Co-operative research conference focuses on the transition to sustainability

The ICA CCR European Research Conference explored the roles of co-ops in creating more sustainable businesses and societies

In his much-discussed keynote at a conference in Berlin, Cooperatives and the Transformation of Business and Society, Brett Fairbairn, president of Thompson Rivers University in Canada, confronted the international audience with thought-provoking hypotheses about the roles of co-op in achieving sustainability.

Dr Fairbairn was among those making presentations at the ICA CCR European Research Conference, organised by the International Co-operative Alliance to look at how co-ops can influence the changes brought by new technologies, global environmental hazards and increasingly integrated markets – and how these might affect co-operative principles and organisational concepts themselves.

In light of looming environmental and political hazards, Dr Fairbairn expects rapid changes in social economic and cultural contexts – and predicts that new types of co-ops will emerge to deal with “cracks” in the economy and society.

Drawing analogies to the roles of co-operatives in the past, Dr Fairbairn said co-ops would be the “places where citizens learn to live with new limitations, reconciling issues of justice and productivity”.  But he added that, in order to be able to play their roles in key areas like energy, food, mobility, health, education or the wider digital economy, co-ops will need robust political environments and well-trained co-operative leaders.

Michael Lee Cook, a renowned expert in co-operative leadership from the University of Missouri, USA, presented a modern concept for co-operative leadership. Because co-ops are multiple-good producing organisations, they are relatively difficult to lead. The world’s most successful leaders of co-ops share the talents of “working through people”, thereby balancing their goal-orientation as managers with the need to win support through co-operative intrafirm relationships.

He said three ideas lead the way in the sustainability transformation of modern economies:

  • the search for more inclusive governance of the use of resources and energy with new technologies
  • the increase of use efficiencies with sharing concepts and the application of circular economy concepts in integrating value chains
  • a widening of the concept of value creation beyond the ubiquitous concept of monetarisation.

These ideas, he said, will profoundly restructure the way our societies and economies work in the future. Co-operative business models are inclusive and principled due to their socially oriented values and they incorporate collective ownership and use, and target value chain integration. As such, they are ideal platforms for promoting the ideas of sustainability transition.

A total of 172 participants from 42 countries took part in the ICA CCR European Research Conference at the Humboldt-University of Berlin, where they discussed the roles of co-operatives in the transformation towards more sustainable businesses and societies.

In his closing remarks at the event, Markus Hanisch, director of the Berlin Institute for Cooperative Studies, predicted that modern co-operative studies would consist of a combination of the key elements of the Berlin conferenc.

These are a historically informed assessment of the future roles of co-operative organisations, a better understanding of the role of co-operative leadership, and the integration of alternative business models in modern concepts of co-operative organisation.