This article was authored by Lieza Dessein and Chiara Faini, both strategic project managers for SMart.coop headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.
Stop Chasing Unicorns
There is a fundamental flaw in the narrative of the startup culture: everyone is chasing Unicorns i.e. private companies valued at one billion dollars or more. Instead of aspiring to this elusive goal, should we not pause and wonder if it is really worth it? Rather, we should ask ourselves: is it really worth it? How much does society benefit from these companies when one does not merely consider their financial value? This focus on monetary valorization results in forgiving much of the negative impact they may have on their environment: the working conditions they provide, their general social impact and the redistribution of their value.
Collectively, we got lost in the rush for innovation. In the era of digitalization where solutions are only a few clicks away, we are looking for instant gratification. We subcontract daily tasks, decision-making and management to softwares that indicate the most efficient solutions. This process creates an ultra-competitive society where it is difficult to find space for human involvement nature, its diversity, its inherent complexities and our well-being. Instead, we trust simplistic binary solutions provided by digital platforms that often help us solve minor inconveniences, whilst creating ethical loopholes.
Platform Co-op: a Disruptive Narrative
Entrepreneurship within specific social territories is a complex matter. In order to create a company that truly makes a positive impact, there is a need for a complex balance between all stakeholders and their environment. Businesses driven by values rather than mere profit do exist. These social enterprises have proven to be sustainable, even if they do not always seek global dominance. Legally, they are often constituted under the cooperative entity or coops.
What if digital platforms were also structured as coops? What would happen if platforms allowed members to vote on the use of their personal data? Or how the value that the platform generates is redistributed? What if users had their say in the strategies implemented to ensure a sustainable development?
Luckily, these questions are not just hypothetical. Numerous companies are attempting ethical digital ventures. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider have developed an impressive corpus of publications over the past three years. Their work provides the framework for a strong narrative that highlights the existence of this sector under the label Platform Cooperativism.
The term gained rapid traction as existing companies recognize their values in this specific narrative. Ethical digital start ups flocked to this specific labeling because it embodies what they are trying to achieve.
Thanks to the Platform Coop Movement the mythical Unicorn has a new opponent: the Zebra. “Platform Co-ops” or “Zebras” are companies that thrive through regenerative growth and cooperation. Zebras have two advantages: they are real and, since they strongly believe in cooperation, they move in herds.
The strength of the PlatformCoop Movement is that it creates an alternative narrative for digital entrepreneurship by highlighting existing initiatives as well as the challenges ahead. The diversity of the actors involved in the movement creates a slow but consistent progress in the growth of this sector of the digital economy.
The way our current business models are structured and financed is intimately linked to the dominant neoliberal narrative. It is structurally more difficult for a platform co-op to emerge as there still is too little formalized know-how available. Moreover, the existing financing models are not always adequate. While new Zebras are struggling to emerge, they are also fighting an unfair battle with wannabe Unicorns. These opponents are able to move faster due to suitable financing models, and the lack of regulation and ethics. A shift in this economic paradigm will require time and patience.
There is still a long way to go to make a structural change. If we want to succeed we will need to continue to organize the movement by strengthening our emerging networks and its narrative. Additionally, we will need to embrace patience and appreciate the complexity of what we are trying to achieve.
Nurturing the Narrative by Actions
Shifting the economic paradigm is not an easy task and sometimes it is good to take the time to appreciate the progress that has been made.
The Platform Co-op Movement is colliding with existing and emerging initiatives.
These include but are not limited to groups such as “Open Co-op”: an organization in the UK “building a world-wide community of individuals and organizations committed to the creation of a collaborative, sustainable economy”. The “Zebras Unite Movement” was started in Portland, and calls for a more ethical and inclusive movement to counter existing start-up and venture capital culture. In Paris, “Plateformes en Communs” is organizing recurrent meet-ups for Zebra startups. “Supermarkt” a platform for digital culture, collaborative economies and new forms of work in Berlin is also trying to structure the local PlatformCoop Movement. Another relevant?example relates to the sale of Twitter in 2016, Nathan Schneider suggested to transform it into a co-op. This idea got enough attention to be seriously discussed during the annual stakeholder meeting in May 2017.
Trebor Scholz got an important grant from the Google Foundation to support the economic development of cooperatives in the digital economy. Professor and author Jack Linchuan Qiu is strongly invested in gathering the existing PlatformCoop network in Hong Kong for their annual meet-up in an effort to get the asian coop sector and digital entrepreneurs on board.
The interest for the co-op model is also visible in the interest of academic institutions for the field. The VUB (Free University of Brussels) has started to study the benefits of the co-op model. The idea of platform cooperativism received enough traction to catch the attention of the Region of Brussels. The Region is currently funding a consortium of local experts in order to facilitate and encourage the emergence of platform co-ops. The consortium is composed of 3 organisations combining theoretical and practical skills; “Febecoop” is promoting and developing the cooperative model; “SAW B” a non profit enterprise is advocating for social entrepreneurship and “SMart” a shared enterprise of freelancers operating in 9 european countries that managed to scale its business model by developing a digital platform. The consortium is working hand in hand with “Coopcity” an incubator for social and cooperative entrepreneurship in an effort to create an appropriate environment to start a platform coop. Looking beyond the ambition of the Region of Brussels, the consortium will gather data on best practices from Berlin and Barcelona in an effort to strengthen and broaden existing networks.
The process initiated by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider will be slow but as long as we collectively continue to engage we will make change happen. It is important to encourage and nurture the existing mobilisation of policy makers, unions, entrepreneurs, academics, investors and consumers.
Embrace Patience and Appreciate Complexity
The challenges we are facing today are thrilling. We have at hand incredible technologies, brilliant thinkers and entrepreneurs which could enable us to shift our current world dynamic. This shift would contribute greatly to solving crucial global issues such as the urgent need to reverse the growth of social injustices. Collectively, we have an exceptional opportunity to work towards cultural change. We could move from an individualistic system that aims for personal profit, to a state of mind of solidarity.
To make these things happen, we hold an abounding ecosystem of social enterprises which can give insight on their know-how. Cooperatives have years of experience in managing distributed governance and social impact. We can also tremendously benefit from the unfortunate misconceptions of the current platform-economy as a handbook, which logs a full set of guidelines explaining what not to do and why.
Incorporating these positive and negative experiences can ensure that the tools we develop ensure the well-being of all the actors of the networks we create and bring about a positive impact on the environment in which they operate. In this way, we will be able to create the tools of tomorrow which central values will be social justice and genuine sharing.