‘Fire the bosses’: Platform co-ops set out their radical stall

From data sharing as a new co-op principle to ways to organise street workers, the Who Owns The World conference looked at ways to build a new democracy

As the platform co-op movement gathered in New York City for its conference, Who Owns the World?, it was against a backdrop of deepening global unease.

As the first day of the event welcomed delegates, the press was reporting on financial troubles at Uber – one of the key villains in the gig economy, which platform co-ops are looking to challenge with worker or member-led online structures. And there were warnings that the tech bubble surrounding the new giants of the 21st century like Google and Amazon could burst, plunging the world into recession.

Political schisms continued to widen; questions are being raised in the UK about the use of personal data and social media in the general election campaign, and the Chinese government continued its crackdown on the democracy on Hong Kong. And, just as delegates prepared to discuss their response to climate change, a police convoy was headed for nearby Fifth Avenue where Extinction Rebellion was trying to block rush hour traffic.

All of this cast dramatic light on the conference and its efforts to advance “near future alternatives”, with the clarion call to “fire the bosses, democratise the internet and own the future”.

Trebor Scholz speaks to delegates at the New School

In his opening address, conference convenor Trebor Scholz, founder director of the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy, painted his ideal vision for 2035: a decentralised internet, tech giants like Facebook and Google broken up by trust-busting action, the creation of civic data trusts, and a worldwide democratic movement building a new economy, following examples such as the US electric co-op movement or the new municipalism of Cleveland and Preston.

The institute is the research arm of the Platform Co-op Consortium, based at the New School, which hosted the event. It is joining other organisations to create a map of the platform co-op ecosystem, and opened the conference with a day of workshops and discussions of how this might take shape. The project is expected to be completed next year.

Growing pains for a growing movement

Prof Scholz conceded that his vision is an optimistic one – but to find ways to move things in the right direction, the conference saw a wide-ranging programme, gathering co-op leaders, policy makers, academics and artists for a series of panel debates, workshops, networking sessions and “artistic provocations” from rappers, children’s theatre groups and film makers.

Researchers from the New School are working with other organisations to create an online map of the platform co-op movement, which should be completed next year. The conference included a creative workshop session with delegates

Prof Scholz said that over the past few years the institute had been busy developing an online co-op course and setting up a publishing house, and is conducting research into blockchain, data co-ops, and ways to fund and scale the movement. It has organised conferences and online chat sessions, and held meetings with the International Labour Organization, trade unions, policymakers and co-op leaders.

But he said that platform co-ops are facing problems, not just in terms of finance but also with their own people, with difficult attitudes ranging from misogyny to the sense that some co-op founders are more interested in creating an online identity than a business.

“Almost every single co-op we talked to said there was difficulty making decisions,” he told delegates in his opening address, adding that “members don’t feel like members”.

But over its three days, the conference highlighted a range of successes and promising initiatives. One example was Truckers for Unity, a South African drivers’ co-op formed to tackle poor management and conditions faced by freight drivers serving seaports. This brought together drivers, unions, and port owners to develop a traffic management app.

From Sao Paulo, Brazil, street artist and activist Mundano discussed efforts to organise homeless rubbish collectors into co-ops. There are nearly a million waste collectors in Brazil, and 64 million around the world, working in an informal sector.

“They are really invisible, these people,” he said – but, using caroga (hand carts) – they collect 90% of all material recycled in Brazil, a country where most households have no access to recycling.

Mundano began painting their carts, before recruiting other artists to the Pimp My Caroga movement. This created the Movimento de Pimpadores platform, to tackle the problem of waste pickers being exploited by scrapyards which buy at low prices. It offers healthcare, dentistry, security gear, looks after their dogs – and now operates in 68 cities in 14 countries, with 1,400 waste collectors.

It is now developing an app, Cataki, which shows the nearest waste picker to a person’s house; all collections are free and the wastepicker gets all proceeds from selling the scrap, helping them to double their incomes. Cataki has been downloaded more than 17,000 times, with more than 3,200 wastepickers, organised into 161 co-ops. 

Cataki can be expanded worldwide, added Mundano, but he warned that its success leaves it open to capitalist challengers using exploitive, Uber-style models. “We have created a market,” he said. “More companies will come [but] we need to move fast because we are the pioneers.”

J. Phillip Thompson, deputy mayor of New York City, welcomes delegates to the conference

Similar ventures (and their frustrations) were highlighted over the weekend. For instance, CoopCycle, a European federation of bike delivery co-ops, was set up by Deliveroo workers frustrated at an exploitive system which could see them delisted for forming trade unions or missing delivery times because they kept to speed limits. They found that platform co-operation brings its own challenges, especially operating at international scale – such as dealing with different languages, currencies and timezones.

In a similar vein, Oriol Alfambra from Spanish delivery co-op Mensakas and ride-share platform Som Mobilitat, said it was important to establish clear legal ownership structures, develop tools and control data to reduce dependance on outside companies.

“We have to be careful about the licences of our platforms,” he said. “We do not live in a neutral world, the enemy is going to use everything it can against us.”

Sustainable transport platforms formed part of a session on climate change, which was itself highlighted as a challenge for the movement. Raz Godelnik, an assistant professor at the New School, said platform co-ops had to be part of “transformative change for humanity … we need people to change the culture in which we live.

“We need to think about our competitive advantage; when scientists talk about global issues, platform co-ops are looking at local level; they can make the connections … this movement is about creating connections between regulators, activists and innovators.”

Making progress

As an example of a counterforce to the misogyny highlighted by Prof Scholz, prominent speakers at the conference included Emma Back from UK social care platform Equal Care Co-op, who said women in the UK care sector had an unusually high suicide rate due to the severe pressures they face. The platform co-op model offers a support infrastructure to alleviate these pressures, along with mechanisms for self-help in communities and isolated rural areas.

Salonie Hiriyur Muralidhara from SEWA

Salonie Hiriyur Muralidhara, from India’s SEWA Co-operative Federation (which has collectivised more than 1.8million women working in the informal economy), said her organisation is carrying out a number of plaform co-op experiments, including a food delivery service, a health co-op combining education work with the sale of Ayurvedic products like shampoo, and a project with the International Development Research Centre in Chicago to develop domestic work co-ops.

Related: SEWA’s role in a changing world of work

Looking at the issue of how to finance the platform co-op movement, Matthew Brown, leader of the UK’s Preston City Council, said one way forward is to establish community banks – with UK local authorities collaborating to develop these in several regions, including the south west and north west of England. And Co-operatives UK’s James de le Vingne gave the examples of community share offers and the work of the Hive, a support organisation developed in conjunction with the UK Co-operative Bank.

Who owns the data?

Underscoring many issues facing platform co-ops and the wider world is the use of data. Hays Witt, from Drivers Seat Co-op, highlighted the problem of data assymetry on capitalist platforms like Uber, which holds all the data while the driver sees only a fraction of it. This can leave them at a disadvantage when it comes to challenging decisions, for example, and increases the platform’s control over them. Co-operative data pooling eliminates such unfairness.

Morshed Mannan, a PhD student looking at democratic business ownership, said this involves “the transformation of what is sacred in private into what can be sold for profit” and suggested that data should be classed as property so it can be held in trust. “By mutualising, we resanctify this data,” he said.

Related: ICA discusses co-ops and big data

Vanni Rinaldi, president of Italian digital start-up Hoda and tech incubator Cooptech, called for a new Rochdale principle on the sharing of data. “Tomorrow, ask your co-op to democratically put this principle in the statute. We have a co-operative data ecosystem. How do we use this data, with 1 billion co-operators around the world, which could be worth trillions of dollars?”

Jack Linchuan Qiu, professor of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, pointed to his city’s current turmoil as an example of how important questions around data can be. The website for the platform co-ops in Hong Kong, platformhk.coop, has been systematically hacked with malicious codes; this could just be the work of a bored teenager, said Prof Qiu, but there are still questions of how to avoid state censorship and government infiltration, and having platforms hijacked. “How do you start a platform co-op in an authoritarian region without prompting a backlash?” he asked.

Data also has huge implications in the health sector; Jen Horonjeff of Savvy Coop, a patient-owned co-op that connects healthcare companies with patients so they can improve their research process, said the traditional medical research model “treats patients as gig workers, in that their data is extracted and makes money for others”, adding: “Companies and innovators do not understand their end users. We need to bridge that gap so innovators can work for the actual needs of diverse patients rather than guessing.”

Children from the Sixth Street Community Center perform a protest piece for climate justice

Building a co-op culture

Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, warned that platform co-ops can often struggle to accommodate diverse workforces with diverse needs. She gave the example of photo agency Stocksy, which is seeing conflicting business interests between artists and commercial photographers. “Artistic passion is not how you build a successful business,” she said. “What artists want is freedom from clients, which is the opposite of what business ones want.”

Delegates also heard about the issues surrounding competition between members of a platform, and how to build a culture of participation. This may be easy for co-ops such as Spain’s Mondragon, in a region with strong cultural ties, but more challenging elsewhere.

Platform co-ops must also face the “tyranny of the market”, which often takes unpleasant forms, in the shape of neo-colonial cultural bias. Worse still, home services co-ops must also face racist bias; Prof Schor said cleaning co-ops had often met resistance from white clients, who only wanted to deal with white workers in their homes.

  • Can platform co-ops help shape a fairer future of work? Where should the movement go next? Let us know what you think – email [email protected] or join the conversation on our Twitter and Facebook pages.