cross-posted from the Platform Cooperativism Consortium blog
Relive the excitement of a packed Community Assembly! Over one hundred attendees gathered as part of Platform Co-op School on Wednesday, February 8, for a themed unconference on shared digital infrastructure.
The goal was to bring people together, encourage cross-connections and collaborations, and help reduce the time and resources spent on creating new platforms from scratch. The Community Assembly, facilitated by OwnCo and Start.coop, both part of the PCC Solidarity Collaboratory, involved a brainstorming session to settle on topics including food delivery, public utility co-ops, business-to-business (B2B) platforms, decentralization, stakeholder engagement, the ethics of solidarity at scale, Web3, and energy co-ops. These topics were then discussed in small group breakout rooms and finally reported on with great success.
Although it wasn’t designed as a traditional academic format, attendees were still able to extract valuable takeaways from the experience. Due to the fact that the assembly brought together distinct working groups, each with its own focus areas, the resulting document is a patchwork rather than a coherent collection of perspectives. I’ve made this document more instructive by adding introductions and additional readings for various items of discussion. A few bite-sized highlights from the assembly’s spread of ideas follow.
Exploring the Need to Consider ‘Non-Scalability’
Scaling is a crucial topic in the discussion around platform cooperatives, as evidenced by the 967 articles on platform cooperatives in our library that reveal that most media coverage has centered on the need to scale these organizations to challenge and ultimately overtake large tech companies. It’s interesting to note that many cooperatives have formed in response to a crisis, not necessarily with the intention of overthrowing organic monopolies. This highlights the importance of considering the concept of “non-scalability” when exploring platform cooperatives. It’s crucial to understand that the way in which Silicon Valley tech companies scale may not always be applicable, and it’s essential to consider the unique value created by platform cooperative businesses. One discussion group quoted Lowenhaupt Tsing:
“Even as technologies of scalability advance, the charm of world- making scalability is unraveling in our times. Scalability spreads — and yet it is constantly abandoned, leaving ruins. We need a nonscalability theory that pays attention to the mounting pile of ruins that scalability leaves behind. Nonscalability theory makes it possible to see how scalability uses articulations with nonscalable forms even as it denies or erases them. Entrepreneurs have already taken great advantage of this feature of the contemporary political economy. So have the plants and animals we call weeds and pests, and indeed the great variety of life that thrives with human disturbance.”
-in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales.”
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing argues that precision and scalability, which are often seen as positive qualities in design and technology, can have negative consequences in terms of creating inequality and hiding diversity. The idea of scalability, or the ability to expand without rethinking basic elements, is prevalent in many areas of life, including computers, business, and development. But this essay suggests that it is time to consider a theory of non scalability, which would focus on the importance of preserving diversity and acknowledging the limitations of expansion and growth. In other words, it calls for a more nuanced approach to design and technology, one that takes into account the complexities of the real world and recognizes that uniformity and expansion are not always the best goals.
Food Delivery Discussion
Representatives from two food delivery cooperatives—CoopCycle and Fertile Ground Food Cooperative—convened to discuss the challenges and considerations of federations. They discussed a spectrum of regulations for CoopCycle’s eligibility for membership and the implications it had for motorized vehicles in rural areas, particularly. The attendees also discussed their rejection of most Google APIs and explored other ways technology could be beneficial within their cooperative to be better able to compete. They considered how technological advancements could help increase sustainability while also making food delivery more equitable and accessible to marginalized groups.
¡CoopCycle en Argentina!
CoopCycle in Argentina!
Delivery Rider Collectives Are Revolutionizing A Global Business
‘More Than a Job’: The Food Delivery Co-ops Putting Fairness Into the Gig Economy
Examining Who Benefits from Cooperative and Mutual Organizations
Remarkably, the operations of organizations such as SWIFT, DTCC, and Visa differ from those of traditional companies in that they include (or used to integrate) cooperative characteristics at their core. Did You Know, for example, that Visa Was Meant to be a Cooperative Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, had a vision of creating a cooperative that would be owned and controlled by its members, which included merchants and cardholders. This would have created a unique and democratic structure for the payment processing industry. However, Hock was eventually ousted and the company transformed into a publicly traded corporation, losing its cooperative structure and becoming more focused on maximizing profits for its shareholders.
You might have used SWIFT. That is still a coop today. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is a cooperative organization that provides secure and standardized financial messaging services to its member financial institutions. It operates as a non-profit and is owned and run by its member banks, ensuring that the needs of its members drive the organization instead of outside investors. This cooperative structure gives stability and security to the financial institutions, allowing them to safely and efficiently transfer payments across borders through SWIFT’s messaging network. This model allows for a secure platform for worldwide financial operations and serves the interests of its members. (Read this open access book about SWIFT.)
Or take DTCC, which is probably the biggest mutual you have never heard about. The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation, is a mutual organization that provides clearing, settlement, and information services for the global financial markets. As a mutual, DTCC is owned by its member financial institutions and operates with the goal of serving their needs and interests. This structure enables DTCC to focus on its mission of processing financial transactions securely and efficiently, without being impacted by the interests of outside investors. With its ability to settle the vast majority of securities transactions in the US and handle close to $1.7 quadrillion in value globally, DTCC is a dominant player in the financial services industry and a key component of the
The cooperative or mutual structure allows these organizations to serve the needs and interests of their members, providing stability and security for financial institutions. However, it’s important to also consider who benefits from these cooperatives. While they may serve the interests of their members, these are largely traditional banks. We should acknowledge the size and significance of these cooperatives and mutuals but also critically examine who is truly served by their actions.
The Benefits of Cooperative Public Utilities
Public utilities are vital services provided by the government or private companies. These services can be owned and operated jointly by their members. This ownership structure increases openness, accountability, service quality, and cost effectiveness. Cooperative public utilities exist in several nations, including the United States. Hundreds of electric cooperatives power rural communities in the United States where other suppliers deem it too expensive to establish infrastructure. The Public Utility group debated the formation of a coop of coops to aid communities’ transition to the digital economy. It was proposed that public utilities be run collaboratively.
This group talked about cooperative ownership and management of energy infrastructure, data, and information. They wanted to increase the use of renewable energy and make better use of energy. They talked on the potential of using already-existing technology, such as energy management systems or APIs offered by energy utilities, to share energy data and information in the hopes that this may result in more informed decisions and group action to minimize energy waste and promote the usage of renewable energy sources. They saw the financial benefits of cooperative ownership, particularly in the housing sector, and were motivated by a desire for sustainable living and a desire to reduce energy’s environmental impact.
One group discussed sharing ownership of energy infrastructure, as well as using technology to improve renewable energy adoption and reduce energy consumption. Participants talked about, for example, the possibility of creating an app that can track energy usage in cloud hosting services, like AWS, and using utility APIs to gather data about renewable energy sources that a community can access. The group also discussed the idea of allowing individuals to make decisions about energy usage based on data about renewable and non-renewable energy sources.
The Potential of Business-to-Business Co-Op Structures
The conversation centered on the possibility of business-to-business co-op structures and explored the concept of a platform co-op servicing other co-ops, businesses, and even non-co-op companies. The attendees explored the many ownership models in a cooperative structure, as well as the possibilities of any business becoming a cooperative. The group discussed the contrast between business-to-customer and business-to-business, with a focus on the latter and the concept of a cooperative model in which members are both stakeholders and owners. The significance of community building, as well as mapping current cooperative projects and linking communities for shared digital infrastructure, was emphasized. The issues of cooperatives, such as invoicing, community management, and availability of credit, were also discussed, and the potential for a modularized approach to a business management platform was offered. The concept of social cooperatives, which aim to assist businesses in sectors such as education and elder care, was also noted.
Decentralization: Debating Software Design, Governance and Decision Making
Decentralization was debated in two ways: decentralization of software design and decentralization of governance and decision-making more broadly. The group considered integrating decentralized voting platforms such as Loomio and Pol.is to prioritize needs and make decisions for software design decentralization. While these approaches have advantages, they have some limits that should be considered, such as the need to consider who asks the questions and who responds to them. Some have proposed using public opinion platforms rather than traditional governing structures to solve these limits. The group addressed sociocracy, weighted voting systems, retroactive funding, and software tools for decentralized design while researching decentralization and co-op models. They also investigated methods to incentivize participation in co-op arrangements.
Empowering Ethical Growth Through Balanced Expansion
Cooperatives have a unique opportunity to pursue economic growth and stability, while also promoting ethical practices such as fair labor, sustainability, and social responsibility. This is done in part by internal evaluations and accountability procedures that guarantee the core principles of the cooperatives are followed while respecting the community and the environment. To achieve this balance between expansion and values, cooperatives rely on certain democratic processes such as consensus-based decision-making, hierarchical management, transparent communication, mutualism, equal benefit distribution, user-owned infrastructure and worker-owned infrastructure.
Although larger cooperatives may face difficulty in realigning all members with their core principles or risk subjugating subsidiaries in developing countries, they are experimenting with diverse models of ownership and decision-making to combat this. Additionally, cooperative education helps alleviate some issues faced during coop expansion such as lack of coordination amongst cooperatives or poor co-branding. Examining successful cooperative examples and seeing how they adopted technology can help us understand how we can promote growth and keep the coop’s essential tenets intact.
Using Blockchain Technology and DAOs for Financing
Jason Younker and other people connected to talk about writing bids for DAO financing. The emphasis in that space was on minimizing noise and boosting discovery. Younker is investigating the use of blockchain technology, specifically ERC-721 and ERC-20 tokens, to enable cooperatives to obtain external funding. NFTs are offered as a possible proof of membership.
Some of the links are for specific DAOs such as Molecule DAO, Vitadao and REtokenDAO, which focus on areas such as finance, science, and real estate. Other links are for decentralized platforms such as Open Collective, Regens Unite, Forus, and Lu.ma, which provide alternative solutions for events, fundraising, and social impact initiatives.
Overall, these links demonstrate the growing trend of using blockchain technology and DAOs to build more equitable and transparent online communities and organizations. Younker’s slide deck can be found here. His team here. Also see https://upside.coop. The list of science-related DAOs includes Vitadao, Molecule DAO. Unlock Protocol uses NFTs for membership access. For events and meetups, there is a Web3 capable alternative called https://lu.ma. Other resources for platform co-ops include Ownco.org, Open Collective, Regens Unite, and Forus.co.za. Additionally, there are several startups that support platform co-ops including Startin’blox, CeRTIA, and INESS. Younker is also a co-founder of 3winDAO (Triple Win Foundation) and REtokenDAO (Real Estate DAO).
Living Community Agreements: A Proposal for Cooperative Management of Data
Members of the group discussed cooperative ownership and management of data and information, an approach which includes simple agreements and easy opt-in/opt-out options for users. Additionally, a holistic approach intertwining social, legal and technical aspects was proposed. The concept of “living community agreements” was mentioned as a way for members to continuously contribute, adjust and trust each other when it comes to data sharing. Noemi Giszpenc from the Data Commons Cooperative highlighted the need for trust between people which should come before legal obligations. Finally, she suggested emphasizing the benefits of shared data could further help foster cooperation.
Read more on this:
The essay “Data Cooperatives for Pandemic Times” explores the potential of data cooperatives as a way to combat unjust data practices. The essay further explains how data cooperatives can be shaped by those who need them most, rooted in cooperative principles and localized data. https://publicseminar.org/essays/data-cooperatives-for-pandemic-times/
Data Cooperatives in Europe: A Legal and Empirical Investigation White Paper created as part of The New School’s Platform Cooperativism Consortium and Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Sprint December 2021
The Assembly provided a platform for exchanging ideas and fostering discussions that could inspire future projects. However, the event was not just about ideas, but about taking action to make a tangible difference. Participants came together to call for a number of concrete steps to support platform co-ops, including writing op-eds, advocating for incubators, and engaging with municipal policymakers and business schools. WE’ll follow up on these proposals to promote the growth of this movement.