Platform Co-op conference: Steve Gill writes from Hong Kong

‘These are some great people doing some important work, in difficult circumstances’

Delegates gathered in Hong Kong at the end of September for the conference Sowing the Seeds: Platform Cooperativism for Asia, organised by the Platform Cooperativism Consortium. Among them was Coop Exchange chief executive Stephen Gill, who shares his thoughts with the News …

Having witnessed Ed Mayo propose a motion for the International Co-operative Alliance to recognise platform co-operativism, at last year’s general assembly in Malaysia, and being in the middle of launching a platform co-op myself, I was very keen to attend this conference. The organisers were kind enough to let me present Coop Exchange, and asked me if I would chair one of the breakout sessions, on raising capital for co-ops.

The conference started with an introduction from Jack Qiu, an engaging and friendly speaker who made us feel welcome straight away. Jack introduced the first speaker, Michel Bauwens, from the P2P Foundation, who gave a lecture, Technology for the People: How and Why? Next up was Professor Pun Ngai, author of  Made in China, with some contrasting viewpoints to Michel.

After a break, we had three presentations with a Chinese context; all were interesting in very different ways, but the highlight was Yang Yum Biao from Nangtang Cooperative. Despite him presenting via a translator, his dry humour was infectious, and we could tell by the laughter from the local audience that everyone really enjoyed his presentation. Such a natural on the stage.

After lunch, we had presentations about the changing landscapes of co-operativism in Asia. Both Simel Esim from the International Labour Organization, and Namya Mahajan from SEWA Cooperative Federation, presented via video.

Henri Kasyfi Soemartono from KDIM gave a fascinating presentation about Digicoop in Indonesia, including sending satellites into space. I met Henri the  following day, but unfortunately he’d missed my presentation due to feeling unwell, so we swapped cards and agreed to keep in touch. Hopefully Coop Exchange can assist Digicoop in the coming years.

Related: Trebor Scholz writes from the Sowing the Seeds conference

Gigi Lo from Translate for Her was up next. This is a service providing translation for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, which is crowdsourced through Whatsapp. A very worthwhile venture, proving it doesn’t have to be about  brand new technology.

Yuen Han Yan and Sharon Yeung from The Singing Cicadas presented their production company telling stories for social change, and once again highlighted the lack of capital holding them back. Osamu Nakano from the Japan Workers’ Co-operative Union then made our jaws drop with some incredible stats – over 65 million people are members of co-ops in Japan; 50% of the population.

Eum Hyung-sik from the ICA gave some general stats, some personal observations and questions for the platform co-op movement to consider, and in summary he suggested multi-stakeholder models like FairShares would solve most of the problems raised.

To end, You Chang-bok gave a fascinating presentation about Sungmissan Village in Korea. 

After lunch, Huang Sun Quan, from the China Academy of Art, gave a talk on Taking Roots: Coding and Design for Platform Co-ops, a coopathon that happened two days before the conference.

To finish the day, Sophie Sun chaired a roundtable on amphibian platforms, all of which were fascinating. Albert Lui from BTW Ride sharing in Hong Kong (an Uber alternative); Jessamine Pacis from the Foundation for Media Alternatives in the Philippines talked about home-cleaning  platforms; Ali Ercan from Needsmap in Turkey talked about their software matching schools in need of services with service providers; and Nashin Mahtani from PetaJakarta in Indonesia explained how their platform transforms social media posts about disasters into actionable information to help people, using their software called Cognicity.

A session discussing blockchain
Day two included a session on blockchain

Day two opened with Trebor Scholz who gave a great presentation about platform co-ops, including the launch of the platform co-op development kit. This was followed by eight presentations about platform co-operativism as a global movement, including myself, presenting Coop Exchange. All were fascinating in different ways, but particular standouts for me were Juho from Sharetribe, and Rohan from Geddup.

After lunch, a roundtable about blockchain for co-ops was held. Jeff Xiong did an excellent job as chair, and as Peter Harris was moving house he sent a video presentation, which left the other four co-operators to join the discussion – Zhang Jieping, Tat lan, Isaac Mao and Rob Stone. All presented well, but the general consensus from the room indicated a scepticism towards blockchain. Tat argued his case particularly well, and clearly knew the technology well.

The organisers had asked me to chair a 90-minute session on raising capital for co-ops, so 10 minutes early I headed into the designated classroom. I’d been warned the attendance might be low, as I was competing against Trebor who was presenting the Platform Co-op Toolkit. Sat on my own in the classroom, I hadn’t been this nervous since the time the headmaster of my school put me in an empty classroom and made me write out 5,000 lines.

So when the start time arrived and past, and I was still sat on my own, I resigned myself to the fact I’d need to entertain myself for 90 minutes. I even considered writing lines for old times sake; however, after a few minutes people started trickling in.

We ended up with 12, which was actually a great number. I’d asked Rohan if we would join me, as he has valuable experience in the subject, working with in Australia. We ended up with a very good discussion, and most of the attendees really engaged and discussed various ideas we put together.

We did spend a lot of the time talking about the advantages of FairShares multi stakeholder co-ops, and I think most people were convinced by the end – even Felix from Fairmondo who joined in by explaining FairMondo’s structure on the board. We also had our very own ice cream blockchain drawn on the board by our youngest attendee, a  six year old who was with his dad. Trebor might have had most of the attendees, but he didn’t have an ice cream blockchain!

Melina Morrison from Australian co-op body BCCM
Melina Morrison from Australian co-op body BCCM

The final presentation was from Melina Morrison, who was worried about being the only thing between us and post conference beers, but her presentation was very interesting and she is an engaging speaker. It was easy to give her our full attention, even though we were at the end of the two-day conference.

In conclusion, I was very impressed by the conference. These are some great people doing some important work, in difficult circumstances (the Hong Kong co-operative law is not really fit for purpose for platform co-ops – it needs revising). I made some great new friends and look forward to working with them closely over the next few years to grow the platform co-op movement.