Scaling Solidarity with Digital Resilience

The following text was included in the program of the Roots of Resilience conference 2023

Welcome to ‘Roots of Resilience. Building Platform Coops for Sustainable and Feminist Local Economies’! We explore the intersection of cooperative principles and the digital economy at a time when India’s Digital India initiative strives to advance digital services, skills, and innovation, with the objective of elevating India’s economy to a $5 trillion GDP. Challenges related to job insecurity and labor rights persist in the digital economy, yet favorable policies within the platform economy offer a path to address these problems.

The ‘Roots of Resilience’ conference, as India’s first major event focusing on coopera-tive principles and values in the digital econ-omy, aims to bolster solidarity to navigate challenges, embracing principles like open membership and democratic control, along with values such as self-responsibility, equality, and solidarity among others. ‘Roots of Resilience’ aims to connect global examples with projects in Kerala and beyond, highlight-ing the unique ways platform cooperatives are manifesting in India. By presenting a diverse spectrum of models skillfully tailored to local contexts and needs, the conference seeks to further build on India’s enduring cooperative tradition.

Tracing back to the early 20th century, India has cultivated a robust cooperative movement, supported by public and community institutions across agriculture, rural credit, and allied sectors. The global footprint of In-dian cooperative societies is significant, with entities like Gujarat Milk, IFFCO, and ULCCS featuring substantial turnover and visibility.

While the cooperative principles have the potential to transform the digital economy, cooperatives are, in turn, inevitably changed by the digital transition.

These large, established cooperatives need adequate preparation to efficiently utilize the collaborative benefits offered by new plat-form enterprise models, while adhering to cooperative principles and taking advantage of data-related opportunities. As conveners of ‘Roots of Resilience,’ we hold the belief that, in this evolving landscape, cultures of innovation can flourish only by embracing principles of collectivism.

The discussion from November 30 to December 2 in Thiruvananthapuram focuses on integrating cooperative principles in the digital economy through “platform cooperatives.”

Platform co-ops are defined as businesses that sell goods or services primarily through digital platforms such as websites, mobile apps, or protocols. Unlike venture capital-funded platforms, platform cooperatives are grounded in democratic decision-making and shared platform ownership by both workers and users.

The ethos of platform cooperatives is based on a clear vision:
1) technology alone cannot solve social problems, 2) prioritize outcomes for people over business forms, and 3) a comprehensive strategy for societal change is non-negotiable, including address-ing income inequality, responding to the climate catastrophe, improving healthcare, promoting participatory design, and advancing gender equality.

So far, these worker-owned platforms mostly emerge from grassroots initiatives, not from legacy cooperatives, yet this doesn’t necessarily dictate the trajectory going for-ward. So far, they unfold in parallel, embodying a bottom-up approach closely supported by states and municipalities.

Predominantly, we observe the unfolding of platform cooperatives in sectors like:

Home services

Notable Examples:

Namma Yatri
Initiated by the Bengaluru Auto Rickshaw Drivers’ Union, this app had 100,000 downloads within the first three weeks.

Kerala Savaari
A ride-hailing app launched by a drivers’ cooperative.

• Annasree
A hyper-local app developed by the Kerala government under the state-led Kudumbashree Mission to facilitate food orders from nearby restaurants.

Global Context:

Drivers Cooperative
With 9,000 onboarded drivers, it’s making strides in the platform cooperative sector.

Boasting an annual revenue of 180 million Euros, this cooperative is showcasing the potential scale of platform co-ops.
In this endeavor, trial and error experimentation is embraced, with failure seen as an invaluable stepping stone towards success.

Supportive Ecosystem: Incubators and Accelerators
In the US, Australia, and Europe, entities such as, Unfound, Platform Coops Germany, and are fostering the development of business skills in emerging co-ops, while in Kerala, the Kerala Startup Mission has played a significant role in this domain.

Media Attention
Platform co-ops have been highlighted in nearly 2,000 news items.

Legislative Support
Elevating awareness and creating a conducive legislative framework is crucial for nurturing alternative business models. PCC advanced policy initiatives across eight countries. Platform co-ops contribute to diversifying the digital economy, and while historically focused on mutual support rather than toppling monopolies and often coexisting with corporations, their past doesn’t have to define their future amidst the prevailing dominance of large tech companies.

Platform cooperatives, valuable tools in the solidarity economy toolkit, significantly enhance worker pay and livelihoods compared to traditional models.

Their story is one in flux, not about adhering to a single model but rather embracing a field of experimentation, representing a constantly evolving set of models that continue to adapt and grow in response to needs.

They demonstrate resilience, especially after their initial years, and scale easier than brick-and-mortar counterparts, aiding growth. They also excel in worker retention, offering a conducive workplace environ-ment. However, they face challenges like digital literacy, and institutional barriers such as, limited diversity in leadership including patriarchal norms, lack of skills to form cooperative teams, and a potential lack of business focus.
Emphasizing a people-centered approach, we hold the conviction that technology alone isn’t the solution to social problems, but a tool to be harnessed within a commu-nity-driven framework, often with state or municipal support. This perspective is really about a novel narrative distinct from that of the solo hero entrepreneur funded by a handful of investors and shareholders.

This approach, integrated within the solidarity economy toolbox alongside policy and organized labor, advocates experimen-tation for communal benefit. By federating and sharing infrastructure, platform co-ops extend solidarity, forging a more inclusive model that nurtures local economies and climate justice. They champion open cooperativism, on-chain protocols, source-available code, and peer production licenses, thereby enhancing algorithmic transparency. Legislative support is crucial for this business model, with a fine balance between autonomy and cooperative principles being essential for long-term success. Legislation can provide space for growth for alternative models. Building awareness and developing collaborations with international partners that provide digital infrastructures, a global community, and research support can help overcome challenges and promote wider collaboration.

Community-Guided Gathering Joining Ideas and Implementation

Convened by IT for Change (ITfC) and The Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC), the conference focuses on both practice and research, assembling a variety of participants including researchers, cooperative technologists, activists, government officials, and leaders and members from platform cooperatives, legacy cooperatives, and educational institutions. Our discussions aim to show how such community-focused platforms can reshape economic paradigms, and what an enabling policy environment can look like.

Questions we will discuss include:
• How can we establish decent work conditions for gig workers in the digital economy?
• How can platform co-ops and technology owned by workers and users support regenerative local economies, with exam-ples from Kerala and worldwide?
• What funding avenues exist for platform co-ops?
• What strategies can promote inclusive, feminist agendas in the digital economy?
• What obstacles and opportunities does “open cooperativism” present, and how have collectives begun to build data commons?
• What role can the state play in fostering digital commons, public infrastructures, and alternative platforms?
• How can Kerala leverage digital innova-tions in agriculture, transportation, and food for broader socio-economic impact?

The session formats in the upcoming discussions closely mirror the main topics and questions the conference aims to explore.
In our quest for innovative conference formats, we wish to embrace a format where a multiplicity of voices can be heard, with rich conversations and community discussions, sidestepping the outmoded setup of panels and the traditional keynotes.

This conference is hence a celebration of the collective intellect. Presentations are succinct, serving as windows into the speakers’ work and thinking. They invite a preliminary understanding, which can be expanded upon through the extensive materials in the online folders for each speaker, enabling attendees to further probe their work via the available essays and articles.

Drawing inspiration from the ‘Declaration of Feminist Digital Justice’, a collaborative endeavor by ITfC and DAWN, we strive for a form of intelligence akin to interconnected forest networks, embodying the very essence of ‘Roots of Resilience.’ Unlike the detached and impersonal logic often associated with corporate Artificial Intelligence, our approach seeks to foster rich, interconnected forms of knowledge and action, much like the resilient roots that connect and sustain a lively and symbiotic forest ecosystem.

Our carefully crafted agenda brings together practical learnings, academic rigor, and policy analysis. We welcome a diverse array of participants, from women’s associations and farmer organizations to cooperatives and students. Our focus is on the exchange of ideas, mutual learning, and the dissemi-nation of various forms of knowledge. While the contributions are necessarily very brief, you can learn more about the presenters by following the QR codes in the program.

Following Thomas Isaac’s and Trebor Scholz’s 2019 presentations to Kerala’s Legislative Assembly, which catalyzed the incorporation of platform co-operatives in Kerala’s government directive, the 9th Platform Cooperativism conference is being hosted in Thiruvananthapuram this year. This event, succeeding previous renditions in cities like Hong Kong, New York City, Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro, sets the stage for the next conference slated for Nairobi.

‘Roots of Resilience,’ the research agenda unveiled at this conference, extends the existing scholarship in platform cooperativism and digital labor, celebrating its cross-disciplinary essence. Building on the findings from the book Building Alternatives: The Story of India’s Oldest Construction Workers’ Cooperative by T.M. Thomas Isaac and Michelle Williams, we study Kerala’s cooperative movement, enriching our examination of digital cooperative models under the ‘Roots of Resilience’ agenda. The Platform Cooperativism Consortium’s research institute at The New School in NYC engages a spectrum of fields including applied economics, sociology, law, and cooperative studies, among others, fostering a rich intellectual exchange. As the exploration into the sustainable scaling of platform cooperatives, governance innovation, and their global digital ecosystem impact continues, diverse academic minds are welcomed to contribute to this exploration.

In partnership with IT for Change for this 9th edition, the journey towards digital justice with a focus on “Global South” perspectives continues. IT for Change’s long-standing commitment to gender equality and social justice in the digital realm resonates with the mission of the Platform Cooperativism Consortium to challenge large tech companies and digital colonialism. The synergy between the PCC and ITfC amplifies the collective abil-ity to advocate for a more equitable digital economy.

Collaborating with Kerala Development and Innovation Strategic Council (K-DISC), we aim to nurture a discursive space, with the aspiration that the dialogue fostered will catalyze actionable outcomes and foster lasting international cooperation.
Through its ‘Roots of Resilience’ community labs, the conference aims to transition from discussions to actionable resolutions, fostering a collaborative digital agenda that can tangibly impact local communities.

It’s imperative to acknowledge that resilience embodies a journey of trial and error. Additionally, it’s crucial to recognize that this cannot be solely a regional effort, but platform cooperativism is an internationalist project encompassing south-south and south-north collaborations.
Furthering this endeavor, we extend an invitation to interested Ph.D. students and postdocs for PCC’s research fellowship, aim-ing to nurture the next cadre of academic leaders in this realm. In joining, they will become part of an international network of researchers dedicated to this emerging sub-field, and will have the opportunity to join us at the conference in Africa, fostering a global exchange of ideas.

Instead of featuring videos of stale talking heads from traditional conferences, we will offer a series of concise videos. These engaging segments, along with hundreds of short videos from past events, will provide a richer learning opportunity for our audience.

Beyond mere words, we aim to lay the groundwork for tangible projects and enduring collaborations. We envision ongoing research and educational partnerships among ITfC, PCC, and other devoted organizations.

‘Roots of Resilience’ aspires to bring hope by sparking new platform cooperatives, aiding legacy cooperatives in their digital transition, and researching adjacent business models, emphasizing people-centered outcomes over unyielding adherence to a particular business model, all to foster solidarity through a culture of cooperation.

Trebor Scholz & Anita Gurumurthy
November 30, 2023