Workshop Notes – Platform Co-ops (Chris Croome and Graham Mitchell)

Originally published in the Co-operative Technologists wiki –

Chris from Webarchitects Co-op and Graham from mc3 co-op ran a workshop titled Beginners guide to tech and platform co-ops at 9:45am the Ways Forward 6 conferencewhich was held on Friday 16th February 2018 at Central Hall, Oldham Street, Manchester, M1 1JQ. There is a MP3 of the session here:

Welcome and Introduction

This is a conference about the future – the clue is in the title – so lets talk about where we want to go and how we can get there.

We’re here to talk specifically about the role of technology, and tech cooperatives, in that future.

Chris – Webarch

Graham – MC3

Both of our organisations are part of the CoTech network.

About CoTech

A growing network of tech-focussed worker controlled cooperatives. A couple of years old or so.

Currently 30 organisations in membership and increasing.

Over 250 people involved, with a combined turnover well in excess of £10M.

Across the UK. Active expresssions of interest from overseas, inc US where there is already an informal network of tech worker cooperatives.

A wide range of technologies covered.

Probably the single most important cooperative centre of tech expertise in the UK.

The obvious choice for solid cooperative tech services.

About Tech

Beginners guide to tech:

  • Tech is nearly everywhere in our lives and becoming ever more pervasive.
  • Tech is a disruptive force, e.g. the rise of AI and automation, Amazon, Airbnb, Uber, etc.
  • Tech is not going away. It’s pace and power is only going to accelerate.
  • Tech can be a hugely empowering force for positive change. We call it #Tech4Good
  • There is a massive tech skills gap. The importance of developing a generation of people that are not just consumers of tech but have the knowledge and skills to shape and control and change the tech in their lives is paramount.

For this reason and many others, we can’t talk about tech and cooperatives without knowing something about the whole ownership of the tech itself. Who owns and controls the software and systems that increasingly shape and monitor our lives?

Free / Libre Open Source Software and Platform Co-ops

Free / Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), like the concept of Platform Co-operatives, started as an idea.

Platforms Co-operatives as a concept is a little over 3 years old, 20 years ago this month Open Source Software was a new concept which was coined with the intention of making Free Software (which had been around for 15 years by then) a less ambiguous term (the free refers to freedom not gratis) and in order to make it appeal to and gain the support of corporations — it worked, these days most people interact with devices running FLOSS multiple times a day, probably without even realising it, routers, televisions, sat navs and more and more devices are running FLOSS as the Internet of Things proliferates.

Currently in the UK there are not any existing Platform Co-ops, it is just an idea, 35 years ago there wasn’t a Free / Open Source operating system, it was just an idea.

There might be some lessons from the origins and the history of the FLOSS movement for the platform co-operative movement, there were broadly three ways in which FLOSS projects got off the ground:

  1. Hobbyists, people scratching an itch, trying to fix something that bugged them, often in their spare time (the Linux kernel start like this).
  2. Conversions of large non-free software code bases into free software (LibreOffice, StarOffice was open sourced by Sun and became OpenOffice and the project then forked to form LibreOffice).
  3. Capital, using large amounts of money to build large projects from scratch (GitLab was funded by venture capitalists to compete with GitHub).

There are many examples of all three approaches, and many projects have ended up using more than one approach — it appears that these three approaches might also apply to the creation of Platform Co-operatives.

The concept of Platform Co-operatives was created in opposition to the domination of Corporate Internet Platforms and many of these, globally dominating corporations exploit the co-operative and sharing nature of people and were literally built using open source software, however these corporations generally oppose the ethics and software licenses that the Free Software Foundation promotes and in someways are consciously trying to directly undermine the work of the FSF — corporations like open source software that can be privatised, the Free Software Foundation promotes software that has to be shared.

The Free Software movement and the beginning of the GNU operating system pre-date the term open source by 15 years and although there is a great overlap between these things and these terms are often used interchangeably and much code that is Free Software is also Open Source Software at the same time, there is however Open Source Software which isn’t Free Software.

The origin of the Free Software movement can be traced back to the 1970’s with the co-operation between programmers and computer users through the sharing of source code, Richard Stallman, who was working at the MIT AI Lab was a part of this DIY community. In the 1980’s as corporations started to assert their intellectual property rights, in order to make more money, access to source code started to be restricted, this resulted in Stallman not being able to get access to the source code for a printer that wasn’t working properly, so he was unable to fix it — he wasn’t happy with this situation as he believed that programs should be shared.

In 1985 Stallman wrote the GNU Manifesto, GNU standing for “GNU is not Unix” — UNIX is a trademark which can only be used by certified operating systems, the aim of the GNU project was to copy Unix functionality while rejecting the corporate restrictions on the distribution of the source code — the founding the GNU project was an ethical decision rooted in the belief that sharing and co-operation are good:

I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.

So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free:

In 1989 Stallman released the first version of the GNU General Public License and this is the foundation of the Free Software movement and it embodies the revolutionary concept at the core of the movement — Stallman realised that copyright law could be used to enforce sharing and co-operation rather than restricting and limiting sharing — hence the term Copyleft — a key purpose of Copyright was turned on it’s head.

The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program–to make sure it remains free software for all its users.

But this restriction of freedom — enforced sharing, was too much like socialism for many — it wasn’t popular with people with a more libertarian and capitalist perspective — they wanted the freedom to be able to privatise code, so that they could profit from it. The FLOSS licenses that allow this are the Apache / MIT / BSD style ones and these are the ones that corporations promote and use — unlike the GPL they allow FLOSS code to be locked up, they allow the freedom to remove freedom, Free Software has four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.


Platform Cooperatives and How to Make Them

The first thing to say is that the cooperative model is a great fit with tech:

  • Worker cooperatives in areas like digital design and software work brilliantly in an industry where collaboration and flat structures are accepted, where all workers can have creative input.
  • Business and consortium coops – already fundamental to the structure of the Internet in Internet exchanges and the potential answer to the false choice between digital infrastructure monopoly and infrastructure competition. Bit more about this: LINX, open infrastructure, new thin layer mutuals and digital exchanges. Why is it that Loomio, probably the best example of a cooperative tech product globally – uses Amazon for it’s hosting? In case you missed it, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is now the richest person on the planet.
  • Open source: the biggest missed opportunity for cooperatives? The cooperative model offers a fantastic fit in terms of the ownership and governance of open source software projects. Values are broadly aligned, especially in more mature projects, and yet almost without exception these organisations are structured as foundations, charities, not-for-profit companies. Does this shine a light on our inability to spot an opportunity and marshall our resources to grow our share of the market? Perhaps if we can make inroads into the adoption of cooperative governance models for open source projects then we may begin to make ground on the licensing issue.
  • User coops, user/producer coops, multi-stakeholder coops – a better form of intermediation than platform capitalism – hardwired to disrupt the disruptors. Lots of talk about platform cooperatives, but as yet we’re seeing precious few really achieving significant scale, and certainly nothing to challenge the dominance of the big extractive platforms.

At the same time as we see these potentially massive opportunities for cooperatives, here in the UK at least we are facing a major challenge:

  • The cooperative sector here is tiny, really tiny. There’s been a talk of doubling the size of the cooperative economy in the UK. If we achieved that, it would take us from tiny to tiny x 2, which is – while of course very welcome – still pretty tiny. Why we aren’t being more ambitious. Instead of creating perhaps 300 or 400 new cooperatives in a year, why aren’t we aiming to create 30-40,000? If we achieved that, then we’d still be be achieving something less than 10% of the total number of start-ups in the UK. Nationally our economy is very much the poorer for its lack of diversity in terms of the business ecology. It’s no accident that those nations with high percentages of cooperatives tend also to have high social wellbeing stats.

So, what’s holding us back?:

  • Our pool of cooperative development specialists – the people helping cooperatives to start up – is very tiny, and ageing. It needs substantial investment if we are to see a sustainable rise in new cooperative formation.

In tech, which is of course a massive growth area, the number of cooperative devt specialists with knowledge of tech and the tech sector is so tiny that you can’t really see it with the naked eye.

We need better tools. A lot of cooperative start-ups tend to happen where other cooperatives, and where cooperative devt people are located. Clustering has always been an effective mechanism. But tech start-ups are often geographically dispersed. I’m involved in a new tech cooperative with co-founders in Yorkshire, London, Cambridge, New York and San Francisco. This is normal. But we lack the digital spaces and tools where these new entities can be effectively supported and nurtured.

We need to be thinking beyond borders, and beyond traditional Victorian ideas of the firm. For followers of Ronald Coase, the internet – the digital networks that connect us all – has drastically reduced transaction costs, which means that we can have and do now increasingly have far more fluid notions of what/who constitutes an enterprise.

We’re now seeing some efforts to develop solutions in this space, and I would urge everyone involved in these projects to collaborate openly with each other, and to bring our ideas and our resources together so that we can innovate cooperatively and develop better solutions.

Cooperative Networks, one of the organisations that I’m part of, has done a lot of work on this issue – we call our project the Innovation Cooperative. But it could equally be called an Open Cooperative Development Agency, or a Platform Cooperative Incubator. Imagine a place where new co-op business ideas can be developed, challenged and honed, where diverse specialist skills – from accounting to coding to product design – can be readily accessed, where financing is available, where cooperative development expertise is available and is itself sustained and enhanced, where customers and collaborators can be found, where new cooperatives can be nurtured and where they can not just survive but thrive, and where supporters of the cooperative model can make a real contribution. That’s what we’re creating. We would love to cooperate with others who are planning or building similar digital tools to support cooperatives.

Together we are stronger.

And of course if anyone here

Ideas and Rough Notes

Chris’ initial plan:

  • Linus uses the GPL for Linux (by accident?)
  • “Open Source” coined
  • Linux takes over running the Internet
  • Corporates take over the Internet
  • Origins of FLOSS code:
    • Programming as a hobby, to scratch an itch, in ones spare time (Emacs, GCC)
    • Freeing non-free code (NetScape, StarOffice, Solaris)
    • Free code for profit (RedHat, GitLab)
  • Corporates love the Apache / BSD / MIT style licenses as they can privatise the code
    • Microsoft
    • Apple
    • Google
  • Possible lessons for the co-operative movement and Platform Co-operatives

From Shaun Fensom: “Would be good if you could cover the spectrum of how the coop model works well with tech. Suggest three pillars:

  • Web 2.0 enabled the interactive web, and gave rise to The likes of YouTube and Facebook – now hugely powerful platforms where the consumer is also the product being sold. We need to give our children the skills to thrive in the digital landscape – to speak the languages of the digital space. They need fluency in Python, JavaScript, C# and whatever is coming down the road. Gove’s single contribution was to bring in the much needed change in teaching IT, but the necessary investment has not followed behind. The quality of teaching and the resources simply aren’t there. There are some great volunteer led projects like CoderDojo and Govt should be pouring resource into these as well to radically accelerate and broaden the skill base. Recent TechNorth report made clear the difficulty in recruiting skilled people, despite a near 50% higher earning potential for people with the right skill set. Importantly it’s not just the hard tech skills that aren’t there, it’s also the social skills, the soft stuff that is missing.

Cooperatives and cooperative networks have a huge role to play. The internet is an inherently cooperative space. It is built on cooperation between networks, to move each other’s traffic at no cost via peering agreements. The major internet connection points like LINX – the London Internet Exchange – are Mutuals. As the UKs digital infrastructure is going through a new shift – away from the Monopoly of BT/Openreach and towards a patchwork of providers – there is huge scope to develop hundreds of new digital exchanges, neutral cooperative connection points that ensure open access to that infrastructure.

The rise of the so-called sharing economy – massively successful platforms like Airbnb Facebook uber gave rise a few years ago to a backlash. These platforms are not in the sharing economy at all, they are examples of what Michel Bauwens calls net archival extractive hyper capitalism : uber is the worlds biggest taxi firm and owns no ca s, Facebook a global publisher that creates no content, Airbnb a massive accommodation business that owns no property for rent. Clearly the opportunity for cooperatives in these markets is significant – rather than concentrating power in Silicon Valley and the venture capitalists that bet on these platforms, we can have multi-stakeholder cooperative platforms where the rewards are equitably shared. Great idea, but some years down the road we aren’t seeing much in terms of real platform cooperatives, and what there are tend to be small, localised and fairly fragile.

The need for mechanisms to get serious capital into cooperatives remains a major challenge. Until that is addressed we are not going to be able play in that space at any scale.

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