Explainer: What are Open Co-ops and Platform Co-ops?

In the last few years, you've probably seen some articles about the flaws and failures of the what has been called the "sharing economy." Critics often cite the disingenuous use of the word sharing, and the exclusion of users as potential stakeholders or owners of the intermediary platforms. Much of the public criticism for these and other issues has been aimed at high-profile online platforms, usually Airbnb and Uber, with good reason.

Two cooperative movements are important in this discussion: Platform Cooperativism, and Open Cooperativism. One may be more publicly visible right now, but they have much in common. These movements marry the power of digital networks with the rich history of the cooperative movement. How do these approaches compare? Are they redundant, complementary, mutually exclusive? What exact problems do they solve, and what outcome do they seek? In this article, we explain their origins and characteristics, and see how the actions proposed by these movements can work together, helping us form resilient livelihoods in our networked age.

Platform Cooperativism and P2P vs the "Sharing Economy"

The sharing economy spawned a lot of initial hype citing its P2P (person to person, people to people, peer to peer) nature, but it wasn't long until its promised people-powered disruption was unmasked as more of the same undiluted capitalism, just faster and less regulated. Put neatly by Mike Bulajewski in his article, The Cult of Sharing (2014):

Much of what counts as sharing turns out to be nothing more than ordinary economic transactions between individuals arranged through digital platforms owned by venture-funded companies that act as middlemen, enabling them to take a percentage off the top.

From the right angle, though, this "sharing economy" and its digital platforms could be seen as a Trojan horse, both for bad and good. The bad? Further deregulation and accelerated precarity. But the good can advance the conversation beyond the ways people can share goods and services, to address the architecture of the economy where these relationships take place. In reality, we should be asking ourselves, "What economy do we want?

If so, how viable are the balance-restoring proposals being discussed online and in conferences? How interested are people in participating, cooperating, taking ownership, and what would that look like? Enter the next phase in cooperative models: Platform Cooperativism, and Open Cooperativism.

First, some history. In the years preceding the appearance of these digital sharing platforms, something else was also cooking: online communities experimenting with different forms of exchange, collaboration and production. Commons-based peer production, a term coined by legal scholar Yochai Benkler, describes a new way of creating and distributing value. Internet-based P2P infrastructures allow individuals to communicate, self-organize and co-create abundant, practical value in the form of digital commons, often comprising knowledge, software and design. The most familiar examples include the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, free and open-source projects such as Linux, the Apache HTTP Server, Mozilla Firefox and Wordpress, and open design communities such as Wikihouse, RepRap and Farm Hack.

In commons-based peer production, productive communities create commons. The so-called sharing economy enables processes that are ultimately controlled by the platforms' owners, who extract value as rents or fees from the P2P interactions happening in the front end. Put simply, these interactions are P2P in the front end, only. It should already be clear, the sharing concept here is window dressing, a marketing ploy. Doesn't sound good, but it gets worse before it gets better. The imagery and lexicon of the Commons and P2P have been co-opted by the extractive platforms. Words and concepts (besides sharing) have been used broadly and deceptively, including: community, peer interactions and access over property, among others.

Driven by absentee investors or shareholder accumulation, the so-called sharing economy, under examination, reveals a deregulatory cartel threatening the labor movement's century-plus of hard won gains. Their attitude is undemocratic and isolationist towards the real value creators in the platforms — the producers and consumers interacting through their digital toll gate. This threatens to accelerate the ubiquity of the precariat, a new, disenfranchised social class.

But a counter offensive to the normalization of the gig economy championed by Silicon Valley has risen in reaction, most notably in the Platform Cooperativism movement. At the end of 2014, Platform Cooperativism first appeared in two articles: Trebor Scholz's Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy, and Nathan Schneiderís Owning is the New Sharing. The movement seeks to democratize ownership and governance in the platforms that increasingly mediate our lives, but their focus is not limited to the sharing economy. They've questioned the extractive ownership models of platforms such as Twitter. The formula is simple: combine the efficiency and lowered transaction costs of digital platforms with the horizontal ownership and democratic control that characterizes worker-owned coops.

Since then, Platform Cooperativism has been remarkably successful. There have been two high profile international conferences and a growing variety of marquee Platform Coops. Some examples are Stocksy, an artist-owned stock photography community; FairMondo, an ethically oriented online marketplace; and Loconomics, a democratic hub for freelancers to offer their services. The movement has also produced some notable publications, chiefly their anthology book "Ours to Hack and to Own: the rise of platform cooperativism, a new vision for the future of work and fairer Internet," edited by Schneider and Scholz. Other prominent texts include "Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the corporate sharing economy," a primer produced on the aftermath of the first conference by Trebor Scholz, as well as Scholz's recent "Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy." The movement also counts on some notable online resources, such as the Internet of Ownership directory, which lists currently existing Platform Coops, as well as a dedicated introductory website. After the second conference in New York, the Platform Cooperative Consortium was announced, which is currently in development.

The Origins of Open Cooperativism

Platform and Open Cooperativism do overlap, but with distinct differences. Open Cooperativism, in addition to proposing alternatives for gig-economy workers, focuses on traditional co-ops and the P2P/Commons movement. Since the beginning of 2014, several existing precedents for Open Cooperativism coalesced into recognisable proposals. The point was to study a possible convergence of the Commons and commons-based peer production with the cooperative movement. Josef Davies Coates's article Open Co-ops: Inspiration, Legal Structures & Tools, Michel Bauwens's call for an Open Cooperativism, and a three-day deep dive convened by the Commons Strategies Group (here's the report by David Bollier and Pat Conaty) were some of the key early works.

Beyond critiques of the Silicon Valley-style sharing economy, Open Cooperativism questions the dominance of capital in the free and open source software economy, and suggests P2P-empowered digital solutions in order to lower the transactional costs of networked cooperative production. As a corollary to issues of democratic ownership and governance raised by Platform Cooperativism, Open Cooperativism asks a straight question: "What do we want to produce?" It plays a few angles, with the Commons and P2P community on one side, the cooperative movement on another, and the social and solidarity economy on yet another. Rather than assuming a digital backbone, Open Cooperativism explores how open data, ecological stewardship, and the active production of Commons might expand and revive established cooperative traditions, even reclaim the idea of a Cooperative Commonwealth. Open Cooperativism argues that itís not enough to have a better Uber or a more democratic AirBnB: we must tackle issues like housing and transportation head on. The root causes of our dysfunctional, destructive economies canít be danced around.

What are the patterns of Open Cooperativism?

Open Cooperativism's aims can be summarized in four recommendations, or patterns, but these guidelines are not meant to be prescriptive. Being the best open cooperator is not the goal here. Individual cooperatives and groups of commoners should examine their own material conditions and priorities to see which of these patterns they might use.

1. Open Coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good

Production in open coops is determined by social and environmental value. In our existing economy, social rights and environmental protection are regarded as externalities (someone else's cost or problem), and their regulation is assumed to be the responsibility of an increasingly absentee state. In an open co-op, these factors are not externalized. Instead, they are built into the legal matrix of operations to ensure accountability and compliance with the practices of a generative economy. These responsible principles can be motivators for starting an open co-op, even a point of honor for its members. Statutes oriented towards the common good can also expand on the seven cooperative principles, be updated for the digital age, and help offset troubling tendencies that can appear in certain cooperatives.[1]

2. Open Coops need to be multi-stakeholder in nature

The new, ethical, and sustainable open-source cooperativism brings its commitment to economic and social democracy beyond the cooperative's own company structure. Like an ecosystem, an economy does not work in isolation. Open Cooperativism seeks to enfranchise all participants in the economic value chain, not just cooperative members. This includes affective and reproductive labor, the creation of commons, and other forms of currently invisibilized work. The enfranchisement process can happen materially, through support and incentives, and through decision-making power, creating a forum for more voices to be heard. As in commons and contributory systems, Open Coops thrive with an ecology of membership. Existing examples of this more inclusive approach are the Fairshares Model, the Enspiral Network, and the Social Care Coops in Japan, Quebec and Emilia Romagna.

3. Open Coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons

Open coops don't just draw from the Commons, they reciprocate, generating new commons in the process. These commons can be immaterial and/or material, and can help encourage cooperative (rather than capital) accumulation by using reciprocity licenses [2]. By immaterial commons we refer to code and design, but mainly to socially advantageous productive knowledge. These should never be privatized in order to generate artificial scarcity or profit maximization. Open coops may develop and maintain productive material infrastructures through distributed manufacturing, as well as mutualizing spaces for co-working, organizing retreats, and providing mutual support. Unlike the closed-sourced designs of for-profit enterprises with their rampant commercialization and planned obsolescence, commons-oriented manufacturing is geared towards modularity, durability and customization, and a more efficient use of resources (e.g. shared data, manufacturing facilities). That's the recipe for creating the true sharing economy: commons-oriented manufacturing plus co-ownership and co-governance.

4. Open Coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.

Open coops aim to design global and manufacture local, creating resilient local economies of scope, rather than scale. This face to face economy and the creation of local meta-economic networks [3] should be amplified to a global dimension. The challenges we face are international in nature, often provoked by globalist corporations that subjugate entire economies to their cannibalistic needs. In contrast to the opacity of green multinational capitalist business, open coops are fully transparent about their production. This allows them to mutually coordinate production for maximum adaptability based on real-world conditions. The result is networked production for actual needs, not capital demands. The P2P and Commons Economy needs to create counter-hegemony and a counterpower to challenge what could doom humanity. Imagine a movement harnessing the power of the more than one billion cooperative members worldwide with the hyper-productive capacities of commons-based peer production.

These four patterns are the hallmarks of Open Cooperativism, but where are the existing open coops? Although they may not describe themselves as such (and, in some cases, their legal structures goes beyond that of the cooperative), Enspiral, Fairmondo, Sensorica, L'Atelier Paysan, and AnyShare embody many of the characteristics of Open Cooperativism. Meanwhile, ventures like the Catalan Integral Cooperative, the Xarxa d'Economia Solid‡ria and the Mutual Aid Network are excellent examples of meta-economic networks where the logic of Open Cooperativism spills over into other aspects of bioregional economics and peer to peer solidarity.

From Platform to Open Cooperativism

So, back to the question of Platform versus Open Coops. Are they complementary, opposed, or redundant to one another? Is this a People's Front of Judea vs. Judean Peoples' Front situation? Joking aside, clearly they're not opposed and not redundant either. Regardless of their individual origins or aims, they are complementary. Both propositions share a common set of ethical concerns and ideals: a fairer economy. If this is the shared goal, the approach wants diverse tactics, avoiding monocultures, and encouraging positive redundancies, the hallmark of any resilient system.

Their differences, in fact, lend them to a practical modularity. The best way to characterize this fit is to put Platform and Open Coops along a continuity. To the immediate question of urgency (defense against the ravages of Silicon Valley's digital neo-feudalism), we say Platform Coops. To the broader question of building a resilient future, e.g. "what economy do we want?," we say Open Cooperativism. One tactic pushes forward, supported by a thriving and expanding community; the other pulls, as an attractor, towards a more humane economy.

But this isn't a sequentialist proposition a la "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin," no. Even if each movement has different areas of focus and urgency, they shouldn't be sequential, in fact they should be put to work simultaneously. Much like the false dichotomy between institutional ("let's hack the system to make it fairer") and pre-figurative ("let's start living from new system right now") politics, Platform and Open Coops work better together and with a mutual awareness of each position's strengths. In fact, everything contained in the literature of Platform Coops is contained in Open Coops and vice-versa. It's the particular areas of advocacy which provide each with their unique nuances.

Why do we need Open Cooperativism?

Why do we need Open Cooperativism? Why is it important in the long run? We can't talk about the future without a close examination of the present. Our current economic juncture has two distinct tendencies: financialization and decommodification. Although generally perceived as opposites, they are arguably two sides of the same coin. Financialization you know about: it's the ongoing process of turning relationships into services and nature into commodities. It drives the process of enclosures [4] and kills the act of commoning. It also promotes artificial scarcity and obliges us to turn our productive capacities and our responsibility towards nature against our own interests.

Decommodification is a product of digital revolution and describes the opposite process: more stuff that cannot be sold. Think of music, film, digitally distributed culture, universal encyclopedias, software operating systems, etc. [5] As self sufficiency becomes a necessity for survival (more than a lifestyle choice), people turn to each other to meet their needs. Examples are plentiful: solar energy, housing co-ops, mesh networks, mutual credit systems, community supported agriculture, etc. In the process, they find that they need to relate to each other, not rely on depersonalized moneyed transactions, and take responsibility for their economic environments. This practice gradually breaks down the neat categories that distinguish producers and consumers. If organized correctly, it could lower costs dramatically while increasing bespoke innovation and creativity. However, apart from creating hybrid monsters trading digital facsimiles of their users, this grassroots tendency towards decommodification within a high level context of financialization can be disastrous for the economy as we know it.

If more and more stuff canít be sold and services progressively turn back into accountable relations, salaried work will decrease. If wages decrease, income taxation follows suit. If we assume that corporate taxation will not increase to pick up the slack, the first casualty will be the Keynesian pact that underpins social democracy. Hereís a good one: what do the Hawksbill Turtle, the Javan Rhino, and jobs have in common? They're all critically endangered. You're right — not funny. The two factors that have killed off jobs like poachers and habitat encroachment are financialization and decommodification. The former drives the private auctioning of public assets; the latter, along with self-organized service provision, technological unemployment, resource scarcity, and environmental hard limits — decreases the need for salaried labor and artificial demand creation. The ground keeps shifting beneath us; it's not safe to assume a stable economic landscape wherein we're free to democratize ownership and labor while reaping the benefits of the digital revolution. We have to develop more dexterity, learn to roll with the changes. Decommodification can be disastrous for the current economy, but why limit ourselves to that playing field? Perhaps what we're seeing is the shift from an economic system based on scarcity to one based on abundance. As Spanish economist Susana Martín Belmonte says:

Abundance is a new economic frame in which scarcity cannot be preserved. Economics used to be about managing scarce resources, but scarcity has turned out to be not a condition to overcome, but the Holy Grail to access monetary wealth for some. Meanwhile, it overlooks other types of scarcity, like our capacity to pollute the air without destroying the planet. There is no economic value without scarcity. But scarcity is dying in the highest levels of innovation, in the very heart of the digital revolution. For the first time, the evolution of the economic system is not leading to higher productivity or sales, but just the opposite.

How do we adapt our economic behaviors to harness the best of this situation? Enter Open Cooperativism. Open Cooperativism centers economic activity on the commons. The practice of commoning decreases our dependence on wages, markets, and the state to create more resilient and sustainable economies. This doesn't mean that we will get rid of markets or expect the state to wither away. Instead, there are proven solutions within the Commons model for reimagined, even radical configurations for markets and states. Focus on the common good, multi-stakeholder governance, active production of commons and transnational orientation. These patterns define Open Cooperativism, but what is their potential? Call it a homecoming for the digital economy, more in line with the visionary notions of an open internet that erupted in the early nineties, a way to foster a collaborative economy worthy of the name.

Combining the contributory and resource-pooling logics of commons-based peer production with viable market interfaces (i.e., co-ops) can ensure the ongoing production and stewardship of the shared resources we'll need to survive and thrive, absent the current economic paradigm. This is a narrative that picks up on the many possibilities implied in Platform Cooperativism's present day efficiency, and amplifies them into the larger political economy. As part of a larger shift towards empowering civil society as the predominant political and productive stakeholder, Open Cooperativism can open doors to an economy of abundance and sufficiency that works for all of society, future generations and the planet. Awareness of this potential can empower our creativity as cooperators, commoners and citizens in an ongoing democratization. And now, we'd like to leave the final words to Yochai Benkler, from his closing speech at 2016's OuiShare Fest, in the context of creating viable, ethically coherent, cooperative and commons-oriented alternatives:

If you want to build it together, you have to be attentive to all these tensions and all of those modes of failure, and work on solving them together, rather than just saying, 'I'll optimize on one, I'll optimize on another' — it's a multi-system problem and you're going to have to have a multi-system solution.

Additional Resources on Platform and Open Cooperativism

This piece was written by Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel of the P2P Foundation. Portions of this article have been expanded on from "A Commons Transition and P2P Primer," a forthcoming short publication from the P2P Foundation and the Transnational Institute examining the potential of commons-based peer production to radically re-imagine our economies, politics and relationship with nature. It will be launched on May 9, 2017.


[1] These include adopting capitalist practices to ensure competitiveness as defined by market logics, a disconnected managerial class unfamiliar with cooperative practices and ethics, and, worst case, the demutualization of coops. Arguably, these trends are more prevalent in larger coops but, for a distributed movement capable of scaling up and confronting the ìbig fishî, simply articulating common-good oriented statutes could preempt many of these problems.

[2] Commons Based Reciprocity Licenses (or ìCopyFairî licenses) provide for the free use and unimpeded commercialization of licensed material within the Commons while resisting its non-reciprocal appropriation by for-profit driven entities, unless those entities contribute to the Commons by way of licensing fees or other means. Copyleft licenses allow anyone to re-use the knowledge commons on the condition that changes and improvements are added back to that commons. This is a great advance, but should not be abstracted from the need for fairness. Physical production involves finding resources or raw materials and making payments to contributors. Extractive models benefit from the unfettered commercial exploitation of these commons. Therefore, while knowledge sharing should always be maintained, we should also demand reciprocity for the commercial exploitation of the commons. This would create a level playing field for the ethical economic entities that presently internalize social and environmental costs. The use of CopyFair licenses, which allow knowledge sharing while requesting reciprocity in exchange for the right of commercialization, would facilitate achieving this balance. A first working example of a CopyFair license is the Peer Production License, in effect a fork of a Creative Commons Non-Commercial License, permitting worker-owned cooperatives and other non-exploitative organizations to capitalise the licensed content, while denying this possibility to extractive corporations.

[3] From community-oriented business to business-enhanced communities, meta economic networks are affinity-based networks combining new forms of labor with supportive and commons-generating solidarity structures. Imagine a confederated system combining mutual credit systems, childcare coops, a community bank, fresh produce distribution centers, education and legal advice, and more. Some notable examples of people working together on socially oriented projects include the Catal·n Integral Cooperative or CIC (Catalonia, Spain), The Mutual Aid Network, (Madison, Wisconsin USA, now expanding transnationally), and Enspiral (New Zealand, now being replicated elsewhere).

[4] From 1776 to 1825, the English Parliament passed more than 4,000 Acts that served to appropriate common lands from commoners, chiefly to the benefit of politically connected landowners. These enclosures of the commons seized about 25 percent of all cultivated acreage in England, according to historian Raymond Williams, and concentrated ownership of it in a small minority of the population. These ìlawfulî enclosures also dispossessed millions of citizens, swept away traditional ways of life, and forcibly introduced the new economy of industrialization, occupational specialties and large scale production. Nowadays we use the term ìenclosureî to denounce heinous acts such the ongoing privatization of intellectual property, the expropriation and massive land grabs occurring in Africa and other continents, the imposition of digital right management digital content, the patenting of seeds and the human genome, and more. This modern tendency towards enclosures and turning relationships into services and commons into commodities, has been described by Commons scholar David Bollier as ìThe great invisible tragedy of our timeî.

[5] This has led to a panoply of DRM-based panic reactions and more complex monetization schemes to ensure the middlemanís survival, yet the tendency remains. The question is whether digital sovereignty can empower and provide livelihoods for content creators or whether they will still be exploited by the gatekeepers. This, again, is one of the reasons why Platform Cooperativism is so crucially important in the present juncture.

Header image courtesy of Trebor Scholz. Other images by Stacco Troncoso, Trebor Scholz, Daniel Lombraña González, Slava Bowman, and Elena Martínez Vicente.


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