Prof R. Trebor Scholz is a researcher, author, and advocate for fair and sustainable digital labour practices. He is a professor and the founding director of The New School’s Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) in New York City, where he also operates a research institute. He has worked to develop and promote a set of models for building worker-owned and democratically controlled online platforms, known as platform co-operatives. He has been a fellow at the Open Society Foundations, the Berggruen Institute, and Mondragon University, and is a faculty affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
How did you first get involved in the platform co-op movement?
Six years ago, I established the Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) at The New School, broadening its scope in 2019 with a dedicated research institute. We’ve worked with 33 research fellows, advanced policy initiatives across eight countries, and conducted extensive research.
“Platform cooperativism,” which I introduced nine years ago, became a distinct area of practice and research, outlining clear benchmarks and fostering a close alliance with traditional co-ops and unions. My involvement in the platform co-op movement began with a vision to adapt and experiment with co-operative principles in the digital economy, working with co-operatives in navigating their digital transition while staying true to their values. Collaborations with people like Nathan Schneider, Micah Sifry, Neal Gorenflo and numerous others proved invaluable, and accelerated its progression.
From inception, the ethos was clear: technology alone cannot solve social problems, prioritise outcomes for people over business forms, and develop a comprehensive strategy for societal change, which includes addressing income inequality, responding to the climate catastrophe, improving healthcare, promoting participatory design, and advancing gender equality.
It’s a story in flux, it’s not about adhering to a single model but rather embracing a field of experimentation, representing a constantly evolving set of models that continue to adapt and grow in response to needs.
This vision has since evolved into a wide range of academic and practical endeavours, including educational programmes, community development, policy advocacy across eight countries, and extensive research. This includes essays, papers, books – which I authored, hundreds of presentations, nine consequential global conferences, multiple courses collaborating with organisations from over 60 countries.
Currently, a network of incubators, accelerators, and community organisations strongly supports this work, enabling the digital co-operative economy to thrive as a new sub-field of research and a global community of practice.
A key moment for me was when a worker from a cleaning co-op shared, ‘When I go to someone’s house, I’m the boss herself.’ This illustrated the positive impact of platform co-operatives not only on her income, which doubled, but also on her sense of self-worth and autonomy. It’s stories like these that give me energy every morning to work on this unfinished experiment!
How well is the platform co-op sector progressing?
The platform co-op sector has changed much in recent years, with examples like Drivers Cooperative, e-Kethi, CoopCycle, Stocksy United, Smart, and the Kerala Food Platform. These co-ops vary in size, from Drivers Cooperative with 9,000 onboarded drivers to Stocksy’s 1,800 artists, Smart.co-op, with 35,000 members, and the Kerala Food Platform, which aims to add 11,000 small farms to their platform. While many are relatively small, typically comprising 12 to 30 members, larger platform co-ops operate within revenue ranges from US$6m to $200m (£5m to £165m).
With projects in a remarkable 50 countries, the platform co-op movement is a global force inspiring adjacent ventures. Entities such as labour unions, legal advocacy groups, research institutions, governmental bodies, and NGOs champion gig worker rights, but in assessing their impact, we must ask: “compared to what?” and “who currently delivers tangible results for these workers?”
The movement has touched many people; our events engaged at least 300,000 people, online and off, and served hundreds of thousands of workers and users. And we are far from done.
For some, our progress is too slow, and it’s important to acknowledge that not all platform co-ops succeed; some, like Ampled, have closed their doors recently, even though they were initially touted as potential “Google slayers” with nearly 2,000 news items edicated to them. Platform co-ops play a role in diversifying the digital economy. But unmistakably, large tech companies still rule. Historically, co-operatives were focused on mutual support rather than toppling monopolies and often coexisted alongside corporations, but this past doesn’t have to define their future.
How do you see the relationship between platform co-ops and the wider co-op movement developing?
The question may suggest a gap or separation between the two, but it’s not always accurate. While platform co-ops sometimes incorporate as co-ops, often they legally can’t. And various platform co-ops have reaped benefits from the broader co-op movement. For instance, Drivers Co-op secured loans from the Cooperative Bank, while Fairbnb received similar support from Lega coop. In Brazil, both institutional and non-institutional platform co-ops coexist, and OCB actively lobbies for their legal recognition. CICOPA recently convened an event in Bologna.
Beyond this, co-operative associations and federations also lobby for co-ops at forums such as the UN and World Bank. Crucially, by embracing a spectrum of advocates for a democratic digital economy, each playing distinct roles, the movement has propelled forward without being hindered by rigid ideological or religious constraints.
Start.coop, Unfound, Platform Co-ops Germany, and Incubator.coop in Australia have helped develop business skills in emerging co-ops. The PCC offers courses, conducts research, and hosts a global community gathering annually. It collaborated with Mondragon University’s MTA on four incarnations of a pandemic-response course and PCC organized a Platform Co-op School with 45 co-op partners in spring 2023.
Beyond co-op federations, relationships with municipalities have been transformative for young platform co-ops, bridging local and global contexts, from San Diego to NYC and from Trivandrum and Kochi to Araraquara.
What are the main challenges?
Just like other businesses, platform co-ops face many challenges and, as exemplified by Ampled, a platform co-op for musicians, can also fail. They confront various obstacles, including funding constraints, technical challenges, and navigating complex local regulations. They also address issues of diversity, biases against co-operative models, and an unfair playing field. But these challenges are met with much resilience. Platform co-operatives emphasize team building, digital literacy, and alliances with other social movements.
What would you like to see happen next for the platform co-op movement??
An ecosystem where platform co-operatives can thrive across various sectors, from healthcare to education, when focusing on shared digital infrastructure, close work with municipalities, and close alliances all across the solidarity economy.
Co-op News has been so supportive in spotlighting both our collective and personal endeavours; thank you. I maintain that while the co-operative principles have the potential to profoundly transform the digital economy, co-operatives are, in turn, inevitably changed by the digital transition. This vision underscores the establishment of a pluralist digital commonwealth rooted in mutual aid, and a sense of syntropy.
Prof Scholz’s latest book, Own This! How Platform Cooperatives Change the World, is published by Verso, £16.99. Co-op News review here