Blog post

Fostering solidarity through cooperation

In the final instalment of our Own This! roundtable, Trebor Scholz responds to the previous contributions and lays out his vision for platform cooperativism going forward.

Trebor Scholz 2 February 2024

Fostering solidarity through cooperation

To Salonie, James, David, Lilly, and their allies, and to all who share their curiosity and appraisals: My response to you isn't just a reply, it's an open invitation to explore the material context of 'Own This!'.

I wrote the book to spell out answers to the questions I often field after lectures, many of which you have also posed in your book responses. These range from discussions about scalability, value creation, and case studies, to the role of unions, my overarching vision, the development of the platform co-op movement, and, occasionally, the suspicious query as to whether I am a SOCIALIST.

Similar to other Verso authors, I navigate between academic research, policy analysis, institution building, collaborative learning, and community involvement, motivated by the ambition to bring about positive transformations. "Own This!" is a movement book, born out of years of exchanges with collectives, crafted through countless interactions - from energizing discussions over tea, to the early-morning video conferences that made the years of the pandemic more bearable, brainstorming sessions in labs and incubators, many conferences, and even conversations next to rice fields and ambling “Gir” cattle.  The book imparts pragmatic lessons while carrying an undercurrent of hope. Given that this book stems from broader projects, let's start with that promised context.

The models related to “platform cooperatives,” which I introduced nine years ago, became a distinct area of practice and a subfield in academia. They outline clear benchmarks and foster  close alliances with traditional co-ops and unions. This vision has since evolved into a wide range of scholarly and practical endeavors, including educational programmes, community development, and extensive research. This includes blog essays, papers, books – which I authored, hundreds of presentations, multiple courses collaborating with organizations from over 60 countries, and nine consequential conferences–  for instance in Berlin, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, and Thiruvananthapuram, and this year in Mombasa, Kenya.

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To give the discourse on cooperative principles and values in the digital economy a hub,  I launched and lead the Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) and the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy (ICDE). Over the last three years, we have, so far, mentored 33 fellows, primarily Ph.D. students, postdocs, and junior professors, resulting in 25 research papers, and taught more than 1,800 students in 60 countries. 

Collectively, this work has sparked a novel academic subfield and a global movement. It catalyzed the creation of numerous support organizations like Platform Coops Germany, Unfound (UK), (USA), and La Platform des Communs (France), among others. These organizations embrace fallibility, with many platform co-ops failing and new ones continuously emerging.

This work has had an impact on policy-making worldwide, with recognition from legislative bodies in various countries, including the UK, US, Brazil (2022, 2023), Germany, the UAE, and India (specifically Kerala), as well as involvement in international organizations like the OECD  (local community development, employment), European Commission (care sector and mapping the landscape of data intermediaries) and UN (20212019), contributing to the growing global interest in platform cooperatives and influencing policies in areas such as employment, youth opportunities, and hybrid models for cooperatives. These co-ops confront various obstacles, including funding constraints, technical challenges, and navigating complex local regulations, while also addressing issues of diversity, a lack of time, extensive research, data, and funding, biases against cooperative models, and an unfair playing field.

Having seen hundreds of collectives over the past few years, I am certainly not rosy-eyed when it comes to the challenges. But I also believe that this work requires a pragmatic, informed optimism of the intellect and an abundance of unwavering determination. It's essential to remember that development in this realm demands time and patience, and the path to good growth often looks very different from what we are accustomed to in Silicon Valley.

And the ecosystem in which platform cooperatives can thrive across various sectors, from healthcare to ride hailing, will include shared digital infrastructure, federation, close collaboration with municipalities (see this example of Co-operative Councils Innovation Network in the UK), and strong alliances throughout the social solidarity economy. The question of close alliances with municipalities— “the public option”— is also addressed by Lily and her collective project, as well as the Kerala Food Platform, of course.

From the outset, the ethos of platform co-ops has been clear:

  • Technology alone cannot solve social problems. . Techno-solutionism? That ship never sailed with us.
  • The book identifies the organization of people, rather than technology, as a key problem.
  • Platform co-ops are not a panacea. They are not the answer to everything and should be conceived in tandem with small unionized businesses and many other business forms. They are akin to an IKEA wrench, effective in specific contexts with sufficient digital literacy, legislative support, and a strong collective need.
  • Platform co-ops, primarily localized, are especially vital in the Global South where costly technological infrastructure is essential to connect and participate, underscoring the significance of internationalism.
  • Prioritize outcomes for people, don’t fetishize a particular business form; it's about finding the most potent, democratic model to effectively address collective needs.
  • Whether they address it or not, co-ops will have to face the digital transition.
  • Develop a comprehensive strategy for systemic change, including tackling income inequality, responding to the climate catastrophe, improving healthcare, promoting participatory design, and advancing gender equality.
  • A substantial part of the book explores the real struggles of organizing people, forming collectives that compete as businesses.

It’s a story in flux, it’s not about adhering to a single model but rather embracing a field of experimentation, representing a constantly evolving set of models that continue to adapt and grow in response to needs. The platform co-op sector has changed much in recent years, with examples like e-Kethi, the Fish With A Story, CoopCycle, Stocksy United, Smart, and the Kerala Food Platform. These co-ops vary in size, from the Drivers Cooperative with 11,000 onboarded drivers to Stocksy’s 1,800 artists, Smart, with 35,000 members, and the Kerala Food Platform, which aims to add 11,000 small farms to their platform. While many are relatively small, typically comprising 12 to 30 members, larger platform co-ops operate within revenue ranges from US$6m to $200m. We tracked the ecosystem of cooperative digital projects  with 546 projects (we know of) in 50 countries.

With projects in so many countries, this movement is a global force inspiring also many non-coop ventures. Entities such as labor unions, legal advocacy groups, research institutions, governmental bodies, political parties, and NGOs champion gig worker rights through the creation of platform coops. I concede that while platform co-ops may not have lived up to the 'Google slayer' hopes of many (​​with nearly 2,000 news items dedicated to them), they have nonetheless found their place in the conversation. They did, for instance, significantly improve the pay for tens of thousands, and brought dignity to those cooperators. They are part of the landscape, aligned with a vision of a cooperative digital commonwealth where many forms can coexist.

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Historically, cooperative federations like SEWA were focused on mutual support rather than toppling monopolies and often coexisted alongside corporations, but this past doesn’t have to define their future. James cautions that even when federated, these worker and multi stakeholder platform coops may not be able to compete with the centralized model of corporations. Nevertheless, when assessing the scalability of worker platform co-ops and adjacent businesses, as James and Salonie do, the question for me is, who is doing better? Not in an imaginary future but today. What is the measure of comparison when it comes to helping gig workers?

Both David and James discuss the question of balancing the functions of cooperatives and unions, as well as the practicality of forming hybrid models. What we've seen from the examples chronicled in my book is that unions are losing power and influence (they dwindled to as low as 7% in the private sector, as David mentions) with declining membership numbers. Reaching out to cooperatives and unionizing them can be a way forward for these organizations. Emphasizing the complementary nature of collective bargaining and cooperative ownership, using examples to illustrate successful coexistence, benefits not only the cooperatives, which are sometimes smaller than unions but also enables them to access the benefits that unions can offer. David and Salonie underscore the significance of ongoing dialogue and collaboration between unions and cooperatives.

So many questions remain, but our research program for the next few years is mapped out!  It includes questions like:

  • How can platform co-ops and technology owned by workers and users support regenerative local economies?
  • What strategies can promote inclusive, feminist agendas in the digital economy?
  • What obstacles and opportunities does “open cooperativism” present, and how have collectives begun to build data commons?
  • What role can the state play in fostering digital commons, public infrastructures, and alternative platforms?

The hope is to spark new platform cooperatives, support legacy cooperatives in their digital transition, and researching adjacent business models, emphasizing people-centered outcomes over unyielding adherence to a particular business model, all to foster solidarity through a culture of cooperation.

To bring this discussion to a  close, I want to thank not only those who participated in Verso’s virtual roundtable but also reviewers from ILO, Vita, Tribune Magazine, Outraspalavras, and the LSE Review of Books.

For those of you who want to take action, start by reading and signing "The Thiruvananthapuram Declaration for a New Innovation Ecosystem in Our Collective Digital Futures, which came out of the 2023 PCC conference in India.

Own This! is the recipient of the 2024 Joyce Rothschild Book Prize.

← Read Part 4 of our Own This! roundtable

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Own This!
Winner of the First Prize in the Joyce Rothschild Book AwardsPlatform cooperatives reimagine a world where domestic workers can double their income by establishing their own platform—an internet wh...

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