A summary of last February’s Open 2017 conference, originally posted at Sharing is Caring:

Platform cooperatives combine a technology platform with cooperative ownership. First described by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, this approach appeals both to traditional coops looking to go digital, and startups trying to build a fairer world. For some, it’s a natural response to the co-option of the sharing economy by capitalism.

Open 2017 is the first major UK conference to bring together this broad church of utopians, libertarians, open source advocates, trade unionists, and anarchists. Never have I heard the same words used on the same stage with such contradictory intent! “Solidarity” for me conjures up images of striking workers in the 1970s, but here it’s often used to imply community cohesion. How many other concepts are lost in translation? Do we need a new vocabulary to describe a new movement?

Open source and coops

There’s a broad crossover between the values of the open source community and the values of the cooperative movement. Open source focuses on the process of producing and sharing code, whereas cooperatives care more about ownership and power structures. Both value transparency, both abhor hierarchy. The success of open source over the last 20 years gives hope to the cooperative movement: hope that one day, cooperative models of governance could be as widely used as open source code.

Single constituency or multi-constituency?

Cooperatives are a legal solution to a fundamental social problem: how best to distribute surplus? When we think of coops, in the UK we tend to think of consumer cooperatives, where you need to be a member to buy a product or service. These businesses usually aim to keep prices low for the customer. The other main category is producer cooperatives. Rory Ridley-Duffdescribed three types of employee owned business: trust owned (like John Lewis), direct owned, and worker cooperatives (like Suma). These often focus more on fair pay and employment security. Both of these structures prioritize one “constituency” — buyers of products, or sellers of labour.

Much rarer are the “multi-constituency” cooperatives, as described by Cliff Mills. These incorporate multiple stakeholders within their membership: consumers, producers, workers, suppliers, and the local community. While these are better suited to pursuing a common good, the risk is that by internalising tensions, they may end up stuck in a stalemate when forced to decide on issues where their members disagree. Platform cooperativism could provide an opportunity to codify group decision making practices that make multi-stakeholder coops more viable.

Scaling decision making


There are as many decision making methods as there are organizations. Bob Cannell laid out a spectrum of options, from unanimity to anarchy: consensus, consensual, vetoes, majority voting (direct or representative), subsidiarity, and the “sorry not please” principle.

Tools like Loomio and Backfeed seek to scale group decision making, by making it easy for people to propose, vote, evaluate and reward. Common feedback from coop members was that culture was more important than the constitution or the technology. Practices like appreciative enquiry — concentrating on the positive when giving feedback — ensure that people feel their contributions are valued. This has parallels within open source and volunteer run organisations, where thanking people for their work is an important part of each interaction.

Federation: coops of coops


Are coops going to take over the world? Not unless it gets easier to start them, run them, and fund them. In terms of legal admin, it’s still harder to create your startup as a coop than to incorporate as a limited company. Running a successful coop requires different skills from top down management, and nascent coops need support in learning these culture lessons. Traditional VCs usually steer clear of coops, because they are not satisfied with “reasonable returns” — too busy unicorn hunting! Equity crowdfunding and FairShares need wider adoption to solve the funding problem, or growing coops could end up more constrained than enabled by their cooperative status.

EnspiralStocksy and Fairmondo are inspiring advocates of platform cooperativism, but more needs to be done to demystify their operational secret sauce. Cooperative federations seek to educate and nurture members. The Platform Cooperativism Consortium supports all platform coops, CoTechassists cooperatives in the technology sector, and AltGen encourages young people to start coops.

Open 2017 was a great place to meet people who are practising what they preach 🙌 Videos from the event are available on the website. Looking forward to next year!

Startuple is François Hoehl and Sinead Doyle. Find out more at startuple.works

Photo by Anders Adermark

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