Global Innovation Co-op Summit looks to strengthen international co-op community

‘We normally try to reach people’s minds but maybe we need to capture people’s hearts with the story of co-ops’

The 2023 edition of the Global Innovation Co-op Summit finished on 29 September, after three days of discussions and presentations on topics including co-operative leadership, the circular economy and digitisation.

The event featured 18 plenary sessions, along with a range of breakouts and interactive workshops where delegates could ask questions and share their views. Speakers included the manager of the International Labour Organization’s Co-op Unit, Simel Esim, who answered questions about the ILO and its mandate, its work on co-operatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE).

“Co-ops have a great role to play in social cohesion,” she said. “This humanises people in times of crisis. We normally try to reach people’s minds but maybe we need to capture people’s hearts with the story of co-ops.”

During one of the plenary sessions Laurent Charlin, principal member of Mila – Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, shared tips on how co-ops could use AI but warned that “organisations are different” and “AI is not a one-size-fits-all”.

“Be critical,” he said. “Is it nice to have or is it essential? Will it improve your product? How will it help your members?”

The topic was further explored during a panel discussion featuring Charlin, as well as co-op leaders Ana Aguirre, co-operative development, TAZEBAEZ, Guy Cormier, CEO of the Desjardins Group and Pascal Houle, CPA, CEO of Sollio Cooperative Group.

“AI is a tool, it’s not an endgame,” said Cormier. “Technology must be a means to an end, and used to improve our service and commitment to our members.”

Sam Webb from Midcounties Co-op’s Lydney petrol station was one of the society’s delegates at the conference. As the winner of the society’s Global Innovation Co-op Summit competition, he got to travel to Montreal and take part in the event, along with Michaela Cryar, director of Younity – the society’s joint community energy venture with Octopus – and Pete Westall, chief values officer. 

“I won the competition I saw on Colleagues Connect to nominate a UK co-op that our society could start working with and explain how by partnering with them, we’ll be able to build a fairer, more sustainable and ethical future,” he said. His suggestion was linking up with Big Solar Co-op to fit solar panels across Midcounties’ estate.

Ahead of the summit, the Midcounties delegates visited local Canadian co-ops that are members of sector body Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada.

Guided by Dan Brunette, executive director of CMC, the delegates visited co-ops in various sectors, from rooftop solar to childcare. “A real highlight was visiting Parliament and spending an hour with Senator Lucy Moncion talking about common issues, solutions and opportunities for co-ops in both the UK and Canada,” said Webb.

“The conference gave me a real opportunity to see first-hand how highly regarded Midcounties is among co-operatives and co-operators across the world. I was really surprised to hear that our Steering Wheel was known about by so many delegates and seen as a really great way of tracking our co-operative performance; that our Childcare business was so well known and so highly regarded, and our work on community energy was described as ‘inspirational’.”

He added: “Pete and Michaela were speakers at the conference – Pete talking about Midcounties and the circular economy, giving Fairphone as a great example of that – and Michaela on how Younity is helping innovate, inspire and drive community energy in the UK. It was great to see our society highlighted in this way and being seen as one of the leading co-ops. 

The Midcounties delegates visiting a local solar energy co-op in Montreal, Canada (image: Midcounties)

“Other sessions covered the digital future, including artificial intelligence and leading in a co-operative way. I had the opportunity to meet many of the speakers and chat about co-operation – including international co-op board members, CEOs from co-op societies and federal bodies, and co-op experts from so many subject areas including renewable energy, IT, credit unions and childcare. All of them were really interested and pleased about the competition I won and keen to know more about how we are driving energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

The workshops will inform the future work of the GICS team, which has recently announced it would be launching GICS communities of practice. These will be online gatherings of thematic groups made up to 20 individuals. Each group is assigned a defined topic and guided by a facilitator selected by the GICS team.

They will meet 10 times a year for sessions of up to two hours. During these meetings, they will be collaborating to come up with practical solutions to joint challenges, which, says the GICS team, will “enable each member co-operative to better shape up its strategy”.

Co-ops or mutuals interested in participating will be required to pay a nominal annual fee.