For an Economy That Puts People First

photo by Trebor Scholz

The 22@ district of Barcelona is a neighborhood filled with tech and art spaces, breathtakingly beautiful murals, and stirring graffiti. With its high ceilings and enormous windows, the Valkiria hub, where we met on a hot morning yesterday, exuded an alternative industrial vibe. It is here that Suara, Catalonia’s largest worker cooperative, and the PCC co-hosted a symposium to explore how platform cooperatives could contribute to the autonomous region’s social economy. This event drew a notable group of policymakers, startup founders, and academics. There was considerable enthusiasm about platform coops’ potential to help reshape the economy. La Zona (Catalonia’s answer to Amazon), Som Mobilitat (a cooperative e-car sharing business with an 80-vehicle fleet), Mensakas (a fierce and magnificent food delivery collective and CoopCycle partner), Salus Coop (an emerging data cooperative in the health sector), and Katuma (a terrific local organization that uses Open Food Network software to “support the development of ethical supply chains that bring together producers in a ‘virtual farmers’ market‘”) were among those who presented.

The talk by Juan Antonio Pedreño, President of Social Economy Europe, was one of the event’s highlights. He emphasized that rampant inflation has resulted in high structural unemployment and a loss of purchasing power for families. Pedreño underscored the externalities of platform capitalism as well as the increasing shift of work toward urban centers. He commented that the cooperative model has a promising future in the digital economy; the government should view this sector as an example of how business can be done in a way that is not just about making money but also about making a difference. He reminded us that social businesses already represent more than 8% of the GDP in Europe. To grow, he argued, they must become more visible, gain political clout, and better access to funding. In this regard, Pedreño acknowledged references to platform cooperatives in ILO and OECD reports.

Speaking next was Mayo Fuster, the director of research at the Open University of Catalonia’s Dimmons project. She is widely known for her analysis of digitization in the social economy, asking how technologies can be utilized to create social and economic value. Professor Fuster argued that platform cooperatives, while currently being the best alternative to platform capitalism, are not enough to completely overhaul the current colonial and hetero-patriarchal systems. She said that while user and worker owned platforms are a step in the right direction, they are not enough. Fuster was correct in insisting that we need to go further and develop a new Internet governance model as well as new policies for the social economy. Only then will we be able to build a digital world that is truly just and equitable. Fuster cited a study she conducted with 27 platform coops that revealed a lack of gender equality and diversity. She discovered that only 25% of female employees had unlimited contracts. Fuster contended that, because digital society is more complex and diverse than the industrial model, the digital economy must be both social and feminist in order to be egalitarian.

Fuster identified a holistic approach as a conceptual solution that ensures design results in terms of equality, gender, class, sexual diversity, race, and origin, but in her short talk, she did not have time to show how this could be deployed. Mayo Fuster argued that this intersectional methodology is the great innovation of this age, not blockchain. This intersectional methodology, according to Fuster, puts people, not technology, at the center. Fuster ended by inviting the audience to the 8th Congress of Feminist Economics that will be hosted in March 2023 in Barcelona.

The primary focus of Trebor Scholz’s presentation, which followed Mayo Fusters’, was the cooperative digital economy as a response to climate, economic, and health crises. Scholz highlighted ambitious projects such as coop-adjacent Amara and the digital interventions currently underway at the Suara Innovation Lab, in addition to the five Catalan platform cooperatives known to the PCC. He emphasized that these instances are not isolated aberrations but rather part of a global ecosystem and listed the sectors and advantages of the more than 550 projects in the digital cooperative ecosystem, recognizing that multi-stakeholder platform coops are intended to benefit the community as a whole, not just workers. Scholz argued that they are more accountable and transparent due to the fact that member-owners have a direct say in business management. Worker platform cooperatives provide more dignified working conditions, which contribute to better overall health and well-being. However, he also acknowledged that failure is an integral part of this path that should be embraced and even celebrated.

Scholz commended the Barcelona City Council for championing technological sovereignty and deploying a number of initiatives to increase transparency and citizen participation. Decidim is one prominent example. Several years ago, Barcelona also made a commitment to platform co-ops and has long served as a model for other cities seeking a digital transition that puts residents at the center, but even more can be done to specifically support digital cooperatives through procurement, incubators, and other initiatives. He pointed to Brazil, where former President Lula endorsed a taxi platform co-op where drivers make 95% of the revenue, set up by the mayor of Araraquara in the São Paulo region. These types of public/private collaborations are an important way forward.

Scholz extolled the virtues of social franchising, replication, globally shared digital infrastructure, and partnerships between existing cooperatives, unions, and social movements working in solidarity to promote each other’s initiatives in response to Juan Antonio Pedreo’s call for the scaling of cooperative digital approaches.

Tribalism, or the insistence on a single model, idea, or business structure, was characterized by Scholz as a significant barrier to progress. He espoused to a pluralistic digital commonwealth, favoring an also/and perspective over an either/or stance. He elevated the value of diverse organizational structures, such as cooperatives, unions, employee-owned businesses, small private companies, and publicly owned organizations.

He reasoned that regulatory support was vital for the growth of this sector and advocated for progressive municipalism. Successful platform cooperatives, he showed, can be found in areas where municipalities are supportive, such as Emilia Romagna (Italy), the Basque Country, Barcelona and Catalonia in general, Preston (UK), New York City (USA), Kerala (India), Quebec (Canada), the Rio and Sao Paulo regions of Brazil, New Zealand, and Finland. Kerala’s government, as an illustration, has pledged to help establish 4,000 platform cooperatives over the next five years, which could transform Kerala’s gig economy.

Today, the Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) is a solid global hub that nurtures the development of this emerging sector through research, education, and advocacy. PCC Indonesia, PCC Hong Kong, Platform Coops Germany, UnFound UK, PCC and Mondragon University (we taught 1300 students from 60 countries with all of our global partners) are all vital for sustainable development. Policymakers come and go, and people’s priorities shift, but such institutions serve to anchor values and serve as a resource for researchers and practitioners. Scholz described the PCC’s numerous research efforts, including major policy papers and geographically focused research (launch soon), courses, and its 26 Ph.D. students who are either current or former fellows. Scholz also mentioned the annual PCC conference, this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on November 4-6, which will focus on examples like Araraquara and how workers and communities in the global south can best ally with municipalities.

Trebor Scholz closed with comments on data politics, cooperative data trusts, peer production licenses, and a data commons. He argued that although there are many scammers, con artists, and questionably eccentric people in the blockchain space, it would be a mistake to leave this space to others. DAOs, for example, have the potential to distribute power, facilitate coordination, scale up governance, make traditionally invisible work visible, monitor and track compliance with rules, define collective agreements, and enable cooperation across communities. These features make DAOs an attractive option for organizations of all sizes. In this space, too, platform coops could situate their businesses to connect legacy cooperatives with one another.

He emphasized the importance of thinking and acting beyond the region and the nation state in times of crisis. It is critical to coordinate and collaborate across borders, share digital infrastructure, and advance a globalist progressive municipalism. We need to offer a clear and compelling vision for the future, based on research and data, that can unite us around our shared values. And we also need to show that we understand the economic realities facing people, with economic alternatives that provide real solutions in the short term. We have everything we need to win – let’s put deep solidarity over slight differences.

The Suara team has worked tirelessly to make this event a success, and it is clear that they have put in the effort to create an experience that will be remembered. Our special thanks goes to Laura Peracaula, co-director of Suara, and Jordi Picas i Vila, Suara’s Director of Innovation. We would like to congratulate them and thank them for inviting us to work with them. We also thank Víctor Meseguer, Director of Social Economy Europe. You can see a few visual impressions hereor watch the entire event in English, Catalan, or Spanish.