A study by Elena Como, Agnès Mathis, Marco Tognetti and Andrea Rapisardi. Presented in ISIRC Conference, Glasgow, September 2016:


From the Introduction:

1. “In the past years we have assisted to the rapid spread of what is now commonly called the “sharing economy” in various sectors, adopting different forms frequently based on the use of the Internet and digital platforms. Looking at the underlying discourses of the sharing economy (collaboration, solidarity, sharing), we find many elements in common with the vision and experience of the cooperatives. Because of these common elements, but also challenging that narrative on the field of governance and democracy, cooperatives themselves are becoming interested in the phenomenon and are trying to understand which forms of convergence they can develop.

Moving from a recent pioneer experience of research conducted in Italy, LAMA Agency and Cooperatives Europe expanded and explored the perspective and experiences on the sharing economy of cooperatives at European level. The research explored the level of awareness, the interest, practical cases, opportunities and barriers of the cooperatives approaching the sharing economy topic. The two organizations interviewed the representatives of national cooperative associations in 9 different EU member states and launched an online mapping survey collecting 38 sounding empirical cases from 11 European countries, plus 3 initiatives from outside the EU. The study demonstrates that cooperatives can contribute to the collaborative economy promoting models of community based on membership rather than usership, supporting new initiatives to manage the commons, but also getting the business model transformation opportunities enabled by digital platforms and internet technologies. The paper provides also suggestions for further research and work at EU level.”

2. “The interviews addressed 5 broad research questions:

i. What is the understanding of the collaborative economy on the part of the national cooperative movements, and their general attitudes towards this emerging phenomenon?

ii. What are the levels of awareness and knowledge of the collaborative economy among individual cooperatives at the ground level, and their degree of interest in terms of innovation potential?

iii. What is the actual spread of innovative practices among the cooperatives? What key sectors and types of cooperative innovations are directly or indirectly being inspired by the collaborative economy?

iv. What is the role of cooperative umbrella associations, in terms of promoting awareness, debate, and experimentation?

v. What are the key challenges, opportunities, and future paths for cooperatives in the collaborative economy field?”

From the Conclusions:

“Conclusions and implications for future research and policy This exploratory research intended to propose a new perspective on the relationship between the cooperatives and the collaborative economy in Europe, by gathering the perceptions and opinions of representatives of the cooperative movement in different countries, and by collecting some initial evidence of how cooperatives on the ground are actually engaging with collaborative economy innovations. The final aim of this reflection is to identify any potential opportunities and challenges deriving from the application and adaptation of collaborative economy models in cooperatives, and from the development of new “collaborative practices” from within the cooperative movement. The conclusions that we present here are based on the first ideas collected from our interviewees and review of empirical cases. They are not to be considered as official positions of Cooperatives Europe nor of the cooperative associations involved. Nor they are to be considered as the arrival point of a research process that has just started. The suggestions we present will necessarily need to be analysed more in detail, and supported by sound research to be assesswd for their actual feasibility and desirability in practice; nonetheless, we believe they can provide a first interesting stimulus on this topic for the European research and policy community.

Overall, the considerations raised by this study suggest that cooperatives may potentially benefit from engaging with the collaborative economy phenomenon. In particular, by exploring its innovation potential, it was suggested that cooperatives may discover new interesting ways to update and transform some of their established features, to better fit the emerging developments at societal, market, and technological level.

As some cooperative leaders highlighted in this research, cooperatives would first of all benefit from a deeper understanding and reflection on the collaborative economy topic. In general terms, it seems important that cooperatives approach this topic soon, and in an open and proactive way. It was highlighted that cooperatives should look at the positive potential of the collaborative economy phenomenon, and not fear it the even when it leads to the emergence of new, global competitors that use a “collaborative” language mainly for commercial purposes. Cooperatives have internal histories and resources which might allow them to build alternative models challenging such competitors, developing their new distinctive solutions that are in line with cooperative principles and fundamental values.

The cooperative movement, it was observed, has demonstrated the capacity to combine economic growth and impact with the capacity to promote significant forms of empowerment, participation, and social interconnectedness. These are an important asset in the collaborative economy model, and if cooperatives are able to valorise them also in digital ways, they may become their distinctive added value into this emerging movement. Cooperatives can indeed contribute to the collaborative economy with a new (new for the collaborative economy, not for cooperatives) idea of community that is based on membership rather than usership. Moreover, by valorising their widespread presence across Europe and beyond, it was suggested that cooperatives might also use the collaborative economy model to build large interconnected networks across the territories that challenge the collaborative economy incumbents.

Another area of opportunity and idea which emerged from the research is that cooperatives might also benefit from exploring more and deeper the potential of new concepts such as “collaborative production”, “collaborative learning and knowledge”, and new fields of development such as the area of the commons, where they can play an important role and contribute to sustainable social and economic development.

However, this preliminary study suggests also that a cooperative movement willing to fully invest the collaborative economy potentials may be confronted to a number challenges, for example:

  • to raise awareness of the collaborative economy models and features and to understand the reasons and structural basic conditions for its success;
  • to encourage existing cooperatives to exploit the potential of digital and web technologies to update and upgrade their internal participation patterns;
  • to support the development of new cooperatives setting up financial, technical and strategic support schemes at national and EU level;
  • to set up relevant frameworks to pilot solutions, evaluate results and replicate successes fostering at the same time an open and distributed discussion aimed at balancing the presence of the sole “capitalist-based collaborative economy” narrative.

The relevance of the opportunities that seem to emerge from this initial scoping of the topic, and the complexity of the challenges that accompany them, suggest that more research is needed in this area, to better understand emerging dynamics and possible ways forward.

At the same time, this study suggests that there would also be room to stimulate the EU at institutional level, to consider the possible role of the cooperative legal form into peer-to-peer commercial markets. Cooperatives can match democracy, transparency, local and global impact, employment regulation, consumer safety and redistribution “by form”, with the power of a digital, user friendly, attractive and effective environment typical of the collaborative economy business models. Moreover, from governance to learning platforms, and considering the wide world of noncommercial sharing activities in many way based on – or fostered by – digital social platforms, an even bigger space of opportunities could be opened up by looking at the possible contribution of cooperatives.

Lastly, the promotion of a collaborative-cooperative economy, deeply enrooted in local territories and combining economic opportunities with social and democratic values, may possibly represent also a valuable path for the EU institutions to strengthen reputation among citizens, and to effectively pursue the objective of a smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth, ultimately improving wellbeing, social cohesion and security in Europe.”

Find the full study here.

Photo by Burke Museum

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