How do we make co-operative deserts bloom?

This year’s Future Co-ops movement saw a series of creative sessions to develop new strategies to encourage and support new co-ops

With the co-op movement looking for ways to double the size of the sector, Future Co-ops 2019 put an interactive, creative twist on the conference format, grouping delegates into workshops to find paths forward.

The event. held in Birmingham from 1-2 February, focused on the problem of “co-operative deserts”, and asked delegates to devise strategies to help new and young co-ops thrive.

The annual conference of Co-operative Futures, a business development consultancy specialising in co-operative, mutual and community led businesses, it identified a number of priorities – including a social media strategy to attract ethically minded young people to the co-op movement, improved business planning, and more secondary co-ops and support networks.

Opening the event, executive director Jo White said a lot of research has been done on what helps co-ops grow, highlighting a need for finance, local support and a level legislative playing field.

“We’re often old fashioned in our approach,” she said. “It’s based on jam tomorrow – when Labour comes in, when we get a load of funding.”

Instead, Future Co-ops was designed to move away from the notion of “when someone else does something for us”, she added, to focus on the movement’s  values of self help, self responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.

To encourage free thinking and the flow of ideas, Co-operative Futures enlisted the help of Think:Digital, a creative agency set up by the Central England Co-operative, which works with ethical organisations to improve their messaging, to devise the workshops. The result was an entertaining and interactive set of workshops which allowed those taking part to network as well as contribute ideas.

Related: Fun but focused, entertaining but constructive – Future Co-ops review

On the first evening, there were sessions mapping out a range of scenarios for new co-ops, with the conference split into half a dozen workshop groups to identify potential problems, needs and solutions.

Tom Davis from Think:Digital, who helped design the sessions, said: “We worked with our friends in Co-op Futures to build personas who were an amalgamation of real-life people in real-life co-ops facing real-life problems. We then mapped the persona’s journeys to give us a detailed picture of the potential problems which the participants at the event could then work on.”

Tom Davis leads one of the workshop sessions

The second day saw groups allocated a question to consider, using brainstorming sessions and storyboards. The questions were: How do we …

  1. Help entrepreneurs understand and choose a co-op model?
  2. Help co-ops do really good business planning and strategy?
  3. Help existing co-ops have the means to grow?
  4. Provide full support to a new co-op to help it avoid mistakes and thrive?
  5. Grow co-ops in a co-op desert?

Three outcomes from these sessions were chosen for presentation to the conference.

The first, looking at how might we help entrepreneurs understand and choose a co-op model, focused on the use of social media to attract a younger and more diverse demographic to the movement.

Emily Pittaway discusses social media

Leading group discussion of the question, Emily Pittaway – a student on work placement at Co-operative Futures and a newcomer to co-ops – said the movement should make more creative use of Youtube, perhaps by gaining endorsement for its values and ideas from online influencers.

And to target people unfamiliar with the co-op movement, co-ops were advised to switch away from explicit “co-op” messaging. Instead, they should identify keywords, hashtags and eye-catching messages that are connected with the concerns people have, which the movement can solve. For instance, the online message: “Do you hate your job?” could link through to information on worker co-ops and their advantages over conventional employers.

Sion Whellens, from Principle Six, suggested taking a motion to Co-operative Congress to resource and frame a “hothouse of social media-savvy young people who will be funded to spread the message to the next generation”, with a defined brief and ethical parameters.

A group generates ideas during a workshop sessions

And he said marketing teams could learn from the unusual ways people have learned about co-operation, citing the case of a tax specialist for truck drivers who read an article about worker co-ops and now advocates the model to her clients. In another case, someone saw a sticker advertising Strike magazine on a lamp-post and, attracted by its provocative message – “Are you in a s**t job?”, followed the weblink, discovered Strike was a worker co-op – and joined a co-op themselves.

On a micro-marketing level, the group said local co-ops could make effective targeted use of social media by using local Facebook pages, with a concentrated, high-traffic following, to raise their profiles.

The second presentation, on how to help existing co-ops have the means to grow, focused on co-ops working together – by joint buying, sharing services or by setting up secondary co-ops that would have the backing of larger co-ops.

Cath Muller
Cath Muller presents the group’s ideas on networks and secondary co-ops

Cath Muller, from Radical Routes, set out ideas for creating local co-op economies, with local ways of helping each other, and local directories to drive people to co-ops.

On a more formal level, making a call for more secondary co-ops to support the sector, Vivian Woodell, from Midcounties Co-operative, said: “We would need a serious and sizeable project to analyse and select a number of sectors where this could work. If we can make this model work in one sector – we could make it work in others.

“We can learn from other co-ops – from their failures as well as their successes – and not just in the UK – but internationally.”

For the final presentation, on how to grow co-ops in co-op desert, Richard Bickle from Central England Co-op said this could mean a geographical area, a business sector or a demographic area. A co-op desert was described as an area where no one is working together, and there is no collective knowledge.

He proposed commissioning a survey to find inspirers, local community leaders, co-op development experts – and, once the results were available, to engage with local people and develop a strategy to create blooming, flowering co-ops. One example is Birmingham, which has a large number of creative industry co-ops; he suggested they meet to discuss collaboration. 

Richard Bickle joins one of the creative sessions

The conference concluded with all participants writing down actions on postcards to take away and act on within the next six months.

The event – a lively, participatory alternative to the usual conference format – was praised by those attending.

Amanda Gallie, from Central England Co-operative, said: “This is the first time I have attended this conference and I have found it’s a completely new experience. I didn’t realise how many other co-ops there are and how they struggle – and how lucky I am to be working for Central England Co-operative.”

Nathan Brown, from Cooperantics, added: “What I love about Future Co-operatives is that it brings together people from across the whole family of the co-op movement and uses our collective experience to strengthen the movement.  It is always fun and interactive rather than being spoken at, and a great show of solidarity.”

Brainstorming sessions saw one delegate look for ways to build Co-opville – the place where ‘it’s raining co-ops’

Cath Muller said: “It was really great to spend so much time thinking about how people access the co-op movement together with folk who had really varying levels of movement experience – some lightbulb moments for me, some satisfying wisdom-sharing, lots of optimism around the pledges at the end.”

John Merritt, from Co-op Assistance Network, said: “Future Coops 2019 was a really useful weekend for co-operators. A recurrent theme about how to establish and grow co-operatives using the resources of the movement and reaching out. And there were some interesting a new ideas which emerged through very interactive sessions and pledges from participants to take them forward.”

And Claire McCarthy, from the Co-op Party, said: “It was great to see the sense of ambition around co-operative growth at the event. The Party is passionate about building a much larger co-operative sector in Britain; and it’s really inspiring to connect with more and more people who share that ambition and are willing to roll their sleeves up to help make it happen. Many congratulations to Jo White and the team.”

It also featured input from young people, new to the movement, who are on work placement at Co-op Futures. One of them, Emily Pittaway, told Co-op News her impressions of the event – and the movement itself.

I found the event intriguing,” she said. “It was different from any other conference I have been to before where you usually just sit and hear people talk. I found the activities helpful in understanding the issues that co-ops face and how to overcome these.

“I think co ops offer young people the opportunity to create their own businesses with the help of other people within their communities and for the benefit of their community – giving them the power to change things and empowering people that may ordinarily feel that they don’t have the means to own a business.

“But I don’t think co-ops are currently doing enough to involve young people. I struggled to find information about co-ops when actively looking for it – so I feel as though young people who are not actively looking for it would have a really low chance of having any knowledge about co-ops.”

She added: “I strongly feel that social media would be the best way for the movement to put its message across. All big businesses and corporations know this and actively use it to communicate with a diverse audience. Co-ops should be doing the same.”

Tom Davis paid tribute to the participants, saying the sessions “exceeded our expectations and we had fantastic feedback. The challenges we built on throughout the weekend led to ambitious but practical outputs which the participants were keen to own.

 “We have set up an online forum for delegates to share their pledges as well as to work on their challenge areas and see how they develop.”

He added: “Think:Digital is using digital tools and ways of working to create customer-centric ideas and disruptions within our organisation and to aid the greater good in our communities. We use industry leading methods which are common in the digital design sectors and we are happy to share our experiences with other co-ops and groups.”