= "Can we bring co-operative ownership and governance to the online platforms that we increasingly live by?"
— Nathan Schneider 
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Contextual Citation
- 3 Description
- 4 Typology
- 5 Characteristics
- 6 Examples
- 7 Tools for Commons-Based Platform Cooperatives
- 8 History
- 9 Interview
- 10 Discussion
- 11 More Information
1. " Worker–owned cooperatives could design their own apps-based platforms, fostering truly peer-to-peer ways of providing services and things "
"The solidarity economy is creative and energetic, spawning healthy attitudes toward work and more sustainable forms of financing. But this movement, perhaps because it prioritizes offline essentials like sustainable agriculture, local communities, and alternative energy, has yet to infiltrate the Internet as it should. Members of a food cooperative, for instance, may not notice the contradiction when they keep their files on Google Drive, process their payments with Square, and buy ads on Facebook. For now, these kinds of tools can seem unavoidable, though they need not be. The solidarity economy deserves a solidarity Internet."
- NATHAN SCHNEIDER AND TREBOR SCHOLZ 
“It’s a call to workers, designers, and developers. It’s up to you: the blue pill or, well, you know the Matrix story — the red.
There has been backlash against unethical labor practices in the “collaborative sharing economy” because of an utter lack of concern for the workers.
Take, for example, Uber’s app, with all its geo-location and ride ordering capabilities. Corporate owners and shareholders do not have to be the main benefactors of such platform-based labor brokerage. How to dodge Uber and put a worker-owned cooperative or unionized labor pool in their place?
Imagine, just for one moment, that the algorithmic heart of the citadels of anti-unionism could be cloned and brought back to life under a different ownership model, with fair working conditions, as a humane alternative to the free market model.
Apps-based, worker-owned labor brokerages that allow workers to exchange their labor without the manipulation of the middleman are possible. They are possible for transportation and they are feasible for micro work, specifically on Mechanical Turk and CrowdFlower, as well as other sectors.
Entities like Uber, Ola, TaxiForSure, or Lyft are vulnerable because their technology can be duplicated.
Every Uber has an Unter; every above has a below.
Taxi drivers and technologists can coalesce to build an open source app that equals or outperforms their corporate equivalent. It could offer workers dignity, financial stability, and higher social standards. This is, no doubt, a challenge of a high order.
Developers, in collaboration with local, worker-owner cooperatives can design such a self-contained program for mobile phones, cross-platform of course — Android and iPhone.
I’m suggesting the marriage of badge technology with the marketing of FairTrade coffee. Here, it would not be skills that are certified, but ethical labor conditions. Online, badges could advise consumers that a given platform operates based on ethical labor standards.
Despite its meteoric rise, $300 million in venture capital backing (and its $41 billion evaluation bubble), as well as massive international reach, there is nothing inevitable about Uber becoming the unchallenged winner in that market, on a local level. It’s time intensive and by no means simple, but hey — there is no magic when it comes to software development. Technology is only one part, arguably the smaller part, of the equation. I’m not willing to give an inch to techno-determinism here; platform cooperativism is about apps, yes, but it is mostly about workers organizing in cooperatives, ideally worker-owned. It’s about “apps-workers” — the 21st century solo workers, associating with unions or associations; it’s about innovative forms of worker solidarity that also include design interventions like Turkopticon and Dynamo.
Worker-owned cooperatives could design their own apps-based platforms, fostering truly peer-to-peer ways of providing services and things, and speak alternatives to the new platform capitalists. Cooperative might then be able to use regulatory templates, created by companies like Uber, created at the frontiers of regulation.
Startup hotshots suggest that there is a logical step from the sharing of content through social media to the rental of goods, space, and the provision of transport through de facto labor companies like Feastly, Carpooling, Handy, Kozaza, EatWith, Kitchensurfing, TaskRabbit, and Uber.
The narrative of the sharing economy is incredibly smooth: the aesthetics, design, and algorithms. Neighbors can sell the fruit from the trees in their gardens, you can rent an apartment in Rome, a boat, or tree house or yurt in Redwood Forest. In Berkeley and Oakland, you can pay your neighbor to cook you a wholesome dinner, and now you can even listen to your own Spotify account in an Uber taxi.
Consumers, raised with an appreciation of low prices above all else, welcome many of these market incumbents. And, of course, all of these developments play out against the background of deliberate shockwaves of austerity that followed the 2008 financial crash. The sharing economy is portrayed as harbinger for the post-work society and path to ecologically sustainable capitalism, Google will conquer death itself, and this brave new “disruptive” economy will rid us of Jurassic forms of labor, which might well include what David Graeber refers to as “bullshit jobs.”
But by now, only few people still fall for the solidarity theater of the “disruptive sharing economy,” its deceptive “peer” rhetoric when referring to individual workers and consumers, and its underhanded talk of changing the world (HBO’s Silicon Valley, anyone?).
Occupations that cannot be off-shored, the pet walkers or home cleaners, are now subsumed under platform capitalism. Baby boomers are losing sectors of the economy like transportation, food, and various other services, to millennials who fiercely rush to control demand, supply, and profit by adding a thick icing of business onto apps-based user interactions. Companies like Uber and airbnb are enjoying their Andy Warhol moment, their $15 billion of fame, in the absence of any physical infrastructure of their own. They didn’t build that, not unlike Facebook — they are running on your car, apartment, labor, and importantly, time. They are logistics companies where all participants pay up the middleman: the Financialization of the Everyday v.3.0.
Legacy taxi companies have undoubtedly seen better days. Ride ordering apps are making transportation easier and also bit more accountable as passengers can give dreadful drivers devastating reviews. Some taxi drivers report that they appreciate not having to commit to a company full-time. They enjoy the flexible hours that they cannot get with legacy taxi companies. Ecological concerns about single driver occupancy are also real when thinking about these labor companies. It’s a no-brainer, the medallion system could use an update and at far over $800,000 for a single medallion in New York City, the system is completely impenetrable for taxi associations trying to build a small fleet of their own.
The medallion cartel prevents such worker-owned organizations from taking hold. With innovative ride rental software, organizing the taxi business is easier for the various types of worker cooperatives.” (http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/04/think-outside-the-boss/)
"Trebor offers a series of types of platform coops.
Cooperative online labor brokerages & marketplaces In Germany, Fairmondo started as a global marketplace owned by its users -- like a co-operative ebay. In SF, Loconomics is a freelance co-operative where freelancers have shares and have a voice in running the company.
Produser-Owned Platform Cooperative
These sites, like Resonate (music), Members Media (film), and Stocksy (stock photography), allow producers to co-own the platforms to which they are selling their work. The objective of these co-operatives are to create careers for their producers, who co-own systems.
Trebor notes that even in the US, cities own hotels, hospitals, and many public services. He describes work by Janelle Orsi to imagine publicly-owned platforms: muni-bnb would be a city-owned airbnb system that invests profits into city projects. all-bnb would be modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund and would pay residents for the profits made by sharing hosting. Another idea is the "sharing city" Seoul, who offer a city-operated taxi hailing system.
The California App-Based Drivers Association unionizes drivers who participate in sharing economy platforms. In New Jersey, the Union Taxi Cooperative also operates its own platform.
Cooperatives From Within
Trebor talks about the idea of worker cooperatives forming "in the belly of the sharing economy" if governments decided to break up these monopolies and convert them into co-ops." (http://networkofcenters.net/news/what-platform-cooperativism-and-why-it-important)
More Information via:
- Cooperative Online Labor Brokerages and Marketplaces
- Produser-Owned Platform Cooperatives
- City-Owned Sharing and Exchange Platforms
- Union-Backed Cooperative Platforms
"Below are five things platform coops must do to beat Death Stars platforms.
1. Incubate the Templates
It will take focused, well-resourced, and consistent effort to work out the interrelated legal, financial, and organizational challenges of forming platform coops. Platform coops aren’t an incremental step up from typical startups, they’re a transformational leap. The path is currently uncertain, expensive, and time consuming. For instance, Loconomics has been working on their structure for going on two years, and aren’t even in beta yet. A better way is needed. Platform coops need to face this challenge together with long-term support of a stable anchor institution, like a university. This high barrier to forming platform coops must be lowered or this new movement will die in its crib.
Part of the magic of tech startups is that there’s a well understood organizational structure, financing method, and developmental path for entrepreneurs to use. In other words, there's a template. Platform coops need templates too, but ones which support a diversity of organizational patterns. What’s needed is a small number of incubators in different global cities working together to give birth to the first wave of platform coops. The trick is to get the first few platform coops off the ground, and then develop a global ecosystem that encourages replication of working models across industry verticals and geographies.
2. Offer a better service at a competitive price
Let's not forget business fundamentals. Platform coops must offer a better service at a competitive price to beat Death Stars. A lot hinges on simply executing better day in and day out, but strategy plays a big role too. The key strategic challenge is figuring out how to leverage platform coops’ social mission, democratic structure to help them compete. User ownership and control offers inherent advantages that stem from a more engaging and empowering relationship to other users and the enterprise itself. For instance, platform coops could attract more loyal users at a lower cost than Death Stars by offering user-ownership. All else being equal, user-owners will likely deliver better service than 1099 contractors. Platform coops may be able to create a deeper community experience than Death Stars, which routinely feign community ethos for profit. The social mission of platform coops could help them access less expensive labor and capital like traditional cooperatives. They could also gain a cost advantage by developing a common software infrastructure or using open source platforms by Sharetribe and GNUsocial.
3. Take Cooperation to the Next Level
It goes without saying that platform coops should cooperate, as that is standard operating procedure in the cooperative world. In fact, it's number six of the sector’s widely embraced Rochdale Principles. However, platform coops should take cooperation to the next level to exploit a potentially decisive competitive advantage over Death Stars. Death Stars’ closed nature which make it nearly impossible for them to engage in the deep collaboration between cooperatives seen in regions like Quebec, Canada, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, and Basque Country, Spain. Clusters of small to medium-sized cooperatives in these regions often compete successfully against large multinationals through networking, formal collaborations, and shared infrastructure such as market research centers, banks, and universities. These cooperatives collaborate in a much deeper way than tech companies. In fact, they act almost as if they’re one organism.
Platform coops must act similarly. For examble, the replacement for Airbnb shouldn't be another centralizing global platform even if it's a cooperative. It should be a federation of locally-owned cooperatives that are interconnected technologically (Fairbnb!). GNUsocial's microblogging platform is an example. Each node is on a different server, but users can interact across nodes. The advantage is a much more resilient, user-controlled, distributed infrastructure. At Somero 2015 last month, GNUsocial took a big leap by unveiling the alpha version of a hospitality module called GNUbnb.
Platform coops can share much more than software including data, digital reputation, knowledge, marketing, public relations, legal, lobbying, and physical space. And share all of this on a global basis -- as Michel Bauwens’ open coop proposal advises -- and across industries. Cities should get in on the action too. They should cooperate with each other and with platform coops to mold the sharing economy in the public interest as Janelle Orsi of the Sustainable Economies Law Center recently suggested.
4. Create an Ecosystem to Distribute Wealth
Silicon Valley arguably creates and concentrates more wealth than any place on earth. Behind this phenomenon is a powerful ecosystem that includes Stanford University, the biggest venture capital firms in the world, an enterprising culture, top notch professional services, and more. This ecosystem birthed the Death Stars, and they’ve benefited greatly from it. Platform coops need a similarly powerful ecosystem to compete, but one that distributes wealth instead of concentrating it. That’s a tall order, but platform coops may have natural allies in creating such an ecosystem including city governments, unions, nonprofits, universities, the free and open source software movement, and social investors like credit unions, social venture funds, and foundations. It took many decades for the Silicon Valley “miracle” to unfold. Similarly, it'll take an ecosystem to raise this movement.
5. Build a mass movement
Platform cooperatives have the opportunity to channel the huge amount of negative sentiment around Death Star platforms to power their movement. They can also move into the slipstream of awareness Death Stars are creating about the sharing economy to surge forward. However, the movement must be reframed in at least three ways to take advantage of these powerful forces.
First, platform cooperativism must become a populist, trans-partisan movement. If Platform Cooperativism is the coming out party for the cooperative Internet, then it’s a lopsided one. The guest list reads like the line up for New York City’s liberal all star team. That said, I give them credit for a long list of partners including Shareable. That’s a good start at building a movement; they only need to reach across the aisle more going forward.
Second, it must shift emphasis from moral arguments for platform coops to practical ones which convince ordinary folks that the vision is feasible. Hope is essential! Like traditional cooperatives, platform coops could offer inherent competitive advantages, including superior cost structure, better working conditions, higher pay, better reputations, resilience, and alignment between value creators and rewards. In fact, sharing ownership and control with users may become a necessity, as Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures has argued, for platforms to compete for customers as other advantages are leveled by the market.
Lastly, the emphasis must shift from platform coops formed by providers to a multi-stakeholder model that could include providers, customers, founders, investors, geographic communities, and nature. Provider-driven platform coops are a good start, but they will eventually run into the same problems that arise in any organization when one stakeholder group calls the shots. Investors are a normal part of the mix in traditional coops, so no reason they shouldn’t be here, especially with their power in check as one of many stakeholders.
So an epic choice is before us. Do we accept Death Star platforms’ boring, unresilient, monocultural domination? A domination that will be difficult to shake off once established. A domination that puts the world at each of our individual fingertips while disempowering us collectively. A domination that could permanently damage the richness, resilience, and capacities of our local communities, as Douglas Rushkoff suggests.
Or do we work together to build, as Charles Eisenstein would put it, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible? A world where platform coops manifest the values of the commons in every community. Where our capacity to manage our resources together is deeply respected. Where polycentric control is a given. Where local laws, customs and cultures are honored. Where self-interest and common good are aligned. Where we are truly alive." (http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-platform-coops-can-beat-death-stars-like-uber-to-create-a-real-sharing-economy)
1. Nathan Schneider and Trebor Scholz:
"Over the past few months, we have been preparing a showcase of actually-existing projects that have collective ownership at their core. We will hear, for instance, from the people behind Stocksy, an artist-owned stock-photography website, and Resonate, a cooperative music streaming platform. Backfeed, Swarm, and Consensys will show us the potential of the technology that made Bitcoin possible. We’ll learn about several new platforms that put labor markets under the control of workers themselves." (http://www.thenextsystem.org/the-internet-needs-a-new-economy/)
2. Neal Gorenflo:
"Examples of platform coops abound. A wave is forming, but most examples are brave experiments at best. Shareable’s “Owning is the New Sharing,” lists many examples. There’s Loconomics, the cooperative version of task marketplace TaskRabbit. One of the most successful experiments is Enspiral Network, a New Zealand-based coworking community plus digital collective that allows hundreds of freelancers and social enterprises to work together for mutual benefit. Lazooz is the blockchain version of Uber where drivers mine digital currency by giving rides, while Swarm is the blockchain version of Kickstarter.
These examples represent three common developmental patterns for platform coops. First, there are legally-defined cooperative versions of sharing economy platforms like Loconomics. Second are hybrids like Enspiral Network, which aren’t legally cooperatives but operate on similar principles leveraging digital technology. Then there’s the most scalable option: blockchain-based platform coops like Lazooz. They leverage the same technology Bitcoin uses —a distributed digital ledger—to coordinate, govern, and compensate platform work on a democratic basis.
All of these paths are worth pursuing. As we do this, we must take care not to duplicate the organizational monoculture of Silicon Valley. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this movement will not produce viable competitors quickly. It took Silicon Valley decades to perfect the assembly line manufacture of startups. It shouldn’t take this movement that long, since Silicon Valley has paved much of the way. The movement can artfully adapt Silicon Valley startup methodology, business models, design, and its innovation ecosystem to launch a wave of platform coops." (http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-platform-coops-can-beat-death-stars-like-uber-to-create-a-real-sharing-economy)
Via J.Nathan Mathias' review of Trebor Scholz inaugural lecture at the Platform Cooperativism conference:
- In Germany, Fairmondo started as a global marketplace owned by its users -- like a co-operative ebay.
- In SF, Loconomics is a freelance co-operative where freelancers have shares and have a voice in running the company.
- like Resonate (music),
- Members Media (film), and
- Stocksy (stock photography),
allow producers to co-own the platforms to which they are selling their work. The objective of these co-operatives are to create careers for their producers, who co-own systems.
Trebor notes that even in the US, cities own hotels, hospitals, and many public services. He describes work by Janelle Orsi to imagine publicly-owned platforms: muni-bnb would be a city-owned airbnb system that invests profits into city projects. all-bnb would be modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund and would pay residents for the profits made by sharing hosting. Another idea is the "sharing city" Seoul, who offer a city-operated taxi hailing system.
- The California App-Based Drivers Association unionizes drivers who participate in sharing economy platforms.
- In New Jersey, the Union Taxi Cooperative also operates its own platform.
Tools for Commons-Based Platform Cooperatives
= « We need to pioneer technical, organizational and financial forms that enable users to mutualize the benefits of their own online sharing ».
"Our imaginations and aspirations must begin to shift their focus from open platforms to digital commons. Self-organized commoners must be able to control the terms of their interactions and governance, and to reap the fruits of their own collaboration and sharing.
Towards the CopyFair License
A variety of legal and technological innovations are now starting to address the structural limits of (market-financed) open platforms as vehicles for commoning. These initiatives remain somewhat emergent, yet they are filled with great promise. They aspire to empower digital commoners in resisting market capture and enclosure of their collectively created content, community norms and identity. Corporate platforms privilege the social monoculture of producer/consumer relationships and only those social behaviors that comport with the host-company’s business model (or more generally, with market relationships). By contrast, self-organized commons enable richer, more diverse and meaningful types of freedom and culture.
The basic problem, however, is that digital commons tend to have trouble growing and sustaining themselves. They do not have adequate organizational and governance structures nor adequate financial support. However, a new generation of innovations may help address these problems.
One possibility now being explored, for example, is “commons-based reciprocity licenses,” sometimes known as CopyFair. These proposed licenses based on copyright ownership would allow no-cost sharing among members of a commons, but require payment by any commercial users of the community’s work. The idea is now being developed by Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation and open-agriculture hardware developers, among others. Unlike the Creative Commons NonCommercial license, which absolutely stops commercial development of a line of information or creative work, the CopyFair license would allow commercialization, but on the basis of mandatory (monetized) reciprocity.
The potential of the Blockchain
Another instrument for converting open platforms into digital commons is the blockchain ledger, the software innovation that lies at the heart of Bitcoin. Although Bitcoin itself has been designed to serve familiar capitalist functions (tax avoidance, private accumulation through speculation), the blockchain ledger is significant because it can enable highly reliable, versatile forms of collective action on open networks. It does this by validating the authenticity of a digital object (for now, a bitcoin) without the need for a third-party guarantor such as a bank or government body.
This solves a particularly difficult collective-action problem in an open network context: How do you know that a given digital object — a bitcoin, a legal document, digital certificate, dataset, a vote or digital identity asserted by an individual — is the “real thing” and not a forgery? By using a searchable online “ledger” that keeps track of all transactions (i.e., bitcoins), blockchain technology solves this problem by acting as a kind of permanent record maintained by a vast distributed peer network. This makes it far more secure than data kept at a centralized location because the authenticity of a bitcoin registered among so many nodes in the network is virtually impossible to corrupt.
Because of these capabilities, a recently released report suggests that blockchain technology could provide a critical infrastructure for building what are called “distributed collaborative organizations” (DCO, and sometimes “distributed autonomous organizations”).
These are essentially self-organized online commons. A DCO could use blockchain technology to give its members specified rights within the organization, which could be managed and guaranteed by the blockchain. These rights, in turn, could be linked to the conventional legal system to make the rights legally cognizable and enforceable.
One rudimentary example of how the blockchain might be used to facilitate a commons: In the US, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt has proposed using blockchain technology to create distributed networks of solar power on residential houses coordinated as commons. The ledger would keep track of how much energy a given homeowner generates and shares with others, and consumes. In effect the system would enable the efficient organization of decentralized solar grids and a “green currency” that could serve as a medium of exchange within solar microgrids or networks, helping to propel adoption of solar panels. The blockchain amounts to a network-based architecture for enabling commons-based governance.
This field of experimentation may yield another breakthrough tool for forging digital commons: smart contracts. These are dynamic software modules operating in an architecture of shared protocols (much like TCP/IP or http) that could enable new types of group governance, decision-making and rules-enforcement on open network platforms.
We are already familiar with rudimentary — and corporate-oriented versions — of this idea, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), an encryption/authentication system that gives companies the ability to constrain how users may use their legally purchased technologies (DVDs, CDs, etc.). As the power of networked collaboration has become clear, however, many tech innovators now recognize that the real challenge is not how to lock up and privatize digital artifacts, but how to assure that they can be reliably shared on open platforms in legally enforceable ways, for the benefit of a defined group of contributors or for everyone.
« A realm of software innovation is trying to blend familiar co-operative structures with open network platforms to enable collective deliberation and governance through online systems »
There are now many active efforts underway to devise technical systems for deploying “smart” legal agents whose transactions would also be enforceable under conventional law. The “transactions” could, of course, be used to invent new types of markets, but they also could be used to create new types of commons. Ultimately, the two realms may bleed into each other and create social hybrids that conjoin community commitments and market activity.
A related realm of software innovation is trying to blend familiar co-operative structures with open network platforms to enable collective deliberation and governance — “commoning” — through online systems. Some of the more notable experiments include Loomio, DemocracyOS and LiquidFeedback. Each of these seeks to enable members of online networks to carry on direct, sustained and somewhat complicated discussions, and then to clarify group sentiment and reach decisions that participants see as binding, legitimate and meaningful.
Networks of peer producers
In a natural extension of such capacities, “open value networks” (OVN) are attempts to enable bounded networks of participants to carry out crowdfunding, crowdsourcing of knowledge, co-budgeting among its identifiable members. “Open value networks” such as Enspiral and Sensorica have been described as an “operating system for a new kind of organization” and a “pilot project for the new economy.” OVNs consist of digital platforms that facilitate new modes of decentralized and self-organized social governance, production and livelihoods among members of distinct communities. The networks are organized in ways that let anyone to contribute to the project, and be rewarded based on their contributions, as measured by actual contributions, experience and other collectively determined criteria.
Unlike “conventional commons” that tend to eschew market-based activity, open value networks have no reservations about engaging with markets; OVNs simply wish to maintain their organizational and cultural integrity as commons-based peer producers. This means open, horizontal and large-scale cooperation and coordination; responsible stewardship of the shared wealth and assets while allowing individual access, use, authorship and ownership of resources “where appropriate”; careful accounting of individual “inputs and outcomes” via a common ledger system; and the distribution of fair rewards based on individual contributions to the project. Some notable keywords for describing OVNs: equipotentiality, anti-credentialism, self-selection, communal validation and holoptism.
As mentioned earlier, these initiatives to create new technical, organizational and financing for platform cooperativism are still emerging and debated in meetings as the one taking place soon in New York City. They will require further experimentation and development to make them fully functional and scalable. Yet they promise to provide attractive, potentially breakthrough alternatives to business-driven platforms that stipulate the terms of participation and do not facilitate the mutualized benefit among commoners. By providing more trustworthy systems for genuine commoning and user sovereignty and control, these new forms could soon enable digital commons — and hybrid forms of user-driven markets — to surpass the value-creating capacities of conventional open platforms." (http://openthoughts-peerproduction.blogs.uoc.edu/the-shift-from-open-platforms-to-digital-commons/)
Nathan Schneider responds to Imperica:
- You have been influential in developing the term and concept of platform co-operatives. Why did you feel like it was the right moment to do this?
NS: "My colleague Trebor Scholz first coined the term in December 2014. That same month, I published a report with Shareable about entrepreneurs around the world who were already trying to build platforms based on shared ownership and governance. There was already something in the air. By that point, many people who had been excited about the prospects of the so-called "sharing economy" were starting to realize that there wasn't much actual sharing going on, and that in many cases workers were expected to work without the basic protections—stability, benefits, a living wage—that their predecessors had won through centuries of struggle. The striking Uber drivers; the protests against Google buses in San Francisco; the Snowden revelations — these are all signs, I think, that we need a new social contract for the online economy. And rather than just saying "no," to the emerging platform society, we need something to say "yes" to." (https://www.imperica.com/en/in-conversation-with/co-operatives-aren-t-co-operatives-unless-they-co-operate-with-each-other)
Nathan Schneider on Platform Cooperativism and its Prospects
From an interview with Imperica:
- Internet marketplaces often tend towards monopolies. Is the future of platform co-operatives in opening up new sectors for operation, or in displacing established players from existing sectors?
NS: I'm starting to think that we need a new generation of law and custom for dealing with these rising online monopolies. The old trust-busting logic doesn't really make sense; Facebook and Google, for instance, are so useful to us because they're so ubiquitous. Rather than breaking them up, or regulating them so intensely that they can't innovate, perhaps the most responsible option is to create pathways toward more democratic ownership. Governments, and companies themselves, might help to finance fair buyouts that grant users the ownership stake they need to ensure, for instance, that their personal data is being used responsibly. In some cases, it may be possible for co-operative startups to displace incumbents. But where that is not possible, we should consider strategies for transition.
- Companies like Uber and Airbnb are in the news a lot, often because of disputes. What do you think the near future is like for these the dominant platforms?
NS: I don't like to make predictions; the past and present are hard enough to understand already. But it does appear that cities around the world are testing out different strategies for retaining some meaningful control over the impacts of these companies on their economies. I hope this can be an opportunity for innovation, not just reaction. And, I think that co-operative business models should be part of this innovation. Some communities are already experimenting with co-operative taxi networks as an alternative to Uber - including in Colorado, where I live - and local alternatives to Airbnb. One way or another, it would be very troubling to see global logistics handed over monopolies owned and controlled by unaccountable founders and investors. These alternatives are incredibly important.
* Historically, co-operatives have done well in areas such as retail and capital-intensive small-scale business. What do you think are the promising sectors for a take-over by platform co-operatives?
NS: Compared to the industries of a generation or a century ago, online platforms need less startup capital. The trouble is, they're often riskier. Sharing platforms that depend on connecting people, rather than operating factories or maintaining large workforces, seem like they could be well-suited to shared ownership among the people they connect. I'm particularly interested in identifying ways in which co-operative models can be more competitive than the investor-owned incumbents. Labour platforms like Uber and social platforms like Facebook, for instance, depend on maintaining centralized, one-size-fits-all tools, and they often rely on pretty creepy forms of surveillance for revenue.
Co-operatives might be able to find better revenue models through the trust their members have in them; regional co-ops could also work together by sharing open-source software—introducing global efficiencies while keeping profits local. Co-operatives have long specialized in meeting challenges that capital markets don't serve, and I'm eager to see how this can transform the landscape of the Internet, rather than merely replacing the existing one.
- In response to the concept of platform co-operatives, some say it will be impossible to develop platforms that are comparable to the current commercial ones, without having extensive profit-oriented investment. What do you think are the constraints specific to co-operatives organisations when building platforms?
NS: First, again, I think we should be aspiring to platforms that are better than the existing ones, not merely comparable replacements. To do this, we'll need better forms of financing. Co-ops represent an opportunity for a "crowdfunding 2.0," based not just on donations and advance sales, but on genuine shared ownership.
Historically, when co-ops have acheived some success in a region, they set up their own co-operative financial institutions with the know-how and business models to serve them. Already, a few promising experiments in platform co-op financing are underway.
* What do you think the role of the state or local government should be in supporting platform co-operatives?
NS: Governments already make extractive business far easier than it should be, and they should recognize the need to make co-operative business at least as easy. It's in their interest because co-ops, unlike investor-owned corporations, keep jobs and profits (and thus tax revenues) local. Firstly, officials can work with co-op developers to design laws that make the process of incorporating co-ops easy and flexible. Secondly, they can ensure that co-ops are part of their overall economic development strategy and have fair access to contracts for public infrustructure. Thirdly, they can create incentives, or even requirements, for platforms providing public services in their area to practice appropriately democratic ownership and governance.
We've already seen some encouraging interest from public officials who are looking for a better option than simply trying (and failing) to say "no" to Airbnb and Uber. Platform co-operativism is something to say "yes" to.
* You are co-founder of Internet of Ownership, a project that aims to map the ecosystem of platform co-ops. How widespread would you say the phenomena is in the US? Are there any interesting examples that you would like to highlight?
NS: Already, many of the most promising examples are outside my country. Stocksy United, a stock-photo website owned by photographers, is based in Canada. Fairmondo, an online marketplace owned by its vendors, started in Germany and is now spreading to the UK. Great things are also happening in the US, especially thanks to the work of the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland and the Tech Co-op Network.
I suspect that the US might lag behind a bit, since our tech scene is so awash in venture capital. And this wouldn't be a bad thing; I hope that platform co-operativism can usher in a more truly global tech economy.
* What differences are there between the US and Europe in the opportunities and challenges for platform co-operatives?
NS: Probably more of my thinking about the prospects of this model came from inspiration I found in Europe than what I've come across in the United States. In the U.S. there's a wide gulf between entrepreneurs and activists for economic justice; they don't speak the same language, and that makes for a rigid divide between the builders and the resisters. In Europe, I've found it much easier to meet people who have both a rigorous analysis of economic injustice and the know-how for creating practical alternatives. That's a fearsome combination. And if we can work together across borders, I bet the American propensity for throwing out old rulebooks will come in handy as well.
- Is the future of platform co-operatives in the post-industrial developed countries, or in building offerings in developing countries?
NS: Both, I hope. A big question for me is to figure out how to expand this work into hardware co-operativism, call-center co-operativism, and more. We need to account for how global our technology is already. Rather than disguising that globalism, as the dominant tech industry does so well, an imperative for platform co-operativism is to build solidarity. Co-operatives aren't co-operatives unless they cooperate with each other." (https://www.imperica.com/en/in-conversation-with/co-operatives-aren-t-co-operatives-unless-they-co-operate-with-each-other)
Multi-Stakeholder Cooperatives as the key structure for Platform Cooperatives
Maurie J. Cohen:
"In moving toward platform cooperativism, the availability of open-source software like Sharetribe, which enables social entrepreneurs to easily create new sharing networks is likely to be an important new development.
While this idea is unquestionably laudable, there is opportunity to push it a little further. Why limit cooperation only to producers while implicitly treating consumers as little more than a mass of aggregate demand? Why elevate workers over their customers when the distinction is artificial and rarely static? A more creative and ambitious application of platform cooperativism would embrace consumers as co-equals and seek to formulate novel business models that span production and consumption. The uniting of these two domains would dissolve predispositions that treat buyers and sellers as rivals rather than allies, prioritize return on investment rather than solidarity, and emphasize value appropriation rather than community improvement.
In the non-digital world, so-called multi-stakeholder cooperatives that combine producers and consumers are starting to emerge, especially in conjunction with local food movements. A prominent example is Eroski, a subsidiary of the venerable Mondragon Corporation, which operates more than 1,000 supermarkets in Spain. The Weaver Street Market is a worker- and consumer-owned cooperative based in North Carolina that runs three stores specializing in organic produce and fair trade products, as well as a restaurant. Applying this hybrid approach to a revivified sharing economy would involve the payment of an annual subscription fee by consumer-owners who would then be entitled to a predetermined number of, say, taxi trips or overnight stays provided by their producer-owner colleagues. Since few people are exclusively producers or consumers, affiliation with a multi-stakeholder cooperative would facilitate seamless shifts between roles. On some days, a particular member would find herself working as a producer and on others she would be consuming goods or services provided by the mutual association.
A sharing economy that apportioned control to both producers and consumers instead of platform investors could also help to move us toward a more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable future. Let me first make an obvious point. Consumerist lifestyles in affluent countries are driven more by a quest for social distinction than by a desire to satisfy biophysical needs. (This does not discount the existence of perverse inequalities due to political circumstances.) An emergent body of research suggests that involvement in more solidaristic modes of production suppresses status competition by orienting people toward less individualistic aspirations. If correct, participation in a producer-consumer cooperative could be a useful way to reduce outsized consumption that is impelled largely by cultural imperatives.
Moreover, the antagonism between producers and consumers that is inherent in predominant systems of exchange frequently results in consumption in excess of genuine needs -- often through the use of tempting volume discounts and the manufacture of goods that become prematurely obsolete. By stressing their continuously shifting -- and oftentimes reciprocal -- relationships, producer-consumer cooperatives could bring the intentions of production and consumption into closer alignment.
It also merits noting that to be successful, producer-consumer cooperatives would need to resist powerful impulses to expand their scale by pushing down the retail cost of the goods and services on offer. While lower prices are attractive from the standpoint of consumption, they undermine the livelihoods of producers. In the business-as-usual economy, workers at the lower rungs of the economic ladder are more vulnerable to continual pressure to cut prices. There is also the problem of perverse rebound effects as lower expenditures in one product category almost always increase demand for other items (unless one also proportionately works less, deposits the difference in a non-lending financial institution, or sets fire to the surplus cash). A cooperative ownership model where producers and consumers are equally empowered and, ideally, difficult to differentiate because they are regularly swapping responsibilities, should help to discourage these untoward outcomes.
As we consider options to overhaul the sharing economy so that it enhances rather than weakens social cohesion, it is important not to set producers against consumers as, after all, the distinction is predicated on pretense. Normal routines require continuous rotation of roles and we should not fall back on outmoded commitments that privilege the sphere of production as the only reliable driver of social change." (http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-platform-cooperativism-can-accelerate-sustainable-consumption)
What might a driver-owned Uber look like?
Excerpted from Nic Wistreich:
“There’s at least three options…
1. Like Uber/Lyft/etc, but a giant Coop.
A logical starting point would be simply to recreate Uber/Lyft/etc, with their global network of offices, drivers, marketing and technical infrastructure, as a driver-owned coop, operating either non-profit or with its profits distributed amongst drivers. It would need to be a large, well financed (Uber has raised $7bn over 12 rounds https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/uber), dynamic organisation with a legal and customer service team in every country it operated in.
A single-coop competitor is appealing at first because it would be easier to manage, brand and offer users quality assurance. It would however require a commonly agreed-upon set of regulations and pricing, which every taxi would have to follow, so would have considerable power to set pricing and behaviour amongst its members. This inevitably would run against national and regional differences between taxi services. Internal voting and localised rules could mitigate some of this, but given there are no successful giant democratic coops working on an Uber scale of 160,000+ drivers to hold as an example, there’s a reasonable risk it would become as unaccountable and top-down as any large business. It would still create a monopoly with the potential to be restrictive for users and drivers in demanding a one-size-fits all set of rules. Given how much money it would require to get started it would also have a number of investors doubtless wishing to influence direction.
This isn’t to say such a structure couldn’t work, but by centring so much potential power, it seems to miss many of the advantages of networked systems, including greater competition and opportunities for innovation.
- 2. A federation of existing taxi companies all funding and using the same software
Another approach would be to build on existing taxi companies who already have relationships with drivers?—?and often leasing agreements and insurance schemes around their fleet of cars. This would both distribute more control out beyond the central coop, responsible for creating software, and work to build upon an existing networks, brands and services, rather than trying to throw them all out of business.
The coop in this instance would produce ‘white label’ software to manage drivers and payments for each of the companies, and also a single app which the user downloads. At this point either all the companies in each city and region would need to agree on and use the same prices, or the app would need to indicate that different cars were from different companies and had different prices. By letting each taxi company set their own prices this would create greater potential for competition and variation?—?car company X with the older cars is 20% cheaper than taxi firm Y which only has recent Sedans, while company Z has 100% electric fleet of Tesla cars.
As well as offering more choice and competition, it also removes from the main coop the burden of verifying and approving new driver’s identifies or providing customer service. It is more closer to an infrastructure, software-as-service company, serving it’s members, who are all established companies. On a simple level, this already exists?—?a company like Mowares offers an Uber clone from $400 http://venturebeat.com/2014/09/11/yes-a-build-your-own-uber-for-x-kit-costs-only-400/. What a coop?—?owned by all the local taxi companies paying for installs?—?could further do, is ensure that each install could communicate with each other and produce a single app for users to download that connected them to all of their local taxi companies.
However this fails to liberate drivers from the middle-man, the taxi company, an extra cost which Uber has removed. Part of Uber’s success is replacing the expense of taxi offices, switchboards and phone receptions with software, and thus reducing the cost of journeys. So this coop model may always end up more expensive than Uber or Lift as it needs to pay both driver, the coop producing the software/service and the taxi companies representing the driver. While some companies, such as executive car services, with account management, may offer sufficient value to justify the added cost, it’s hard to imagine the cost-conscious end of the market acting in the same way. It also doesn’t help the driver who, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to join the local taxi-company, which may be an issue in areas where there is only one taxi service?—?nor does it help the end user discriminate between a taxi company with a great reputation and one with far worse service.
However, a service which lets drivers register directly has a greater administrative burden, and legal liability, around verifying drivers and their licensed vehicles. To do this job well it ends up becoming much closer to the first option above.
All that I’ve read and my thinking for most of the summer seems to move between these two models?—?either a large centralised coop that verifies individuals who join up but that risks being undemocratic, or a more decentralised, federated system that only works with companies who in turn take responsibility for driver management and verification.” (https://medium.com/@netribution/db6ce8ba3fdb)
The Las Indias / Nathan Schneider controversy
Las Indias, a collective of cooperators in Spain, has written a critique of platform coops as a weak response to current challenges. We republished the text in our blog and you can find the original post in Las Indias’ website here.
At the P2P Foundation, we rejoice and support the platform cooperativist movement, as a movement that commonifies the proprietary platforms that are exploiting commoners in their exchanges, though we call more explicitly for open cooperatives, that more actively and consciously produce shareable resources. But Nathan Schneider makes the argument that many platform coops have dynamics that already incorporate a commons and community direction.
The summary of Nathan’s counter-arguments are the following:
"The line between consumer and productive cooperation need not be so stark, either in the modern offline co-op movement or (especially) on online platforms that blur the lines between producer and consumer. While it’s true that consumer co-ops often involve low member engagement, this is certainly not always the case (e.g. Park Slope Food Co-op) and it is not always bad.
Most platform co-ops are using multistakeholder models, not pure consumer models. I explained this with the example of Stocksy, again, and described the community that takes place on the platform. I agree with the point about seeking more decentralized models. But I hardly think that GNU Social demonstrates that the world can immediately embrace them. (I also pointed out, perhaps unkindly, the slowness of the Las Indias website.) But in order to develop more decentralized models, we need to develop stepwise economies, and I believe platform co-ops are a step in the right direction."
Here is what Nathan Schneider, who co-organized the Platform Cooperative conferences, wrote in response on the blog itself, before it was deleted:
“First of all, I think your effort to drive a stark line between consumer and worker cooperation is a fool’s errand. It’s true that in the late 19th century and early 20th, much of the British and American cooperative movements became dogmatic about consumer cooperation or nothing—figures like George Holyoake (in the UK) and JP Warbasse (in the US). But at the same time in the US, for instance, producer cooperatives became an enormous part of the sector as well, and the current cooperative movement involves considerable cooperation among both consumer and producer cooperatives, such as through the NCBA in the US and the financial institutions that support them. When I was at the ICA global summit last year, I met people from a huge variety of cooperative organizations—worker, credit, consumer, producer, the works. So I think you’re quite out of date in claiming that the lines are so stark. And while it’s true that many consumer co-ops have low rates of participation, that’s no reason to dismiss them; I for one am glad I don’t have to spend a lot of time going to my credit union’s meetings. On the other hand, examples like the Park Slope Food Co-op in New York demonstrate that high-participation consumer cooperative is very possible in certain cases.
All the more so in the platform co-op community. As Trebor and I have repeatedly argued, and as empirical evidence supports, platform co-ops tend to recognize the ways in which online networks tend to blur the lines between worker, producer, and consumer. Many of the new generation of platform co-ops are multi-stakeholder; Stocksy United, which I mentioned earlier, has member classes for producers (photographers), workers (employees), and founders. So, no—you are incorrect in claiming that we are merely talking about consumer cooperation. I would argue that in large part platform cooperativism is about shifting the consumer-as-product model of the corporate online economy to one of peer-producer-as-owner.
How does this produce community? All sorts of ways. Stocksy United has a member back-end for members to discuss issues with each other and get to know each other. They produce beautiful annual reports for each other. I’m a member of MayFirst, a server collective, and love the fact that I can get to know other members and our administrators at virtual and physical meetings. Through platform cooperativism, I’ve gotten to know countless people all over the world; just got off a call with a cooperator in Greece. We’re all building an ecosystem together and learning to be accountable to each other. That’s how.
While I do think cooperative bureaucracies can indeed be pernicious, I don’t think that’s a reason to dismiss these models, because they can certainly be mitigated. And they are far less demanding and self-serving than corporate executive compensation regimes. While I would love to see distributed architectures take flight, it seems to me that we’re not fully there yet; this has been quite apparent to me, for instance, in trying to have this conversation across Las Indias’ incredibly slow, centrally hosted WordPress instance. GNU Social is indeed a model with potential—I’m currently working on a model for decentralized cloud services myself—but we would be kidding ourselves to think that these tools have the capacity or economy right now to replace other models, unfortunately. There is more work to be done, more creative compromises and experiments necessary—the very kinds of experiments that your rhetoric seeks to squash.” (no longer available via https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/nathan-schneider-defense-platform-cooperativism-responding-las-indias-critique/2017/02/01)
- a lot of related project material has been collated by Dante Monson, see Platform Cooperativism Projects
- conference: http://platformcoop.net/
- Trebor Scholz, “Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy” (December 5, 2014)
- Nathan Schneider, “Owning Is the New Sharing,” Shareable (December 21, 2014)
- Janelle Orsi, Frank Pasquale, Nathan Schneider, Pia Mancini, Trebor Scholz, “5 Ways to Take Back Tech,” The Nation (May 27, 2015)
Replacing Uber with Cooperative Ridesharing and Taxi Platforms
Compiled by Nathan Schneider :
- Ackerman, Seth. “How to Socialize Uber.” Jacobin. April 7, 2015. 
- Alexandria Union Cab Cooperative 
- Cassano, Jay. “Taxis Unite: Denver Taxi Drivers Are Forming Their Own Cooperatives.” FastCoExist. February 4, 2015. 
- DePillis, Lydia. “Can taxi unions build an app to take on Uber?.” The Washington Post. January 19, 2015.
- Flywheel, an app for traditional taxi companies 
- Hansen, Mary. “What If Uber Were a Unionized, Worker-Owned Co-Op? These Denver Cabbies Are Making It Happen.” YES! Magazine. April 10, 2015. 
- Harris, Kyle. “Cabby-owned Taxi Cooperatives on the Rise.” Shareable. January 5, 2015. 
- “Montgomery County Council Approves Bills to Improve Taxi Service, Compete With Companies Like Uber.” NBC Washington. July 21, 2015. 
- RideWith: Teig, Amir. “Google's Waze to launch worldwide carpooling pilot in Israel.” Haaretz. July 6, 2015. 
- Shu, Catherine. “Korea’s Daum Kakao Prepares To Launch Kakao Taxi As Uber Faces Legal Woes.” TechCrunch. January 13, 2015. 
- Transunion Car Service - app-based in Newark, NJ :
- Delli Santi, Angela. “From Organizing to Mobilizing: United Transportation Alliance Launches App-Based Taxi Service.” AFL-CIO Now. March 25, 2015.
- Nix, Naomi. “Union-backed taxi service starts in Newark, amid regulatory debate about Uber.” NJ.com. March 20, 2015.