On 17 September 2011, a protest began in Zuccotti Park, in New York’s Wall Street financial district. Over a thousand people came to occupy the space, armed with tents and a collective anger against global social and economic inequality – inspired by, among other things, the Arab Spring, worldwide anti-austerity protests and a call to action from Canadian anti-consumerist collective Adbusters.
The protesters were forced out of the park two months later, but Occupy Wall Street – and its slogan “We are the 99%” – received global attention. A movement was born.
The Occupy movement is still active, with its primary goal to campaign for new forms of democracy to usher in social and economic justice. One of these new democratic forms has emerged in the shape of Loomio, a worker co-operative that has created an online space for groups to make decisions together in a non-hierarchical way.
Based in Wellington, New Zealand, Loomio is one of the “golden children” of the Occupy movement, providing an online decision-making space to “make democracy easier”, says co-founder Rich Bartlett.
The idea developed after Rich, Jon Lemmon and Ben Knight – who were participating in Occupy Wellington in October 2011 – began talking about the idea of general assemblies online. A month later they met with Enspiral, a network of social enterprise ventures and social entrepreneurs, to discuss potential collaboration.
“As activists, our experience of non-hierarchical decision-making had been both inspirational and frustrating,” says Rich.
“We met with a shared language and a shared problem – how to work with no boss, and how to do that without spending your life in meetings. So we thought, ‘we’ll occupy that niche and create a way to help any group wanting to make decisions democratically’.”
Enspiral gave the group an office, connections and entrepreneurial skill. Then, after a year of being “hopeful volunteers” funded by “enthusiasm and optimism”, Loomio formalised into a legal structure.
It set up crowdfunding campaigns and last year issued redeemable investment shares (with no governance associated); it is now on track with a sustainable revenue stream.
“It was obvious that the co-operative model was the one that resonated with us and what we wanted to do,” says Rich. “Loomio is a worker co-operative at the moment, but in the future we want to be a multi-stakeholder co-op with user representation on the board.”
On a practical level, Loomio is an open-source web application that enables people to set up a digital space where people can gather together, share information and discuss ideas.
These discussions can lead onto a proposal built through a shared understanding of a topic, which can be voted on. The end result is a clear outcome and course of action, decided democratically.
A different way of working
“People want a good news story out of Occupy,” says Rich. “People have an appetite for it – they are drawn into this different, democratic way of working.
“People are kind of aware that there is a different way of working than the venture capital-backed, hyper-extractive, alienating forms of work. People know that’s not the only action, but don’t know where to go from there.”
Four years in, Loomio is thriving and, according to Rich, is “doing things differently in a way that others can learn from”. To that end, this year the co-op published the Loomio Co-operative Handbook.
“The Handbook draws a line in the sand that says ‘look, there are people doing that. It’s written down, here’s the evidence that it’s possible’,” says Rich.
“It’s a milestone on a journey towards radical transparency and action.”
The primary audience of the handbook is Loomio’s worker-members, but the secondary audience is anyone who wants to organise without conflict.
As well as looking at the purpose and vision of the co-operative, the handbook describes how members work together, from practically getting things done (three-year strategies, three-month planning, two-week sprints, embracing agile strategies) to how members look out for each other through a stewarding system.
The co-op is now working on trying to to make some of these principles even more digestible for those interested.
Rich says there is “something magical [about] working in a peer-to-peer non hierarchical way” but fears this has always been reserved for people who already have that privilege. Loomio hopes the Handbook will change that.
“[What we’ve been doing] feels good, but it doesn’t affect the world,” he adds. “If we can start translating that to other contexts, that will make a real difference.”
This difference is starting to happen. It’s been used by activists on the front lines in Syria, the New Zealand government, the National Assembly for Wales, the New England Institute of Technology and a bilingual dog-walking co-operative in New York, to name a few.
The UK’s SolidFund, a grassroots commonwealth fund for worker co-op members, is also a fan. Members pay a minimum of £1, which is then put towards worker co-operative education, development and growth.
“We have around 400-450 members from all over the UK, and it’s very rare to get all of them together in one place,” says John Atherton, a SolidFund member. “Loomio provides a really good solution for members to get together online, have a discussion and make decisions in a very participative way.”
All the decisions the co-op makes are within Loomio, from the mundane to the difficult, from purchasing decisions to deciding which initiatives to fund to help further the worker co-operative cause.
“It helps us cut costs and it helps the environment because we meet less in person. It really is the heart of our co-operative.”
A co-operative platform
As well as Occupy, Loomio is closely aligned with the Platform Cooperatives movement, an emerging movement for democratic governance and collective ownership on the internet for a fairer future of work.
“People are inspired by the potential of technology to change things, but are disillusioned with the Silicon Valley approach,” says Rich.
“Technology is great, but we need to have a bit of consciousness, and draw on the history of Marxism, feminism, co-operativism, unionism … the intersection of technology and the decentralising power is what we’re interested in.”
While some people are concerned over platform co-operatives’ use of the word co-op without ‘official’ affiliation to the global movement, Rich believes the opportunity platform co-ops afford should be embraced.
“Words are important – I understand to a certain extent why people don’t want [the term ‘co-operative’] to be co-opted like ‘green’ and ‘share’ have,” he says, “but on the other hand, I believe platform co-ops exceed any other movement in bringing people together under well-defined umbrella.”
Rich believes anyone interested in democracy needs to “appreciate the momentum and the opportunity” platform co-ops provide, and how technology can be used utilised to help make organisation function more democratically.
“We’re not techno-determinist,” he says, “we can’t employ technology to magically fix engagement issues.
“Loomio won’t replace face to face meetings – but it can make democracy easier.”
- To find out more about Loomio and how it can help co-operative decision-making, visit loomio.org.