It has been said repeatedly that when it comes to the sharing economy, access trumps ownership. Yet questions of ownership are more important today than ever, as millions of people rely on a range of peer to peer platforms for work, knowledge, mobility, media and culture of which they have little to no control over. How can drivers, task runners, freelancers and micro-entrepreneurs generate secure livelihoods and stand-up to the dominant logic inherent in much of the sharing economy that uses Internet platforms to extract value from people and communities? How can the financial interests of people who create value in the new economy be protected and what pathways to collective ownership and democratic governance are available?

These questions framed the opening of an event with Nathan Schneider, journalist, author, co-convenor of the first platform cooperativism conference (NYC) and professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Nathan’s visit to Australia was capped off by a workshop in Melbourne Australia on 10th June 2016 called ‘Sharing Value and Ownership for the Common Good: Building the Commons Economy’.

Nathan Schneider began with his keynote on the transformative power of an Internet that we can co-own and co-govern together. From Nathan’s introduction: “we are in a period of transition to a platform society one in which we carry out the economy less from fixed workplaces and more through tools of connection – an infrastructure of online tools that enable us to connect with each other and create value together. We are moving from an economy which has this cool toy called the Internet to the Internet orchestrating this cool toy called the economy. One of the features of it, is continuing a pattern the offline industrial economy has been following in recent years. We’re seeing this continued process in this online platform economy, in which we are increasingly disconnected from the benefits of the very economy we’re creating.”

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Sharing Value and Ownership for the Common Good, Church of All Nations, Melbourne Australia.

Nathan continues: “In the wake of the economic crisis there’s been this urge to share, the sharing economy. Wouldn’t we all love to share the stuff that we all have too much of, like cars and housing and all this stuff. This energised a lot of young people to take part in a positive new economy. But then, there started to be some cracks. We start to see workers with very little security in the context of what’s called a ‘sharing economy’. We start to realize that what we’re doing is not so much sharing as micro-rental all the time and that nothing is being shared in this process. Instead the profits are being directed to a very centralized organization. And these companies in the so-called sharing economy have a shocking disregard for the public good. We have a choice between this really positive vision of the liberated freelancer, people who control their working hours and don’t have to have the same job to control their security for the rest of their life. But then there’s also this vision of the precariat, who loses control over work and has to deal with a completely unaccountable global corporation that has no interest in their interest.

Nathan Schneider asks: "what can we say yes to?"

Nathan Schneider asks: “what can we say yes to?”

Nathan on the cooperative platform economy: “This leaves us with a question. There’s lots of good stuff and there’s lots of bad stuff. So what can we say yes to? In a lot of cities around the world it often feels like those in government have to say no to this emerging platform economy and they don’t seem to have a lot of choices about what they can say yes to, what they can encourage. One of the ways to think about what we’re doing when we talk about a cooperative online economy is creating a choice, a choice that’s actually worth having. What if there were a real sharing economy? Fortunately there are some pretty good precedents to draw on. Alongside the development of industrial capitalism has been this vision of a cooperative economy, and practice of a cooperative economy, that has thrived around the world in many industries through open membership, democratic control and ownership, shared profits, autonomy, and a deep concern for community. This is a tradition that has spread and I think more than many of us even recognize because it’s not something that we learn about in school very often, or that’s talked about in public debate, but this is a very powerful and widespread sector of the global economy, and it’s a source that we can draw upon. If we’re talking about a sharing economy, this is the gold standard, the co-operative economy. Meanwhile we can also draw on practices that have developed from tech culture that contribute to and develop the tradition of co-operative enterprize.

Nathan’s keynote presentation can be heard in full here.

A great overview of 'Building the Commons Economy' by @PaulaSgherza

A great overview of ‘Building the Commons Economy’ by @PaulaSgherza

A panel of local innovators including Serenity Hill (Open Food Network), Eric Doriean (AnyShare) and Antony McMullen (Employee Ownership Australia and New Zealand) came together with Nathan to discuss how the Commons Economy is taking shape in Australia. The panel discussion can be heard here.

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Panel featuring Nathan Schneider, Serenity Hill, Eric Doriean, Antony McMullen and Darren Sharp.

The second half of the event was a Design Lab facilitated by co-convener Jose Ramos for AbilityMate, a Sydney-based social enterprise creating affordable assistive devices for people with a disablity using open design and 3D printing. The Design Lab was run to help co-founders Mel Fuller and Johan du Plessis and designer Kin Ly collaboratively workshop ideas in development and seek fedback from fellow practitioners related to funding and scaling their social enterprise.

Jose Ramos introducing Kin, Johan and Mel from AbilityMate.

Jose Ramos introducing Kin, Johan and Mel from AbilityMate.

Human-centred design was used to understand the key design challenges (pain points) faced by AbilityMate, identify opportunity areas and create a series of how might we questions used for brainstorming and ideation.

Seminar participants were given three How Might We Questions to brainstorm together in small groups:

  1. How might we attract and scale investment from $500,000 in 2 years to $30 million in 4 years, while maintaining co-op principles of equal voting power and fair return on investment? (There are constraints around equity crowd funding in Australia. If an entity has more than 50 shareholders that aren’t employees it has to be publicly listed, which has very onerous protocols and tax implications).
  2. How might we use the cooperative model to both support AbilityMate’s social impact mission and remain globally competitive (access to capital, markets, customers and speed)?
  3. How might we run and find funding to test an AbilityMate platform co-op trial which includes investors, employees, customers and founders in order to validate/prove the benefits of platform co-ops?

The Design Lab group presentations can be heard in full here.

Design Lab with AbilityMate on converting to a platform co-operative.

Design Lab with AbilityMate on converting to a platform co-operative.

This event was part of a global conversation about the future of value, ownership and governance in the emerging platform economy. The Melbourne workshop explored how social enterprizes like AbilityMate can become platform co-ops and developed practical ideas for how ventures can attract investment and support while maintaining their social mission. These discussions are relevant to any organization developing commons-based solutions to ensure that prosperity and decision-making can be shared between value creators working together for mutual benefit and the transition to a more equitable platform economy.

Nathan’s Australian visit also included a public seminar on platform cooperativism at ACMI in Melbourne with Janelle Orsi on 7th June.

I look forward to sharing details of Australia’s evolving cooperative platform ecosystem at the second platform cooperativism conference being held in New York 11-13 November.


Photo by aKs_phOtOs (Pixabay)

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