This is a shortened version of Rohan Clarke’s original blog post

Co-operatives tend to mirror their cultural context. Their democratic nature allows them to escape the homogenising demands of capital and to focus on the different ways value can be delivered to their members and communities. So it was not so surprising that the annual Platform Co-operativism conference in Hong Kong was notable for the many faceted ways that co-operatives are developing across the globe. They may have a common gene pool but the way it is expressed is very much a reflection of the community that they serve.

Following are some of the things we learned at the conference…

Defining the space

A common definition of platform co-operatives is still emerging.

Trebor Schultz (the New School) as the primal protagonist of the Platform Co-operativism movement spoke to the very tangible ways that work is being done to build momentum. This includes projects around the Platform Coop Development Kit that are at the vanguard of change to create open-source software by industry sector and by common function. It’s a very utilitarian definition of platform co-operatives.

In line with these developments, Danny Spitzberg (CoLab) suggested that perhaps it makes more sense to talk about ‘co-operative platforms’– that they are not a new type of co-operative but a specific way to organise a technology platform. 

The nature of the network was also pivotal to Michel Bauwen’s (P2P Foundation) thinking around the trends he sees emerging in the co-operative sector:

  • Platform coops – are primarily digital marketplaces
  • Ledger coops – are technologies that enable distributed capitalism
  • Protocol coops – are open design repositories for common infrastructure development
  • Cosmo-local coops – are urban commons projects that can use shared technology

Sharing technology

There is a growing opportunity for co-operatives to share platform technologies across borders.

One of the benefits of being a global conference is that it could attract the latest thinking and developments from a wide variety of industry participants. And as co-operatives are pretty good at sharing, it offers a way for the sector to foster development across borders.

Open-source platforms

This approach is exemplified by the work that the New School is doing with SEWA to create a platform to assist workers in India. Similarly, CoopCycle has created open-source software that enables worker coops to create their own local bike sharing schemes.

SAAS platforms

Open source software has its limitations, particularly as it still requires that each instance is customised and maintained to local needs. For this reason, another way of targeting scale efficiencies is by creating hosted solutions that offer more plug’n’play type functionality. For example, Sharetribe – which enables communities to create their own labour or product hire markets – is a co-operatively owned platform that offers hosted, customizable services.

Special purpose platforms

And then there are the platforms that offer services that meet the specific needs of communities of interest. For example, a worker co-operative like SMart offers very sophisticated back-end support for skilled freelancers.

Infrastructure platforms

Finally, there are the platforms that are developing capabilities that can support co-operatives regardless of their purpose or structure. These are platforms that are aiming to create common infrastructure. So for example, Coop Exchange is aiming to make it easier for co-operatives to raise funding. Similarly, Geddup is being developed to support distributed organising and governance in co-operatives.

Sharing value

The sharing of value across different stakeholders remains a challenge for the sector.

One of the underlying themes of the conference was the question of how value is shared between founders and investors of a platform on the one hand and its users on the other. It’s a foundational issue. Notwithstanding their democratic approach to the distribution of value, co-operative platforms still need to find ways of attracting the resources required to foster development. 

Sharing Data

There is plenty of scope for the cooperative sector to grasp the opportunities around data.

The conference showcased some cracking examples of how data sharing and analytics can change communities:

  • PetaJakarta showed how using open source software (Cognicity), they had been able to change the way Indonesia could respond to flood events
  • The Alliance of Foodbanks from Taiwan illustrated how data had radically improved their efficiency in collecting and distributing food across their networks
  • Shangzan City is developing tools to measure the impact of social investing that can be embedded in the funding structures themselves via smart contracts
  • Datavest illustrates a data cooperative approach to helping members realize the value of their data

Conclusion

The conference was a brilliant hotpot of fresh ideas. In our own corner of the world, it’s already lead to the introduction of a few of these international efforts into the Australian market. We look forward to seeing where the movement has taken us next year.

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