Category Archives: “New Mutualism”

Robin Hood Coop: Offshore Finance for Doing Good?

I worry about this one.  It’s probably OK so far, but I still worry.

The Robin Hood Coop calls itself a “coop”, though it operates as an “activist investment fund”, using an opaque algorithm to automagically manage the investments.  Some of the proceeds are raked off to support the operations.

Investing in a magic algorithm should be done carefully in all cases.  so it is a definite red flag that I can’t find any information about the algorithm (called, “The Parasite”, which somehow fails to reassure me very much).  There certainly nothing published or peer reviewed on their web site.

There are additional warning flags in the promotional materials.  This isn’t just a hedge fund, it is “a cooperative that bends the financialization of economy for the benefit of those who are not the financial elite”.  There are management fees plus a rakeoff to “fund projects that expand the commons”.  And, of course, it is implemented using Ethereum, which is “revolutionary technology for decentralised computing” (so what could possibly go wrong?)

Lot’s of fine sentiments, but impossible to really know what they might mean in practice.

I have to admit that my eyebrows rose at the FAQ item, “Is it Legal?” (Answer: Yes, under the laws of Finland.)  I’m glad that this is a relevant consideration, but it’s still troubling that they think people would be in doubt.

Of course, the answer is actually much more complicated than the FAQ indicates, at least for people not living in Finland. You are transferring money to this Finnish organization, which is investing in the US. If you take money out, it’s another transfer from Finland.  As they say, “When you receive payments from Robin Hood, you will be liable for whichever taxes you would pay for investment income in your country of residence and/or Finland.”  In short, who really knows?

Anyway, this is probably OK, though it seems unlikely to be a particularly profitable investment.  It may be a good way to support the “commons” projects they select, though, again, I don’t really know the implications of such international investments.

In the long run, they might be well advised to create a network of RHC affiliates incorporated in different jurisdictions.


This project has moved to a more troubling RHC2.0, which manages all shares as a private cryptocurrency (RobYns) which is used for trading in various currencies and cryptocurrencies.  This may or may not be a cost effective way to run the service, but it certainly does raise issues of trust. (Do I want to invest via a fund that has no humans in charge, and has no legal presence in my local jurisdiction?)

And if I understand their materials, they correctly are aiming to go even farther, with V3.0 called Robin Hood Unlimited.  This is a member owned (I think) “platform, where anyone could develop financial instruments, and launch them as apps for other members to use”. The goal is to offer “every opportunity to devise different investment strategies and different ways of directing profits or other funding to projects”.

Cooperative or not, this is a description of an offshore, extralegal, money hub, which is not a socially positive animal.   I this an “offshore coop”?  Do the benefits of “cooperative” outweigh the negatives of “offshore”?  Does the “Unlimited” cancel out the “member owned”?


Whether you share my own aversion to hot money in any form, you have to agree that RHC seems to take the motto “think globally, act locally” kind of backwards.  The fund is directing funds from everywhere to a few deserving projects, extracting capital and transferring it. These transactions may be ethical (though we have to trust them on that), but they certainly aren’t local for most of the investors.

The blockchain technology they use not only makes this strategic error easy, it is really the only way that blockchain can reasonably be used.  A global, peer-to-peer network is a primary affordance of blockchain technology, which is just plain the wrong model for local economies. In other words, selecting Ethereum technology is leading down the wrong path.

My basic point is that where ever the investors are, they surely could find local enterprises to invest in.  And that is what we all should do.  Shipping funds off to other continents or to untethered Internet projects is not a good way to make your own community better, which should be a top priority. In fact, it tends to move funds away from local social enterprises.

The new “RH Unlimited” project will likely be much worse. Much, much worse. Sure, it will be possible to create local tokens and local cooperatives, though we already can do that with “some guys in Finland”.  But it will also be trivial to sell and buy shares in anything, with unknowable consequences.

Making it easy for anyone to mess about with financial instruments is really not a way to promote community solidarity, trust, or sustainable development.  How will this be policed, if it even can be?  What happens if the coop is turned into a financial tool for criminals, terrorists, corporate trolls, and/or political shenanigans?

I note that even if you are satisfied that the current leadership is ethical, a decentralized organziation–cooperative or not–can be taken over by nefarious forces.  So watch out.


I probably shouldn’t be too hard on RHC.  There are dozens of variations on these “non-extractive investment” ideas and Ethereum is a favorite technology for these concepts.  To me, this looks like a hammer in search of nails.  We have a technology that lets people build their own financial systems, so obviously we should tackle the problem of ethical finance.

My own view is that the harder problems are social, and they need to be solved by talking and working together, face-to-face, in our own communities.  Imagining that faceless, soulless Internet technology will help in this ground campaign is misguided.  In fact, blockchain technology is antithetical to the personal human contact essential to actual ethical economics.

I’m willing to be proved wrong.  I will leave this as a challenge to RCH and other similar projects.  Let’s see what kind of sustainable “non-extractive” economic activity is actually possible.

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Blockchain Use Cases For A Real Sharing Economy

From the very beginning, Nakamotoan blockchains have inspired dreams of a better world.  In the ensuing decade, many use cases have been floated, though many of the most successful are hardly socially beneficial (e.g., supporting dark markets, extortion, and new flavors of financial scams).

Aaron Fernando writes in Sharable about “Blockchain as a force for good” [1], by which he means implementing a real sharing economy.

here’s a deep dive on blockchain applications in our niche: social impact.

He notes that the term “blockchain” is now used for a variety of systems, not just the original open, decentralized Nakamotoan design [2].  He also points out that use of a blockchain may or may not require a cryptocurrency, and for currencies, there are alternative mining protocols with radically different ecological implications.  In short, the meaning of the term “blockchain” isn’t simple.  it is vital to understand the precise technology in use to match the technology to the goals of the users,

But watch out—Nakamotoan developers are not oriented toward “social impact” in the way that Sharable readers want.

“If you can come up with something that is easy to bootstrap, that does have some incentives built in for the people operating the schemes, and also makes the world a better place — then we’re talking.” (quoting Emin Gün Sirer)


The article visits examples of this sort of “social positive” projects using blockchain technology, and links to a half dozen interviews with some example projects.

There are variations on the theme of crowd funding and peer-to-peer credit, generally aimed at investments at a local level, such as within a city.  This may be done with digital tokens or conventional currency. These systems compete with or replace conventional banks, and potentially provide financial services to the “unbanked” and credit starved.

Other variations involve managing assets and certificates, independent of a central repository.  This might manage human resources (a la a time bank), physical resources (e.g., locally generated solar power) or legal status (such as so-called “self-sovereign identity”).  In all cases, the blockchain serves as an unhackable, digitally programmable, global bulletin board for these exchanges.

Other services are variations on crowdsourcing, offering shared knowledge and decision making.  In these cases, the blockchain serves as a secure repository for digital artifacts (e.g., shared documents) and also supports distributed discussion, voting and decision making, which is the heart of both organizations and democracy.

The common thread among all these efforts is probably user and local ownership, “tools in the hands of the workers” in the twenty first century.  Blockchain technology offers a way for people to share data without relying on centralized servers, which are run by organizations that try to control the activity and rake-off profits—and which may be shut down.

It is also true that blockchain technology is pretty cheap, which is critical for many of these services. One reason conventional financial institutions do not serve small scale enterprises and poor people is that their overhead costs are too high to allow it.  Blockchain based systems that pare down costs can successful serve these cases.

Finally, I’ll point out, as I have many times before, these services are all about trust. While Nakamotoan blockchains are described as “trustless” (because the computers do not need to trust each other), these “socially positive” use cases all work by enabling individuals to work together and trust each other.

The clearest example has to be something like “self-sovereign identity”.  The idea here is to post cryptographically signed credentials on a public blockchain, where they can be accessed and cross-checked anywhere in the world (without government permission).  Even if conventional authorities can’t or won’t certify a person’s identity, they may still be able to get along.

It is clear that this scheme scarcely eliminates the need for authorities, it just makes it possible for people to utilize whatever certification they choose or can obtain in their given circumstances.

But the principle remains the same: whether it’s a printed ID card or a cryptographically signed entry on the blockchain, what matters is who signed it, i.e., who vouches for this information.  When I need an identification for someone, I’m not going to pay any attention to any record, blockchain or not, from a source I don’t trust.

Think about it:  there is nothing to stop anybody from creating their own identification service on the blockchain. I’ll be able to buy whatever credentials I want.  So it will matter even more that there are trusted issuers out there.

All these services depend on establishing trust between parties, one way or another.  The systems are designed to make this as easy and reliable as possible, and, importantly, without requiring only one overriding authority.

When I say these systems are not actually “trustless”, it is not an indictment of these systems or of blockchain technology.  In fact, it is really an explanation of what is hard and what is significant about these concepts.

First, I don’t think that blockchain technology itself is essential to any of these ideas, it could be replaced by other low cost digital technology. Some form of blockchain technology may or may not turn out to be a good way to do it, though, as the article says, there are a lot of permutations of the basic idea of blockchain and its related public key cryptography.

However, these concepts are extremely significant for blockchain, because they provide examples of how to build trusted networks of people using this “trustless” technology. That is the interesting part, in my view.

There are so many not very innovative blockchain “innovations” (think, Initial Coin Offerings, which are nothing more or less than unlicensed securities), it is good to see some truly innovative ideas being tested.


  1. Aaron Fernando (2018) Blockchain as a force for good: How this technology could transform the sharing economy. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/blockchain-as-a-force-for-good-how-this-technology-could-transform-the-sharing-economy
  2. Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009. http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Seldon on AI and the Future of Work

Sensei Tyra Seldon generally has her head screwed on right.   I hate to disagree with her, especially since she is usually right [here, here, here, here, here, here].

But this month she blogged about AI and the job market [3].  Don’t be afraid, “The future won’t be automated,” she says.

Uh, oh.

Actually, I’m afraid it will be.

Of course, Sensei Seldon is hardly naïve.  She knows that digital technology (AI or otherwise) has and will continue to change life and work.

One point she wants to make is that being afraid of these changes isn’t the right approach.

“There is no need to panic, but there is a need to be prepared.“

She draws lessons from industrial automation.  Panic, denial or resistance isn’t effective.  Embrace and make the best of new technology.

“Many of my friends in the automotive industry have shared with me that the key to their job security isn’t competing with technology, but it is learning how to leverage technology more effectively to accomplish an end goal.”

Seldon herself works with words, and hopes to continue to get paid to work with words. Taking this model of auto workers, the question is, what will AI be able to do, and what will humans be able to do better than–and alongside–AI?

Seldon argues that “there are certain things that AI cannot do and that revolves around uniquely human traits that make us, well, human.”  In short, we puny Carbon-based entities should understand their own strengths, and let our Silicon-based masters do the rest.

What are humans uniquely good at?  Seldon quotes Frida Polli, to say “Creativity. Empathy. Compassion. These are uniquely human traits that no AI guru is claiming are going to be automatable anytime soon.”

Here I have to disagree, at least partly.  Our intuitions about what can and can’t be automated have proved to be wildly inaccurate over and over again. Personally, I still don’t believe that it is possible for computers to generate and understand speech.  But they do.

Depending on the definitions and context, there is no reason why digital systems might not provide adequate “empathy” and “compassion”.  They already are giving puny mortals a run for the money in “creativity”, at least in certain contexts.

Basically, I never bet against AI.


So let’s refine this thought.  I think the thing that AI can’t match is embodied intelligence, and face-to-face interaction.  On the internet, noone can tell if you are a dog, a human, or an AI.  In the flesh, everyone can tell, and everyone cares about the differences.

The implication is, whatever you do, make it personal and, to the degree possible, in person.  Match that, Siri!

So: don’t try to compete with computers for speed or price or even language skills; but do try to challenge them on being there, right now, in person.

Unfortunately, there is another aspect of this issue, and that is the “making a living” part of it. Whatever the competencies of humans, can they be monetized or otherwise turned into food and shelter?  It’s not just what can humans do that computers can’t, it’s what can humans do and get paid for in a decent way?

Here, the challenge is capitalism, not technology.  And here, you should be afraid.  Siri isn’t after your job, but Apple sure is. It’s nothing personal, they’re just interested in the money. All the money.

This is why there needs to be a Freelancers Union and other efforts (such as Platform Cooperativism [1, 2].)


The future will be automated.  The question is, how will we run the future.


  1. Trebor Scholz, Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York Office, New York, 2016. http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/platform-cooperativism-2/
  2. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, eds. Ours to Hack and Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A new Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. OR Books: New York, 2017.
  3. Tyra Seldon, AI and the job market: Why we shouldn’t be afraid, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/05/16/ai-and-the-job-market-why-we-shouldnt-be-afraid/

 

Disclosure:  I have been a client with Seldon Writing Group in the past year.  Opinions expressed here are my own.

What is Coworking? The Book Launch!

The long promised book, “What is Coworking?” is finally available.  See details here.

It’s been a gradual rollout, so I am having a ‘Book Launch’ on June 1, to mark an official release date.

Book Launch Pop Up!

Come in and help celebrating the launch of a new book, “What is Coworking?” by Urbana author Robert E. McGrath.

Friday June 1, 2018
5 – 9PM
[Co][Lab] Urbana
206 W. Main St., Urbana

 

What is Coworking?

What is Coworking? It Can Be On A Co-op Plan

There are many ways to organize and operate a coworking space.  (See my new book, “What is Coworking?” [2])

These days, things have become awfully corporate feeling, and it is hard to remember the early days of coworking, which was much more of a worker owned enterprise.

The fact is, coworking spaces have been successfully run not just as for-profit companies, but also as not-just-for-profit, non-profit, embedded in other enterprises (e.g., libraries), and around kitchen tables.

And a coworking space can also be operated as a worker owned cooperative.

This month Cat Johnson reports on Coworking Niagara, “the only English-speaking coworking co-op in Canada” [1].   The workers who use the space are coowners of the space. Actually, paying members own the space, however much they use it.

Founder Trevor Twining indicates that the choice of a coop reflected the desire for mutual commitment. However, “cooperative” does not have to mean “non-profit.”

In the interest of financial sustainability, CN is organized as a for profit cooperative. This requires seeking income to sustain the space, which has led them to offer revenue generating services.

For profit status has both benefits and limitations.  Non-profits can have some kinds of relationships that for profit cannot (e.g., with public and other non-profits).

The main point, of course, was to align the formal governance of the space with the egalitarian spirit of the coworking community. “[W]e wanted members to not only feel like they were involved and had a say, but to actually have a say.

Twining says that a big benefit is that the members’, AKA customers’, interests are aligned with the space, and with each other.  This mutual interest strengthens this aspect of the community.

“We wanted to commit ourselves to them and we wanted them to be committed to us.”

Of course, cooperatives can be difficult to set up and operate. The legal framework is not trivial, and a patchwork across different jurisdictions.  And democratic decision making can be difficult.  On the other hand, Twining says there are generally other cooperatives in the area which are eager to cooperate.  So there is an existing ecosystem of mutual help among coops.


Is a coop a good model for running a coworking space?  Yes, for some, but not necessarily for all.

The plusses include the close alignment between the community and it’s spirit; and the operation of the facility. In particular, there won’t be a question of a corporate rake-off or other potential conflicts of interests between the management and the members.

This alignment is also a potential weakness. A coop is a commitment, and this may not suit every worker.  (A coop is all pigs, no chickens.) There are plenty of independent workers who desire a place to work, but not the hassle of helping run a workplace. It also may be harder to leave, or to split time with other coworking facilities. If you are part owner, you can’t walk away as easily.

A cooperative organization is not a guarantee against conflict. Indeed, a serious conflict among members will automatically be a conflict within the management, with potentially serious consequences.  We’ve all seen organizations disintegrate in factional fighting, and a coop is just as vulnerable to this, if not more so.

In the end, everything depends on the members and the leadership. In particular, with the right leadership, pretty much any formal organization will work.  And a good community will work well no matter what the paperwork says.

From what I have read, all things equal, booting up a coop is probably more work than a corporation.  But, as Twining says, “there are long-term rewards”.


  1. Cat Johnson, Bringing The Cooperative Business Model To Coworking: A Q&A With Cowork Niagara’s Trevor Twining, in allWork. 2018. https://allwork.space/2018/05/bringing-the-cooperative-business-model-to-coworking-a-qa-with-cowork-niagaras-trevor-twining/
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community, Urbana, Robert E. McGrath, 2018.

Hey, hey!  My new book “What is Coworking?” is (finally) available at online stores.

Check it out

And if you are in the area, come on out to the Book Launch, June 1.


 

What is Coworking?

2018 Coworking Survey: Not That Great News

The annual Deskmag survey [1] is presented at Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) every year.  For the past few years, the full report has been proprietary, i.e., you have to buy it.  This is standard practice for corporate research, but makes it impossible for me or any other independent researcher to critique or even comment on their results.   Personally, I think it would be a good idea to release as much of the data as possible.  Maybe release last year when you publish this year, or something like that.

Anyway, the headlines are pretty much the same as usual [4]. The number of coworkers and the number of coworking operations has grown steadily.

In the past few years, the survey has focused more and more on coworking operators, and on projecting the future of the “industry”.  Much of the report is a collection of opinions about what insiders expect in the next year.  These are roughly as useful as any of the junk in the “business news”.

The big news this year, of course, is the aggressive expansion of the WeWork chain [2].  The survey documents the widespread complaints about the impact of WeWork’s anti-competitive behaviors. There isn’t any actual data, just opinions.

This annual survey is one of the most influential reports on coworking.  As noted, it has the privilege of an annual presentation at GCUC, and everyone cites it, including me [3].


This survey is becoming less and less useful over the years.

First of all, the methodology is not published, but seems very weak.

This year, as in the past, it is still conducted as a web survey.  There is no sampling strategy, and it is subject to all the shortcomings of any public poll. The only thing reported about the sample is “1980 people filled in the questionnaire.”  That’s a healthy sample size, but they appear to be entirely self-selected.  It isn’t necessarily representative of all coworkers or coworking operations, and certainly doesn’t represent, say, workers who don’t coowork, or have stopped coworking.

Even the headline numbers are less than they seem.  The reports emphasize a continued steady growth in workers and sites.  Even taking these data at face value (and there isn’t really much support for the specific numbers) the story isn’t all that rosy.

The reported growth in coworkers is something like 33% in 2018.  This is healthy growth, though hard to parse precisely. Does a worker who uses a coworking space one hour per year count the same as a full time, all year member?

But the main point is that this large year-to-year increase is coming off a pretty small base number. If the total number of coworkers really is 1.69 million people world wide, then this is something like one out of every 1700 workers.  (The increase is up from something like 1 in 1900.)  This is a tiny fraction of all workers.

This actually makes sense.  Vast numbers of workers produce physical products and/or deal directly with customers and users (e.g., farmers, doctors, firefighters). Coworking isn’t really a meaningful option for these workers, even if they are independent contractors.

Of course, for some categories of work and workers, coworking is much more prevalent.  I’m sure that a relatively high proportion of freelance digital workers choose to cowork at least some of the time. This workforce has been growing in recent decades, perhaps as much as 26% in 2017.   Similarly, the number of “freelancers” is growing, perhaps by 5%. The reported growth in coworking is roughly consistent with the growth in digital workers, and faster than the general group of “freelancers”.

The 2018 survey also finds “18,900 shared workspaces around the world, compared to 8,900 in 2015.”  Doubling every 3 years is a pretty good pace, though again it is a small base number.  20,000 sites is not really a big number. For comparison, there are something like 25,000 Starbucks sites world-wide (and most coworkers probably also work in one or more coffee houses.)

Overall, coworking is still a tiny, tiny sliver of all workers and workplaces.

With this in mind, the rather gloomy predictions from many of the respondents stand out as serious red flags.  Many operators report difficulties attracting new members, too much competition (e.g., from other coworking spaces), and other signs that growth will be limited.

It may be telling that even in the deskmag survey,  the growth of workers is about the same or slower than the growth in sites.

Altogether, it is easy to believe that coworking is already overbuilt.


I personally take this entire survey with a grain of salt. It is not only self-reports from a self-selected sample, many of the headline questions are actually asking for guesses about the future.   Sigh.

However, taking the data to be at least somewhat accurate, the rhetoric about growth looks like corporate cheerleading to me. The capacity is growing as fast, and possibly faster, than the user base. There is plenty of reason to wonder just how large the pool of potential coworkers actually is, and will be in the future.

This intuition is reflected in the anxieties expressed by the respondents about finding new members and competition.

The signs are that coworking may be “over built”, and may experience a major crash.


  1. Carsten Foertsch (2018) 1.7 Million Members Will Work in Coworking Spaces by the End of 2018. deskmag, http://www.deskmag.com/en/1-7-million-members-will-work-in-coworking-spaces-by-the-end-of-2018-survey
  2. Carsten Foertsch (2018) WeWork harms 40% of all coworking spaces in its close vicinity, however…. deskmag, http://www.deskmag.com/en/wework-harms-40percent-of-coworking-spaces-in-its-close-vicinity-competition-986
  3. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community, Urbana, Robert E. McGrath, 2018.
  4. Ruby Irene Pratka (2018) Deskmag survey: More than 1.5 million people to use coworking spaces this year. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/recent-report-estimates-13-million-people-use-coworking-spaces

For more information about coworking and coworkers, see my new book:

What is Coworking?

A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community,


What is Coworking?

 

 

What is Coworking? It’s A Book!

I’ve been blogging about coworking since at least January 2015,  and for more than a year, I’ve promised a forthcoming book, “What is Coworking?”

The wait is over!

Just in time for this year’s Global Coworking UnConference (GCUC 2018), the long awaited book is rolling out.

What is Coworking? is a new book is a look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community.

Find out more here.

It’s a gradual launch.

The paperback and ebook are available via Lulu today, and will be available through more channels in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for local events and other updates.

 

 

What is Coworking?