Introducing Open 2017 – what are platform co-ops?

October 7, 2016

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Platform co-ops, and the burgeoning movement behind them, are big news. For the first time since the inception of the internet a consensus is forming around a new model of economics and governance. At The Open Co-op we have been working on this concept since 2004 and continue to advocate that the internet provides the ultimate tool to help reorganise society and facilitate the transition to a collaborative sustainable economy.

It is refreshing to see some big names articulating the vision of a world beyond capitalism, not through fanciful idealism, but by explaining the concepts using the examples of existing platform co-ops. Paul Mason’s article from July 2015 “The end of capitalism has begun” draws on Marx and explains how what Paul calls “Postcapitalism” should

“…expand those technologies, business models and behaviours that dissolve market forces, socialise knowledge, eradicate the need for work and push the economy towards abundance”.

In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Douglas Rushkoff explains how the digital economy has gone wrong and how we can reprogram it and our businesses from the inside out to promote sustainable prosperity for everyone. Rushkoff calls on business to accept that the era of extractive growth is over and to eschew platform monopolies like Uber in favour of distributed, worker-owned co-ops.

This is not a vague and incoherent collection of ideas or proposals for some kind of left-wing campaign against the existing paradigm. It is a clear and consistent road-map, featuring useful sign-posting and case studies, for a completely new and truly democratic economy.

In 6 Ways We’re Already Leading an Economic Revolution, Gar Alperovitz argues that “we’re well on our way to a more democratic, cooperative, and people-centered economy” and in “Transnational Republics of Commoning” David Bollier quotes Jeremy Rifkin saying: 

“We are glimpsing at the outlines of a new economic system based on sharing and the collaborative commons. It is the first new paradigm-shifting system since the introduction of capitalism and communism.”

Rifkin points out that this new economic system

“…is already flourishing alongside the exchange economy of the capitalist market. These two systems are still largely intertwined. But by mid-century, the new system will be the predominant one”.

To speed up this transition, the platform cooperative movement must bring together the age old, well established and highly principled cooperative community and the young, creative and dynamic open source community.

The cooperative world should utitlise and help to fund open source software in order to generate an ‘open app ecosystem’ on which further co-ops and platform co-ops can thrive. New, open source apps could enable mass collaboration, production and transactions in co-operatively owned organisations at a scale we have yet to imagine. If that were to happen then perhaps collective ownership and networked member control could out-evolve the extractive economy.

The Open 2017 Platform Cooperatives conference will bring together the open source and the cooperative communities, together with practitioners, legal experts, systems architects and developers with an interest in this growing movement, to promote the possibilities within the platform co-op movement and to accelerate the transition towards a collaborative, sustainable economy. It is a chance to meet and discuss the structure, challenges and opportunities of a truly collaborative internet. If you are interested in co-creating our collective future please join us and be part of the solution.

What are ‘Platform Co-ops’?

Platform cooperatives are online organisations which are owned and managed by their members. Platform co-ops follow the principles of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). They are democratically governed and support the development of informational and material commons. They provide a viable alternative to the standard internet model based on monopoly and extraction to facilitate the transition to a collaborative, sustainable economy.

Where did the term ‘Platform Co-ops’ come from?

The term ‘Platform cooperativism’ was first used by Trebor Sholz in an article entitled “Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy” on December the 5th 2014. In his article Trebor argued that the sharing economy, as it has developed so far, has not delivered huge benefits for workers and suggested that:

“platform cooperativism can invigorate genuine sharing, and that it does not have to reject the market. Platform cooperativism can serve as a remedy for the corrosive effects of capitalism; it can be a reminder that work can be dignified rather than diminishing for the human experience.”

In his article Trebor not only highlighted a problem that many people were aware of, through detailed analysis of the issues of the so called ‘sharing economy’, but he went further by suggesting an alternative model and wrapping it up with a name: ‘Platform cooperativism’. 

Trebor’s analysis, and rejection of the sharing economy in which large corporations benefit from individual’s efforts to share, echoed the sentiment of many others. In the same month, Nathan Schneider published his article “Owning Is the New Sharing” in which he draws on his extensive work and knowledge of alternative economic systems to explain the problems with the standard VC backed model of finance and points to the ‘resurgent co-op model’ as a possible, albeit difficult to implement, alternative. He concluded then that:

“Simply giving up on ownership, however, will mean that those who actually do own the tools that we rely on to share will control them. People who want an economy of genuine sharing are coming to recognize that they must embrace ownership — and, as they do, they’re changing what owning means altogether.”

Like all good concepts which lack a catchy name, the term Platform Cooperativism helped solidify a range of associated ideas as other authors expanded on theme. 

Caitlin Dewey wrote “You don’t know it, but you’re working for Facebook. For free.” in The Washington Post. Shoshana Zuboff published “Disruption’s Tragic Flaw“in FAZ, Neal Gorenflo joined the debate with his excellent article “How Platform Coops Can Beat Death Star Platforms to Create a Real Sharing Economy” and Karen Gregory added to the debate with “From Sharing to Cooperation: Lessons from-Mondragon in the New Economy”. In October 2015 Scholz and Schneider co-authored “The People’s Uber: Why The Sharing Economy Must Share Ownership” in Fast Company in which they concluded that:

“The way future generations work need not be determined solely by the bottom line of Silicon Valley investors. It is still possible to create a future in which technology nurtures democracy and cooperation, rather than obscuring them. We need only say "yes" to it.”

In November of the same year they organised a two-day event billed as “A coming-out party for the cooperative Internet” in New York which placed the concept and growing movement behind Platform Co-ops firmly on the map.

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley is a marketing and communications advisor with many years experience in sustainability. Oliver graduated from Central Saint Martins and then studied an Msc in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. He wrote his thesis on Encouraging Environmentally Responsible Behaviour and specialises in communications and marketing strategies which encourage democracy and sustainability. Oliver Co-Founded The Open Co-op and developed a concept for an open source communications system PLANET in 2004. He recently updated PLANET as a vision of an open source operating system for a collaborative sustainable economy.

Tags: new economy, platform cooperatives, sharing economy