Platform co-ops: ‘Something new is taking off’

Co-op researcher and economist Olivier Frey shares his impressions from the Open Co-op conference

Delegates gathered in London at the end of July for the Open 2018 conference on platform co-operatives, organised by the Open Co-op. Among them was co-op researcher Olivier Frey, who shares his thoughts with the News …

I have been working with co-operatives for almost 15 years – and I am convinced they are on the verge of a new era, thanks to digital.

Platform co-operatives symbolise this new generation of co-operatives that is going to lead the change and empower the co-operative movement as a whole. Having previously read Ours to Hack and to Own (OR Books, 2017) by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, I wanted to learn more about platform co-ops. So in July I attended the Open 2018 conference in London to better understand the hopes and challenges of this movement.

During two days, people gathered from all around the world to discuss about the future of platform co-operatives. How can blockchain enable Elinor Ostrom’s eight commons principles? How can we map the co-operative / solidarity economy? Is it time for a Co-op coin? How can the development of platform co-ops be financed? Can we build a co-operative cloud?

So what did I learn during those two days?

I learned about platform co-ops that already existed, such as Resonate, Stocksy and Savvy – but also that the platform co-op movement as a whole is still at an early stage.

I also discovered some interesting initiatives and tools that can help platform co-ops set up and grow. This included organisations such as Platform6, and, which help fund the creation of a new co-ops – as well as initiatives to allocate funds collaboratively and transparently like Cobudget, or help with decision-making like Loomio.

But to build and run a platform co-op you need to surround yourself with computer engineers and people from the tech world. Hopefully some of them at the conference discovered (and loved) the  co-op model and will decide to work in the sector. There are also co-ops developing digital and data tools who seem more than happy to help the platform co-op movement. Co-operative Technologists, aka CoTech, for example, is a group of tech-based worker co-operatives that aims “to ensure that technology plays its part in creating a fairer world”.

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 If a platform coop wants to grow and succeed, it needs to build a strong community of users. But first it needs people from the tech world to build the project from the scratch.

In my opinion, one of the main objectives of the co-op movement (as a whole) remains to communicate more efficiently about the model, the values, what co-ops stand for… and about the fact that platform co-ops offer another vision of the future and promote exactly what the original Internet was set up for: decentralisation.

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Another thing I noticed during  the conference was that, even though I met representatives of Co-operatives UK and Co-operatives Europe, there were very few non-platform co-ops. So, as Nathan Schneider pointed out during the event, the question is: “Does the platform co-op movement belong to the same community as the traditional co-op movement or is it something new and different?”

Finally, what also surprised me was that there were a lot of American and English people. I don’t know if it is because it was held in July or because a trip to London is expensive, but I encountered very few French representatives. There were a couple of French co-ops such as Coopcycle, HappyDev and Ridygo, but no representative from Coop FR, the traditional French co-ops or the French academic world. Does this mean that the platform co-op movement is mainly an American and English movement? Or is it simply because there’s a language barrier? Or is it because the French co-op movement is lagging behind as far as digital is concerned?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, but if the platform co-op movement wants to be more effective and gather as many people and co-operatives as possible to actively collaborate, it must think about this cultural problem.

One thing I was happy to discover was that there are more tech co-ops than I had previously imagined. And I’m deeply convinced that these organisations should be cherished by the entire co-op movement. I am sure that digital is the key for the future development of coops, whether they are farmers’ co-ops, consumers’ co-ops, workers’ co-ops…

At Open 2018, I had the feeling that something new was starting to take off.  Is London going to be the starting point of the era of the platform co-op movement, like Rochdale was for the wider co-op movement?

Maybe it is still too early to talk about the London Pioneers but still, it was exciting to encounter people who were not only talking about co-operatives, but who were actually working for their development, too.

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