Fledgling platform co-ops share experiences at Unfound accelerator event

Apex body Co-operatives UK and community organisation Stir to Action are working on the development project

As the rise of digital continues to reshape the economy, representatives from a new generation of democratically owned online platforms met in Salford for discussion and mentoring.

The event was part of the UnFound accelerator project, organised by apex body Co-operatives UK and community organisation Stir to Action. It comes at a time when digital companies are monopolising key sectors – while labour platforms such as Uber are sparking concern over their employment practices.

Unfound – a strand of Co-operatives UK’s national co-op development strategy – offers early stage platform co-ops a series of masterclasses, expertise from a team of mentors, peer-to-peer support, and training to present pitches at a live crowdfunding event.

Three of the projects will be chosen in the first week in June to pitch for funding at Co-operative Congress, organised by Co-operatives UK in London on 23 June.

Among those attending the Unfound event at MediaCity on 8 May, was Tom Barlow from The Media Fund, which has brought together more than 30 media organisation to advocate and share resources.

Mr Barlow said changes to the newspaper industry had undermined wages and job security, while the need for news organisations to make money from free online content had created a “clickbait culture”.

To challenge this, he wants to create a democratic shared platform and pool resources such as HR and accounting – important because “journalists are not good at being business people” and need their time freeing up to allow them to focus on the important newsgathering part of their work.

Mark Walton, of Shared Assets, a social enterprise which works to find collaborative and sustainable ways of managing parks, woodlands, waterways and green space, says another key contemporary issue is getting access to land. To that end, Shared Assets has developed Land Explorer, a mapping platform that gathers data from sources such as Ordnance Survey, the Land Registry and Defra to create a map, which would allow people to make better decisions about land.

“Ownership and control of land is crucial to local economic development,” said Mr Walton.

His organisation is taking part in the Unfound project because it wants to develop a business model which will allow services to be used for free by community groups, subsidised through sales to commercial users, and for governance support on how to spin the project out as a co-op.

And he praised the “peer learning element” of Unfound. “Being in a room with people on the same journey is very helpful,” he added.

Another organisation taking part, the Equal Care Co-operative, based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, is creating a platform linking carers and the person requiring care. Andrew O’Callaghan, who attended the Unfound event, said this aims to “address the power imbalance in the market … which leaves the worker and the client at the bottom of the chain when it comes to decisions and funding”.

By reducing overheads, the platform, set to go live in July, can offer better pay and better care, he says, adding that the co-operative model will make Equal Care “a tool for the community”, forming a platform to bring people together.

Unfound sessions have helped Equal Care get to grips with the co-op model, said Mr O’Callaghan. “I’m new to co-ops – I only started to learn about them at the start of last year. Unfound is helping me, it’s providing stepping stones as I go.”

Open Food Network, an open source online food distribution system is also taking part in Unfound’s accelerator. It offers producers an online shopfront and, by bringing producers together, offers more efficient distribution, cross-selling opportunities and the potential to set up food hubs.

“If we all join up we can compete,” said Nick Weir, who attended Unfound for the organisation.

He says Unfound sessions are useful in developing good governance and discussing technical issues around online systems, adding: “We all have a shared value base.”

Schumacher College in Devon, which draws students from around the world for “cutting-edge learning based around ecology and sustainability”, is setting up a commons platform to help its 40,000 alumni work as “ecological practitioners”, by helping them to make connections and give their projects more visibility.

Representing the project at Unfound were Beatriz Tadema and Mothiur Rahman, who said the platform will be tested in June and July. They want to create “a different system … so you can see where the energy is in conversations”.

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