Tag Archives: Cat Johnson

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?

Liz Elam on the Future of Coworking

Liz Elam is the visible face of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, and a major advocate for the coworking “industry”.  This fall she wrote about Coworking Megatrends for 2018.

Sensei Elam makes some interesting observations.  She gives four trends:

  • Demand (especially, large corporations)
  • WeWork (is expanding and diversifying and aggressively marketing)
  • Scarcity of Resources (especially, community leaders)
  • Health (wellness and loneliness)

Elam is excited that “15% of the SP 500 have entered the coworking world”, though I’m not really sure what all “enter” means.  One thing it means is investment in coworking in a variety of permutations, “with more brands adding in coliving, coffee shops, retail and build to suit arrangements”.

WeWork has been aggressively expanding, underselling competitors, and generally being bad neighbors.  Elam comments that they are also diversifying and “losing focus on the original workspace vision”. (I have never heard her criticize any coworking operation before this.)

She sees a “scarcity of resources”, by which she means that investors are finding a dearth of investments, “they’re not finding enough operators that are willing, and able to scale.”  (Conversely, this means that there is a glut of money available.)  The most critical resource of all is community leadership, and experienced people are “in great demand and hard to retain”.

Finally, Elam continues to emphasize wellness. She echoes the growing concern about loneliness (which, by the way, has been a problem since the invention of cities).  She points out that “Coworking is the solution” to loneliness.

In a follow up with Sensei Cat Johnson, Elam emphasizes that health is at the end because it is the most important trend. This is a trendy topic, and who isn’t in favor of “healthy”?  But she emphasizes that there needs to be a serious commitment, not just boxes checked. Operators need “to make sure nobody is actively thinking about committing suicide in your space”.

Elam also has frank words for coworking operators who face fatal competition from WeWork.

When WeWork does start to hurt you—and they will—you’ve got to be able to survive it. You just need to survive because members will come back, and they’ll come back in droves because you offer a more meaningful and smaller community…We have a very clear advantage, but you’ve got to survive to be in the game.

This is a somewhat apocalyptic vision, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this contradicts her own rosy conclusion “that Coworking will continue to thrive, evolve and take over the world.

Elam is usually a loud advocate for the coworking industry, so it is very interesting to see her rather tough critiques of the industry. Despite her often corp-speak rhetoric, she seems to understand the original and true innovation of coworking is community, community, community.

I hold that coworking was invented to deal with the isolation of independent workers, and when it works well, it probably is a “cure” for loneliness.  Implied but unsaid by Elam is the question whether piles of corporate money, branding, and diverse “services” are likely to deliver community and happiness.

My own view is that they are antithetical to authentic community, and Elam’s comments about “a more meaningful and smaller community” is telling.  So is her use of the word “We” in the next sentence.  She seems to think so, too.

One wonders what may unfold at the 2018 GCUC meeting.  Elam promises a “really frank discussion” of the WeWork threat.  But will the rest of the meeting be about authentic community, or about how to clone WeWork?

  1. Liz Elam, The Coworking Megatrends for 2018, in LinkedIn – Pulse. 2017. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coworking-megatrends-2018-liz-elam/
  2. Cat Johnson, Digging Deeper Into The Coworking Megatrends Of 2018: A Q&A With Liz Elam, in AllWork. 2017. https://allwork.space/2017/12/digging-deeper-into-the-coworking-megatrends-of-2018-a-qa-with-liz-elam/
  3. Cat Johnson, The Evolution of the Shared Workspace Industry (and Where We’re Going Next), in Cat Johnson content. 2018. https://catjohnson.co/evolution-shared-workspace-industry/


What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017 Real Soon Now.

What is coworking? Is It Really Part Of Your 21st Century Library?

A recent article by Cat Johnson caught my eye, describing “5 Coworking Spaces and Business Incubators in Libraries That Support Local Workers”. This piece joins earlier articles with the same topic by Hamilton and Lussier.

Everyone agrees that a public library might host a coworking space. These articles put forward the case, citing examples. However, a close reading shows that there aren’t really very many examples—the same ones are mentioned by everyone. I know of roughly 15 of the thousands of public libraries in the world that have opened (or at least proposed) a coworking space.

The case itself is simple. Public libraries are about serving their communities, and in the twenty first century, this means many things besides books. Johnson states the case for coworking in a public library succinctly:

As the needs of communities change, libraries around the world are innovating to meet those changing needs. For a growing number of libraries, that means supporting the workforce by providing coworking spaces, internet access, business incubators, and networking opportunities.

“Coworking spaces and business incubators in libraries serve freelancers, students, entrepreneurs, remote workers, job seekers, independent professionals, and more.

The examples are mainly form the US and the Netherlands.  Here is a list of all the coworking spaces in libraries that I have found:

Akron-Summit County Public Library. Microbusiness Center
Brooklyn Public LIbrary. The Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons.
DC Public LIbrary. The Dream Lab.
** John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Co-working at the Library
Maricopa County Library District. The InnovationHub
Mesa Public LIbrary. ThinkSpot
Phoenix Public Library. About hive.
Richland Library. Reserve a Coworking Desk
*** Seats2Meet. Seats2Meet – Connecting and empowering you to excel.
Spokane Public Library. Level Up Coworking Space.

* This branch is closed for renovation. It is uncertain whether coworking is still available.
** This project was funded for six months in 2015. It does not appear to have continued.
***   Seats2Meet reports sites are four libraries in Netherlands, and there is a site at the Rochester NY library. No information is avialble about the individual sites.


How is this new or different for libraries?

There are some basic semantic questions about what “coworking” actually means.

Public libraries have long offered a workplace, meeting rooms, and digital infrastructure. Libraries are open to the public, provide service at low cost, and rooted in local communities. What does it mean for a library to host a “coworking space”—if the distinction even matters? What do these cases of “coworking” offer that is different from what libraries already have done for years?

Several of the projects described are very similar to services already offered by the library. Indeed, the Brooklyn library is part of its “Information Commons”, which most libraries already have. The DC project was similar to this. .As far as I can see, the difference between an “information commons” and a “coworking space” is desk reservations. And many libraries already have carrels and meeting rooms that can be reserved.

Of Johnson’s five cases, Seats2Meet is a well known coworking chain, with its own unique approach (it is a “Serendipity Machine” [5]). The canonical description of Seats2Meet involves a large (noisy) commons, meeting rooms, and a free buffet lunch [5], This would be a considerable departure from conventional library space! From the article and general information, it isn’t clear exactly how it is integrated with the library.

These spaces offer infrastructure and training in business development, similar to what is offered many coworking spaces. The Akron space is labeled a “Microbusiness Center”, and the Spokane space is also an incubator. There is a cluster of facilities in Arizona, evidently the product of business development initiatives and Arizona State University.

These spaces resemble the business incubators as much as a community of freelancers. There are many coworking spaces with similar goals and programs. On the other hand, the training programs themselves are probably not that different from programs found at other libraries, even if they do not enjoy dedicated space in the library.

How Coworking Works In A Library

There seems to be a number of differences between these coworking spaces compared to conventional coworking.

One prominent asset is that these coworking spaces boast of the deep and broad information resources available from the library. A generic coworking space certainly does not have reference librarians and large collections of information. In house.

On the other hand, these workspaces must cohabit with the rules and customs of the library they inhabit. Some of the spaces advertise “collaboration”, but none of them encourage playing loud music, playing video games in bare feet, or sleeping at your desk. Generally, the coworking area is open only while the library is open—definitely not the place for an all night coding blitz.

Worse, libraries are generally still “shh!” zones. The Richland coworking rules include: “Please do not disturb your coworkers. The Coworking Center is not to be used for interviews, telemarketing, meetings or other loud or disruptive activities.” This is definitely not the classic coworking scene!

Is there a community? What kind of community.

Libraries are rooted in the “come one, come all” spirit of a public service. Coworking is for “members”, and works best when the workers actively participate in the community in the space. A coworking space is a clubhouse for a relatively small number of people, a library is for everyone equally.

These are both “communities”, but different sorts and scales.

Along these lines, it is interesting to observe that libraries have a tradition of individualism. Each individual patron uses the library for his or her own purposes. Many libraries host events, programs, and groups such as book clubs, but most users of the library most of the time are not there to be part of a group, or to spontaneously meet people.

In contrast, coworking is all about community, it is communal. Workers spend time in the coworking space, and expect to commit time to the other workers present. While coworkers have their own independent careers and tasks, they cowork in order to have friends, help and be helped, to collaborate, and to make connections.

This difference is a big reason for the “no talking” versus “talk as much as possible” rules.

Is coworking a good fit for a library?

As I have said, libraries already have infrastructure and missions that a simpatico with coworking. On the other hand, every coffee shop and restaurant has similar infrastructure, as do many residences.

There are reasons why coworking isn’t a good fit for a public library. At it’s best a coworking space is a kind of club house, and coworkers are committed members. Coworking is deeply social, “a respite from our isolation” as Klaas put it [3]. Coworking is also about collaboration and serendipity [5]. These are not traditional missions of a library, and fundamentally clash with the “open to all” philosophy.

Does this mean that libraries can not or should not host coworking? Not necessarily. However, much of what libraries call “coworking” is really just renting out infrastructure, which is neither particularly valuable to the community, nor particularly good use of library resources.

In particular, the library should consider its competition and what the goals are. If there are insufficient workspaces (and incubators) in the community, then by all means a public library can step into the gap. But if there are coworking and other similar service available, then why should the library get into the game, too?

In some cases, the library is following its traditional mission of serving the underserved, offering low cost or free workspace to those who might not have access. This might be very valuable, but unless this is actually a community of workers, it isn’t really coworking, in my opinion.

Libraries are a great thing, and coworking is great for some workers.  But coworking isn’t necessarily a great idea for a public library, nor is a library necesasrily a great place for a coworking space.

  1. Anita Hamilton, The Public Library Wants To Be Your Office.2014, http://www.fastcompany.com/3034143/the-public-library-wants-to-be-your-office
  2. Cat Johnson,  5 Coworking Spaces and Business Incubators in Libraries That Support Local Workers. Sharable.April 3 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/5-coworking-spaces-and-business-incubators-in-libraries-that-support-local-workers
  3. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  4. Kathy Schwartz  Lussier, Your Library Is The Perfect Coworking Space. workfrom.February 28 2017, https://workfrom.co/magazine/story/library-perfect-coworking-space
  5. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012.


What is Coworking?

Please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming  in 2017.

Barcelona Fab Market for Open Source Design

Cat Johnson writes about the “Fab Market”, which is an initiative associated with the world-renowned Barcelona Fab Lab. The basic idea is an online shop that sells products to be made at a local Fab Lab. The designs are created by designers anywhere in the world, and are supposed to be open source. The Barcelona group curates the collection, conducting quality control and overseeing the system.

The business model appears to be that you will pay to obtain either the plans (which are supposedly “open source”), or the parts ready to assemble (DIY), or a fully assembled product. The fabrication and assembly are done at your local Fab Lab—supporting the local economy and reducing transport costs. Some of the revenue goes to the local Fab Lab, some to the workers, and some to the designer.

This effort is part of a larger vision of “Fab Citieshttp://fab.city/, which imagines more self sufficient cities that fabricate a significant portion of their goods locally. Even before anything like that is achieved, this idea may be an opportunity for designers and for local workers.

Johnson summarizes the potential of the Fab Market:

Some of the benefits of the Fab Market system are:

  • Engaging and empowering people in the manufacturing process
  • Spreading the open-source ethos of sharing and collaboration
  • Reducing environmental impact of creating and transporting goods
  • Increasing transparency in the supply chain
  • Reducing the time and costs of production
  • Giving talented designers a platform for showcasing and sharing their products
  • Connecting a global community of makers

The big picture for Fab Market is to create a distributed economy based on good design and quality products that are made to last.

This effort joins existing “open source hardware” concepts, all of which are creating a global collection of artifacts for gardening, office furniture, clothing, plastic recycling and housing and homesteading.

In the same vein as Fab Market, Obrary is a global library of open source designs, available for free download (under creative commons).

Looking at Obrary back in 2014, I commented:

Suggested Feature:  One thing I would really like in a service like this would be some way to find local workers who will build. For example, if I need beehives, and I find a design I like at Obrary, and I want to buy one or more.  It would be nice to have a way to find one or more people in my town with the skills and tools, and pay them to do the build. In this case, there might reasonably be a “suggest donation” back to the designers, but most of the money would be in my local economy, supporting families where I live.

“This can be done informally, and I’m sure it will.  But is there a role for something like Obrary in this process?  And if so, how should it be done?”  (Posted September 5, 2014)

Voila! Barcelona is trying to do exactly this with their Fab Market. How can I disagree with something that was my own idea! 🙂

The obvious next step is to integrate and cross-fertilize these “open source hardware” collections. For example, it should be easy to order up anything in Obrary, and the collection in Fab Market should be accessible via Obrary. Ditto for Aker, OpenDesk, The Global Village Construction Kit, and so on.

I think this kind of interoperation should be doable, with a little bit of imagination to make Fab Market, Obrary, and so on part of an open network of catalogs. (Talk to your local librarian about open standards for catalogs….)

Such a development will also make it possible for others to join in with yet other curated collections of open source hardware, possibly with different business models. For example, garden equipment might be discounted for people who are certified participants in local food exchanges.

Note that Fab Market and the other sites are effectively offering their services as expert curators. This means that a consumer can have several options among curators, to get different perspectives. Opening up the curating process will make it possible for bottom up and peer-to-peer “curation”, so anyone can pull together an inventory of designs, and offer them to the global market of local makers.  It is also an opportunity for local makers and builders to advertise their expertise (by referring to the global catalog).

This is an interesting developments. We’ll see what happens in the future.

  1. Cat Johnson, Here’s How Fab Market is Creating a Sustainable Marketplace. Sharable.January 17 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/heres-how-fab-market-is-creating-a-sustainable-marketplace


Senior Coliving: “Aging in Community”?

In recent years, I have written and blogged quite a bit about several contemporary “movements” (maker spaces, cryptocurrency, coworking), all of which are related by the fact that they are all about “community, community, community”. Many of the movements are focused on the lives of young workers, who are drowning in digital “community” and starving for face-to-face (“analog”?) community.

In my observations, I have often considered wider communities, and, specifically, the desirability of including children, parents, and older people in such “communities”. For example, I have observed the virtues of a maker community that is multi-generational [4].

Let’s urn the tables here, and look at Cat Johnson’s recent article about “Senior Cohousing Movement” [3] (no kids allowed!). Johnson’s features an interview with Prof. Anne P. Glass of UNC, Wilmington, who studies these communities around the world.

If “community, community, community” is good for twenty somethings in the city, it is just as important for over 50’s living anywhere. Glass has written about the value of caregiving, commenting that most research and policy is concerned with seniors who are assumed to be dependent, while “[t]he concept of elders helping take care of each other has been little studied.”[2]  As Sensei Claire Marshall has commented, “we are happiest when we share” [4].  In her work, Glass has outlined many ways that seniors helping each other is beneficial—to all parties involved [2].

Johnson explains that the “Senior Cohousing Movement” is organized as a self-run housing, run by the residents. While the facilities may be similar to other housing, the residents develop “a sense of community, running the place themselves, and having the interest in connecting with each other.” [3]

Sounds great, but it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve

The article covers a number of non-trivial challenges, and they are similar to issues I have seen in other communities, such as coworking.

For starters, cohousing faces the same affordability issues as all senior housing. Quality isn’t cheap, and many people are priced out. A locally created and self-operated housing project is effectively a small, bespoke affair, likely to be more expensive than commodity elder housing.

In all cases, creating and sustaining community is not easy. One of the challenges of coworking spaces is to recruit workers, and get them to participate in the community. Filling desks with people who don’t connect with others defeats the purpose, and can kill the space. Coworking succeeds at creating communities partly by diversity of spaces (there are zillions of workplaces) and by the short term nature of the commitment (dissatisfied workers can walk away or join another community). And, by the way, coworking spaces are generally pretty cheap, compared to other office space.

I note that coworkers are generally happy with their chosen coworking community, but they also tend to cowork in the same place for a year or so, departing for various reasons.

A housing community faces the same fundamental challenge: if people move in, but ignore their neighbors, that is bad for the community, and potentially fatal.  If residents do not like the community, or grow to dislike it, they can leave. Just as in a coworking community, there is “churn”, which creates stress on the community, newcomers must be integrated, and the community may change as the population turns over.

The solutions that seem to work for coworking communities do not fit housing as well. The coworking strategy is basically “let a thousand flowers bloom”, popping up and closing down work spaces, and workers dropping in and out for relatively short dwell times.

This approach is less effective for housing, senior or otherwise. There cannot be so many options, and the commitment is considerably more significant.  Even if were multiple senior cohousing options in an area, moving house is way more trouble than taking hour laptop to another workplace.


I’ll add one more point. The general idea of “senior cohousing”, like other “senior” housing seems to be focused on segregated communities, seniors only. The reasons are obvious: a “community of peers” in this case very much means people in the same age group. And, as Dave Barry comments, we want to live “in the company of people who don’t view them as fossils” ([1] , p. 155).

However, I have significant concerns about segregated housing of any kind. Self-sorting is a problem in many areas of life, and this model certainly doesn’t solve the problem. I’m sure that having a lot of neighbors my own age, taking care of our own selves, is a good thing. But perhaps we should consider multi-generational cohousing.

If a “family of friends” (a la Glass [2]) is a good idea for seniors, wouldn’t it be even better for kids and parents as well? Along this line,  I have commented on the great things that can happen in a maker space with people of many ages, which arks back to an earlier view of working and learning [5].

In an all ages coliving, there are extra aunts and uncles to help out with the kids, and kids of many ages for everyone to “worry about”, and a variety of learning and sharing all around.

Obviously, this harks back to an earlier way of living: a village is a multigenerational settlement, not a themed life style. Sure, there are be challenges and stresses mixing age groups, but when it works, it’s going to really work well.

In fact, let’s set aside age, and think about mashing up several “co-“ concept. Let’s arrange a community maker space, some coworking space, coliving for the coworkers, and senior coliving, all in the same proximity. (Add parks, schools, access to shopping, and, why not, a farm on the roof.)

Hey, we’ve just reinvented  a home town. What an idea!

  1. Dave Barry, Best State Ever: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016.
  2. Anne P. Glass. (2012) Aging Better Together. http://www.secondjourney.org/itin/12_Sum/12Sum_Glass.htm
  3. Cat Johnson,  (2016) Aging in Community: Inside the Senior Cohousing Movement. Sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/aging-in-community-inside-the-senior-cohousing-movement
  4. Claire Marshall,  (2015) What I Learned in My Whirlwind Month in the Sharing Economy. Sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/what-i-learned-in-my-whirlwind-month-in-the-sharing-economy
  5. Robert E. McGrath, Making a “Trammel of Archimedes” (2012): Examining Consequences of Making Something Useless. Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab, Urbana, 2013. https://robertmcgrath.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/making_a_trammel_of_archimedes1.pdf


Loomio Cooperative Decision Making Software

The Enspiral group (“more people working on stuff that matters”) is an interesting collection of cooperatives in NZ.  I would say they are “walking the walk” in a serious way.  their strategy is to boot up groups to tackle specific problems in an open, democratic and sustainable way. To do this, they have spun up an array of enterprises, addressing specific problems and needs.

One of the components of this constellation is the Loomio Cooperative dedicated to creating software to support decision making. As reported in their history, Loomio emerged from the Occupy movement, with the goal of making it easy to implement bottom up, democratic decision making, a la Occupy. There is quite a bit of information about how they are walking the walk, to be found online and in their handbook.

Specifically, the software is intended to solve the problem of “fast, inclusive, effective decision-making without meetings”.  “Without meetings” means asynchronous discussions, using digital technology. This has been done before, many times, so I was curious what might be new here, and why people are excited about it.

The project is open source (naturally), though the software is complex enough to make inspection a bit of a job. Not having time or resources to explore the source code, I looked at the documentation, which is pretty extensive.

The first thing to say is that the software is pretty simple, admirably so. It does only one thing, and it does that with a minimum of fuss. It is also a pretty portable and accessible tool, which I appreciate.  And kudos for multilingual support!

The basic point of interest is that Loomio implements a model of discussions and decision making that is clearly modeled on the Occupy movement. The voting mechanism even includes the “block” vote, so characteristic of Occupy meetings.

Of course, there is a lot of hard stuff that the software can’t solve. They describe a four step process:

  1. Gather (Invite the right people)
  2. Discuss (Have clear, on-topic conversations)
  3. Propose
  4. Decide together and Act

Well, sure. If we could do that, we wouldn’t need Loomio!

But seriously, there are important things that must happen outside the software. Finding the “right” people, is quite a loaded concept. (Who are the “wrong” people?) Having clear discussions is an art, and, as far as I know, using digital tools often is a formula for bad discussions. Software is not going to save you, only good people and good will can do this.

The proposal process is always hard work. A good discussion beforehand will surely help, but it is still necessary to get concrete, and to imagine practical and relevant actions. The software can’t give you good ideas, but it probably helps track the evolution of ideas.

Finally, there is the “decide and act” step. Obviously, software cannot create agreement where it does not exist. Loomio appears to work by making things clear about who agrees and disagrees, about what, and why. With good will, this may lead to consensus, or at least a well understood disagreement.

As far as moving to action, obviously software isn’t really going to make that happen. But it does provide open documentation for the proposed action, which should be helpful.

My point isn’t to pick at Loomio. I’m just making clear that this is decision support software. Loomio does not make things happen, only people can do that.

What then is “special” about Loomio? What makes its fans happy?

To a first approximation, it does the same thing as lots of other software. In fact, you could do everything with email, if you were willing to do some work to archive things carefully.  Some of the work Loomio does definitely helps: for example, Loomio enforces deadlines, and automatically archives everything, so there is a transparent record.

From what I have seen, though, the best thing about Loomio is the instructions. The software is pretty standard, but their instructions, case studies, and “how tos”, model the kind of democratic decision making they believe in. I think you could probably do pretty well following Loomio’s instructions without the software.

I suspect that Loomio also does the most quintessential “magical” thing a software tool can do: it makes it easy and fast to do things “the right way”. Loomio has strong ideas about what is the “right way” to collaborate, and they make this as easy as possible. (I bet you can “misuse” Loomio to have bad discussions, non-democratic decisions, and generally disenfranchise people—but you would be working against the grain. Why bother?)

Is Loomio the be all and end all solution? Of course not. But if you are doing distributed collaboration, especially about something in the digital realm, then you need this kind of software. And Loomio might be good for you.

  1. Cat Johnson (2016) The Loomio Handbook: A Roadmap for Worker-Owned Cooperatives. Sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/the-loomio-handbook-a-roadmap-for-worker-owned-cooperatives
  2. The Loomio Cooperative, The Loomio Cooperative Handbook. The Loomio Cooperative, Aotearoa New Zealand, 2016. https://www.gitbook.com/book/loomio/loomio-cooperative-handbook/details


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?