.  May this conference become an annual affair!