From a peak of more than 200 projects and startups in 2014-15, Berlin’s sharing economy has contracted, leading some to say it has died. However, since we last checked in in 2017, many new sharing organizations have cropped up. Instead of sharing products and services, the new generation shares ownership.
Implementing democratic governance and collaborative ownership, these new cooperatives share the profit and decision-making with every participant of the value creation — from developers and marketers to consumers who give feedback on the product.
While the previously strong sharing economy has been constricting, large platform companies such as Airbnb and Uber have proliferated in Berlin. While often called “sharing economy” companies, these outfits frequently externalize labor and parts of the value chain, relying on self-employed people who are not served by social security programs and have to compete with others for work.
One of Berlin’s most famous cooperatives is the daily newspaper taz, which dodged bankruptcy in 1992 when employees made it a cooperative. Today more than 19,600 co-op members support taz with an annual subscription fee and a cooperative share.
Economic challenges can be the ground for a liberating transformation. After a food delivery giant war last year, an estimated 400-800 drivers found themselves unemployed overnight. Previously unemployed riders formed several new businesses, specializing in lunch delivery, social media ordering, and crypto-coin payments.
Many of these sole operators are now supported by freelancer co-op SMartDe. CEO Magdalena Ziomek said the co-op offered some security to people in the gig economy: “For many freelancers, joining the co-operative is the entry to affordable health insurance, retirement contributions, help with paperwork and guaranteed on-time payments.”
Other success stories include the SuperCoop, which asks members to co-design a supermarket and work three hours a month, and the 3000 co-op members at BürgerEnergie Berlin, who are buying back the Berlin energy grid to democratize the city’s energy future and subsidize renewable sources.
Not all new co-ops have been successful, however. The fledgling company SportCoop wanted to copy a promising business model that granted access to sports facilities based on a monthly subscription. However, facing market dynamics and strong competitors, the project’s founders saw no chance for their niche.
Founder Adrien Labaeye said the co-ops aim was to negotiate a fair deal for all its members among gyms and athletic institutions. “Nobody knows really if they’re making any money or if they’re not just burning cash until they reach a market position that is dominant enough to start making money in some way,” Labaeye explains.
The Platform Cooperativism Consortium is planning a Platform Co-op Conference in November, hoping to attract co-ops from all of Europe. Organizer Ela Kagel, the founder of project space SUPERMARKT, said: “The conference will focus exclusively on how platform co-ops, rooted in the principles of broad-based ownership and democratic governance, could thrive in the European Union.”
The Consortium hopes increased recognition from government agencies, established cooperatives, the public and other partners will translate into more funding and fuel the movement’s recovery.