Back in 2008 we did a piece of work that looked at the potential for developing cooperative business models in the digital space. It didn't take long to recognise not only that was there a natural fit - Web 2.0 was happening all around us and user generated content was the order of the day - but that there was a largely untapped and substantial potential. As it happened, the timing wasn't right, and the paper was shelved, but not forgotten.
In recent months a number of factors have given us cause to dust off that piece of work and take a fresh look:
- The so-called "sharing" economy is taking off. Barely a day goes by when we aren't hearing about Airbnb, Uber or another patform. On the face of it these businesses are disruptive and enabling. They allow end users to make a little extra or maybe save a little by renting out their car or their house. But they aren't really anything to do with sharing, and the label is something of a misnomer.
- The Peer To Peer community is kicking back against this appropriation of the sharing economy social brand by what is in fact nothing more than the latest flavour of extractive capitalism. You have to admit its a neat trick. Uber is making money out of your car, Airbnb is making money out your house, Facebook is making money out of your content. Whilst the platform might provide a direct link between driver and rider, neither of them has any real influence in terms of an ownership stake or a say in how the platform is run.
- The rise of the blockchain is fascinating to watch. Essentially a distributed database collectively authenticated by every node that holds a copy of it, blockchain technology rose to fame as the thing that underpins Bitcoin, and indeed all other cryptocurrencies. It's what else can be done with the blockchain that is really getting people excited at the moment - the idea of using the same technology to support voting, legal agreements between parties, messaging, trading, in fact any sort of transaction. If you are thinking, as we are, about how you might efficiently organise and run a massive scale global cooperative organisation, then the blockchain has a lot of appeal.
- The continuing lack of true cooperative platforms in the sharing economy is a real cause for concern. Although the sharing economy is still young and there is no doubt a long way to go yet before it runs out of steam, there are precious few, if any, cooperative platforms operating in this space, or indeed in the whole online arena. We think that a key reason for this is the lack of access to the finance needed to build and market real cooperative platforms. But there are signs that this might be changing. Traditionally cooperatives have had a hard time hiring capital. Capital owners commonly want a seat at the table, which - in a conventional employee-owned cooperative at least - isn't an option. But with a multi-stakeholder approach it is possible to accommodate investors alongside other types of stakeholders, and balance - even align - their interests. The recently developed FairShares model looks particluarly promising in this respect.
So, with these things in mind, what are we looking to establish?
We've called it the Innovation Cooperative, and for the simple reason that it will provide a space, online and off, where ideas can come together with the people, the skills, the infrastructure and the resources (including finance) to develop, hone and bring them to fruition, all within a trusted, mutually supportive environment where the platform itself is collectively owned and run by all the people that are involved.
You might think of it in terms of a hackspace or fablab or even a co-working hub. It's all of these things. Its a cooperative incubator, an open cooperative development agency whose role, in part at least, is to provide everything that's needed to generate, launch and support successful cooperative platforms that can compete effectively in the market and cater to a diverse range of needs using an ethical framework that places a strong emphasis on ecological sustainability.
We are working to bring together the people, skills, and resources required. We're going to need advisors, developers, designers, marketeers, event organisers, legal experts, accountants, etc. We're looking to build a network of people and organisations who are passionate about the need to build a new economy - one that puts people and planet first, and which has the commons at its heart. To get involved get in touch.