Jeremy Rifkin: Co-ops will be the idea venue to scale the digital revolution

Economist Jeremy Rifkin presented a stark picture of life over the next eight decades, but he is also optimistic about people’s ability to use co-ops to develop new...

Economist Jeremy Rifkin presented a stark picture of life over the next eight decades, but he is also optimistic about people’s ability to use co-ops to develop new economies for a better, more inclusive and environmentally friendly future.

Prof Rifkin thinks the economic model resulting from the second industrial revolution is no longer viable and says countries must redirect their economies to restore growth and employment.

He has written 20 books on the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, society and environment, and has advised the European Parliament, the European Commission and various other heads of state.

Speaking at a lunch event at the International Summit of Cooperatives, Prof Rifkin looked at how the development of renewable energy initiatives, technological advances and the emergence of an economy based on the sharing of goods, spaces and tools will drastically reduce the margin cost of production.

But he warned that a new economic model was vital if the world was to deal with its growing environmental crisis.

“Scientists are telling us that we are in the sixth extinction on life on earth,” he warned. “We had five over the last 450 million years and each time it was a turning point in chemistry of planet. It took 10 million years to get new life back on it.

“In the next eight decades, based on current projections, we will lose over half of species of life on planet. The last time that happened was 65 million years ago.

“We have an economic structure, it’s global, we now have to ask the question – can human species survive the next eight decades? What do we do? We need a new economic vision for the world and it has to be very compelling and quick.”

He said climate change was disrupting the water cycle on the planet and would result in extreme weather phenomena such as droughts and hurricanes.

“We have four decades to get off fossil fuels and move on to a completely new economic system,” he said, encouraging co-ops to use their one billion members from across the world to drive change.

Prof Rifkin believes economic periods in history share three common characteristics: new communication technologies, new sources of energy and new models of mobility and transport to move economic life.

Asked by Angela Merkel how to transform the German economy, he pointed out that the infrastructure used at the time had already reached its peak in productivity. Since then, Germany has been on a journey to promote renewables and digital technology.

But the third industrial revolution carries challenges of its own, he added, warning that governments could use legislation for political purposes and big communication and social companies could monopolise the commercial game.

Data security is another issue. “This technology has a dark time, we need to build resilience into the system,” he said, and urged co-ops to use their .coop domain and create their own algorithms and apps to make the most of members’ data in an ethical way.

“You go from seller-buyer to provider-user on low margins,” he said, pointing to a sharing economy with three billion young people active online, producing and sharing music, books and videos.

Furthermore, the big energy companies now face competition from small players creating electricity co-ops, he said.

“This isn’t theory, this is practice. This is your new constituency, the digital, millennial revolution.”

Prof Rifkin believes digital co-ops will spread across different sectors, particularly because the new sharing economy resonates with the seven co-operative principles.

“Why can’t co-ops say to the one billion members, ‘Why don’t we set up a Facebook or establish a Google; why aren’t we on Twitter or developing platforms in transport?’

“We need a new co-op movement to bring together this one billion people.”

It is also important to bring an older generation of co-operators, with their experience and knowledge, closer to young people interested in the sharing economy or involved in technology and digital platforms, he said.

“With social media it is possible for a new generation of co-ops to move quickly if they have a new idea. You have one billion people and also banking co-ops, agricultural, manufacturing co-ops.

“You have all industries, people and the appropriate form – democratic, open, distributive, transparent, to distribute that.

“Co-ops will be the energy producers in the 21st century in Europe. This is a very fortunate moment in time. Co-ops will be the idea venue to scale this new digital revolution.”

  • For more of our coverage of the International Summit of Co-operatives, visit
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