Cooding: Co-op gathering plots course across the digital frontier

‘For co-operatives, technological innovation must always be accompanied by a capacity for social innovation that keeps the value of work high’

On 29 and 30 September Bologna, Italy, played host to Cooding, the first international event dedicated to the use of digital and new technologies in co-operatives. We talked to some of the organisers and speakers about the event…

Giuseppe Guerini, president, Cecop

Cecop is the European confederation of industrial and service co-operatives. It represent 27 members in 16 European countries. These are national federations of co-ops, and organisations that promote co-ops.

Why was there a need for an event dedicated to the use of digital and new technologies in co-ops?

Globalisation and technological developments have changed the world of work, leading to the overcoming of a vision of employment mainly made up of dependent work.

The spirit of enterprise, entrepreneurial skills, self-entrepreneurship are today the fundamental levers for growth.

In this sense, the digital transition opens up very interesting perspectives for a different idea of industry: no longer as a mass container of workforce, but as a collaborative platform between dynamic entrepreneurs which, in co-op form, could be a new form of disruptive innovation.

For co-ops, digitalisation, automation and innovation strategies must also be thought of in distinctive forms, because they rarely have access to significant amounts of capital for investments, and because for co-operatives, technological innovation must always be accompanied by a capacity for social innovation that keeps the value of work high – by increasing skills and abilities.

What advantages does the co-op model bring in this sector?

Co-operatives can represent an excellent tool to favour a greater distribution of entrepreneurial skills, supporting young people in the challenges of starting new businesses.

In particular, when using the new technologies in the platform economy, the co-operative tool could offer a way to make many self-employed workers also owners of these platforms.

Co-ops must support highly skilled workers to be competitive. Co-operative business models benefit from the skills, ideas and innovations brought forward by their members.

In the digital economy sector, co-ops have a unique potential to create and maintain jobs, to educate, improve and reskill their workers, helping them become entrepreneurs in their communities.

Co-operatives can help develop the skills of European workers in the direction of developing a new vision of being responsible, innovative entrepreneurs capable of generating social value and inclusion.

In recent years, platform co-operatives, which represent an alternative to the ‘uberisation’ of the digital economy, proposed a decentralised, participatory and democratic model to manage the digital transition in the labour market.

To maintain the co-operative movement’s vision of fair and ethical economic development to ensure a bright future and rewarding jobs, and offer more autonomy and active participation for workers, co-operatives must adapt to the changes in the digital economy, data management, DLT Technologies, blockchain and AI.

In many cases, they demonstrate a high level of innovation in creating new jobs and working relationships.

With the growth of digital platforms and with it the deterioration of working conditions for platform workers, new business models and legal actions are needed to ensure dignified working conditions. In particular, the employee status within the co-operatives retains the rights of workers and their access to social security systems.

Co-ops are particularly suited to support inclusive participation in the governance of digital platforms.

Co-operative platforms encourage greater economic diversification and promote economic democracy by fostering collective ownership of digital services, data, and technological infrastructures. 

Co-ops have been key innovators in the governance of work, providing members, in the case of worker and producer co-operatives, with a double status – as workers or producers, and as co-owners of their own enterprises.

What are some of the main themes of the event?

The main themes explored during the event will be:

How can co-op federations better support tech co-ops?

What are the obstacles and opportunities for tech co-ops to grow and expand?

The event will also create opportunities for interco-operation, mentoring, and additional business opportunities for tech co-operatives.

Why was Bologna chosen as host city? Is it home to many co-ops active in the digital sector? What about Italy as a country?

The city of Bologna is certainly one of the Italian capitals for co-operatives. CECOP Italian member, Legacoop Produzione e Servizi, one of the main federation of worker co-operatives in Italy, has one of its main offices in the city. Bologna was also one of the first cities to propose a regulation on platforms for bicycle home delivery workers. However, the interest in technological innovation applied to the co-operative model is widespread throughout Italy and in all sectors in which co-operatives operate, so this event will be an opportunity to take stock of the overall situation in Italy and Europe.

Piero Ingrosso, president, Fondazione Pico, Italy

Fondazione Pico is the Italian Digital Innovation Hub for co-operative digital transformation. Its mission is to help all Italian co-operatives manage digital transformation to accelerate their growth, acquire new skills, create an innovative culture and develop sustainable and responsible business models.

What does Fondazione Pico do and how does it work with co-ops?

Fondazione Pico is the first Italian Cooperative Digital Innovation Hub (DIH), born from the initiative of Legacoop Nazionale (one of the largest Italian associations of co-ops) and Coopfond – Legacoop’s mutual fund – to support Italian co-ops through technology transformation processes. This is achieved with the assistance of 22 innovative partners, a scientific committee networked with 15 Italian universities, and 14 regional offices, through which innovative tools and processes are disseminated, along with awareness-raising activities and cohort and online training. 

What sets the Pico Foundation apart from other DIHs is its commitment to promoting sustainable innovation by bringing co-operative values into the digital world. Currently, we are actively supporting the development of over 100 projects, which will have a positive impact on more than 10,000 members, employees, and workers of co-operative enterprises. Our effort has also been recognised internationally, as we are partners with four European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIHs).

Why was there a need for an event dedicated to the use of digital and new technologies in co-ops?

We are living in a time of rapid technological change, of which AI-based models are just the most prominent new thing. The co-operative movement has witnessed and led crucial changes over the past 200 years, and it still needs to determine its distinctive stance on the implications arising from the use of these technologies. There are already hundreds of co-operative enterprises in Europe and around the world that have developed digital innovation projects, clearly applying co-operative principles in the use of technology and transformative processes. These initiatives, such as platform co-ops, leverage technology and big data to generate shared value while safeguarding the livelihoods of people and communities. We strongly believe it is time to bring together this wide experience.

Who is the event aimed at?

We aim to define, together with representatives from hundreds of co-ops in over 15 EU and non-EU countries, the best practices and tools to promote the creation of new, innovative business models based on co-operative principles that can be handed down to the next generation. We’re also looking forward to bringing to the market business models that can provide an alternative to the monopoly of a few big tech players. Co-operation has always represented an opportunity for growth and employment, even in the most complex contexts, such as developing countries. New technologies allow us to greatly expand these opportunities, and identifying and broadcasting best practices could really make a difference for the future of thousands of families.

What are some of the main themes of the event?

It will be two intense working days with a specific focus on topics such as democratic governance of platforms, ethical use of user data, and value-sharing with local communities for sustainable digital development.

Paola Bellotti, director of Sustainability and Innovation, Coopfond, Italy 

Coopfond is a mutual fund run by Legacoop, which promotes, through venture capital, new co-operatives or enterprises set up by co-operatives, and finances development programmes in existing co-ops.

How does CoopFond support co-ops in the digital sector? 

Supporting co-ops’ digital transition and the development of innovative digital applications are two of the most important objectives in the first pillar of Coopfond’s strategic plan. The first pillar is about mobilising resources towards co-operatives’ sustainable projects, which aim to deliver measurable impact. 

Digital transition, value chain efficiency and energy transition are the three main areas of sustainability that Coopfond, through a thorough activity of engagement with its stakeholders, has defined as high priority in terms of sectors of investments to support. 

Furthermore, Coopfond supports co-ops by being the main sponsor of Pico, which works with local pods, integrated into Legacoop’s nationwide existing network, and collaborates with the main innovation centres in Italy and Europe. The foundation works through periodical calls that select innovative projects in the sector of digital transformation and then delivers grants to the highest ranked. 

What are the main challenges these co-ops face? 

The main challenge we see at Coopfond is the lack of financial resources that co-ops can invest in digital transformation processes. In particular, in worker co-ops, it is difficult to invest in high-skilled human resources because the competition is high with the traditional private sector, which allows for higher salaries. 

These conditions are the source of a vicious circle by which innovation and digitalisation in co-ops are hard to reach. The high percentage of redistribution of margins that co-ops have to make does not allow for sufficient resources in these terms. This gap has generated, in some co-op sectors, a low-skilled workforce upon which great investments have to be made. Coopfond is trying to cover this need by supporting training programmes identified by co-ops who need to unveil the potential for digital transformation in their own businesses.

Petter Joelson, co-founder and project coordinator at Digidem Lab, Sweden

Digidem Lab is a worker co-op that designs and develops methods for political and democratic innovation. Its members are passionate about participatory democracy and support practices that empower people to influence decisions affecting their lives.

What does Digidem Lab do? What services does it offer?

Digidem Lab is an independent democracy lab that supports neighbourhoods, municipalities, and public institutions in conducting effective and inclusive citizen dialogues. We study, test, and provide internationally proven digital tools and methods for citizen participation, creating citizen-centred processes to reach especially underrepresented groups. 

Our main focus right now is citizen panels, where we have worked with the European Commission and the Swedish Food Agency, and participatory budgets, where we have supported New York City and various Swedish cities. 

We also work with digital platforms as well as workshops, education and facilitation for participatory processes.

Why was it set up as a worker co-op? What do you think is the appeal of worker co-ops to professionals in your industry?

We want our business and the way we work to reflect the values of democratic participation that we are promoting, so a worker co-op seemed like a natural fit. We have to constantly adapt and develop what we do, so we also think that it is an advantage to have all of our staff give input on what we should do in the future and to run the co-op together.

How can technology help to foster democratic participation and community building?

It can’t foster it on its own, but we think that the right kind of tools can be really helpful to support community-building efforts and to scale up democratic participation. Digital tools need to be designed to encourage constructive discussions and deliberation, and it often helps to be transparent, use open-source software, and involve citizens or participants early on in the development and testing of digital platforms.