Trending: Platform Cooperatives?

One of the hot trends in today’s economy are “platforms” which enable “peer-to-peer” transactions. AirBnB was a pioneer, Uber is the prime example. The “platform” in question is an internet service accessed through mobile devices which manages the matchmaking, taking a fee from each “peer” transaction. There are many examples of this concept, some more and some less successful.

Each of these cases packs together technology, a business model, and a cultural story into a seamless whole. But it is important to remember that these pieces are not inseparable, they can be combined in different ways.

For example, if we dislike Uber’s business model, why can’t we make a different Uber, one that is nicer to workers?

The first part of the answer to this question is that the technology is certainly available. No matter what the corporate press releases and ignorant journalists may imply, there is no technological wonder or genius in most of these systems. They are well-designed mash ups that take advantage of widely available technology to deliver a successful service, usually with a successful narrative that invites people to participate in the story.  This is very good work, but it is not technological wizardry.

As commercial competitors have discovered, the technology alone will not necessarily enable you to successfully compete with an established platform. If, say, Lyft, is “just like Uber”, then it is doomed from the start, because Uber is even more like Uber than Lyft. There has to be more to the story than just “not being Uber”.

So, what is needed? Not technology, but a better business plan, and concomitant story.

Platform Cooperatives

These “peer” platforms have been criticized for a variety of reasons, not least because the people who create the value in these networks bear most of the costs, reap little reward, and have no say over the business.

These beefs are all about the business plan (and legal structure) of the operation, not the technology.

Responding to these critiques, there is a movement to advocate “platform coops” and “platform cooperativism”. Think, “worker and rider owned Uber”, and you have the idea. Same great service, but operated by and for the benefit of the actual users.

In principle, this concept is straightforward. There are a number of internet resources describing and promulgating these concepts, and there are examples in operation.

This month Sharable published a nice little “explainer”, that gives a sketch of why, what, and how to do platform coops.  They comment that, “Even though the concept of a cooperative enterprise is not new, there are still relatively few of them in the digital services industry.” Looking at their explainer, we can see that legal structures and governance are probably more complicated problems than the technology. Co-ops are great, but creating a co-op is not trivial.

In earlier posts I have noted “The Internet of Ownership” which is a directory of technology, services, and organizations that implement these ideas. This directory has grown rapidly this year, and is becoming an interesting source of ideas and barometer of what is possible. Perhaps I can return to this site for future exploration.   I imagine that it will be interesting to observe how the suite evolves over the next few years.

I have also notedThe People Who Share”, a similar group with a variety of documentation and advocacy. This group also offers corporate consultancy.

While these folks share fundamental goals, it is important to say that there are many ways to skin this cat, and that is reflected in these sites. While user owned cooperatives are one approach, the same technology (and the same ideological goals) can be addressed by public sector organizations, private non-profits, for profit companies, and combinations. (The technology really doesn’t care about how the carbon based life forms organize themselves!)

I should also nod to Sensei Claire Marshall who has not only published a variety of links, but has also walked the walk in 2014 and continues to this day.  Sensei Claire reminds us that sharing is not about “platforms” but about people, and that sharing makes people happy.

It may be work pointing out that these groups and web sites are heavily invested in the third critical component I mentioned, the “story”. We now have a name for our discontent (we want better “platforms”), and a diagnosis of the evils of corporate monopoly “platforms”. The old ideal of worker owned cooperatives is actually a great match for this technology, and offers the usual benefits.

But even better, “platform cooperatives” mash up the cultural narrative about the many advantages of participating in a worker / user owned co-op, with the exciting narrative about technological disruption and the new way of work. It’s good for you, but it’s sexy, too!

And it will make you happy, too!

What’s Next?

It looks to me like there is a growing base of technology that should make it easy for anyone who wants to, to create their own “platform”. It has never been easier to experiment with these ideas.

There are many questions I don’t think I know the answers to.

What are the best scales for these concepts? Corporate platforms win by growing as large as they can, but that doesn’t seem to be a reasonable model for a co-op. The self-government will work best at moderate scales, closely identified with cultural or geographical communities. But can these platforms be sustained at small scales corresponding to communities of use?

For that matter, what kind of communities might get in this game? Here I think about possibilities like religious groups that might want to boot up this kind of platform to meet the needs of their own, and to serve a public mission. There are plenty of precedents for such efforts (including labor unions and cooperatives), and the technology would seem to match some religious missions very well.

Should this kind of coop thrive, there could be many bloody legal battles as corporate platforms discover the merits of government regulation, and strike back. (The solar and wind energy sectors have experienced this kind of skullduggery in the past couple of years.)

Finally, living as I do in the “flyover” section of the US, I will be interested to see how these concepts play out beyond the dense megacities of the coasts. Ride sharing (perhaps without human drivers) may revolutionize the city, but what will it do out in the country? For example, if car ownership declines, the cost of owning a private vehicle will rise quite a bit. How will people in dispersed, low-density locations survive, if only the wealthiest can afford to have a vehicle?

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