My top five tips on co-operative innovation for 2015

One of the great qualities of the co-operative model is the extraordinarily flexible way in which the simple idea of ownership by those involved in the business can be brought to life. It is true that there are many levels at which you can co-operate in a business – to be owned by your customers doesn’t mean that the workplace is a participative one, just as to be owned by your workforce doesn’t mean that your services are always shaped and led by customers. But the five innovations I would pick out for 2015 all have this simplicity at their heart – they offer a simple but radical shift in the way of doing business.

1. Co-operative education. Co-operation is a far richer and more effective organisational model for learning than competition. The extraordinary success of around eight hundred co-operative schools in England, plans in Wales following the 2013 Commission on Co-operatives and Mutuals and the emergence of ‘schools of co-operation’ in Scotland, is only a start. There is a strong case, if regulatory barriers are removed, for nursery schooling owned by parents and teachers, and for new, cross-border co-operative models of online learning and, in time, universities.

2. Agricultural co-operatives. There is a spring in the step of farmer-controlled businesses across Europe and beyond, as they face up to the giant commodity conglomerates and the result will be of enormous importance for the future of world food markets. At the local level, this can mean new opportunities for farm to farm co-operation and local food links or an upgrading, in governance and strategy, for existing co-ops, but it will also mean stronger and closer cross-border ties, with new forms of member capital and better access to markets overseas.

3. Unions for the self-employed. The idea of co-operative models for freelancers has been around for a while, but in business, timing is everything. The rise of self employment, much of it in the form of a ‘Precariat’ in which the traditional benefits of what James Robertson called ‘own work’ (in his 1980s book, Future Work) are balanced by risk and marginalisation, makes this a model for our times. For the self-employed, unemployed and for unions, this has a clear purpose and meets a clear set of needs.

4. The real sharing economy. The predatory nature and tattered ethics of Uber has helped to expose the fact that the emerging sharing economy has yet to innovate in ways that allow for shared ownership rather than shared service. There is experimentation in new forms of open co-operatives that can achieve this, but to be successful, I would like to see a model emerge for a mass user / consumer buyout as an alternative to the finance of venture capital or corporate buyout. Minecraft, which sold out last year, had so much community ownership that it ought to be a co-operative and it would have been better safeguarded if it were. We need an online model for community buyouts. Wikipedia’s doing it for donations, our community shares work for local enterprises, existing consumer co-ops are experimenting with sharing services, but in 2015 the time is right for a better sharing finance platform for sharing economy businesses.

5. Fair care. With a gently ageing UK population, when it comes to social care, there is a recognition now that you only get the real benefits of dignity plus cost saving if the care user and the care workers are properly engaged. For a while, this has been called ‘co-production’ but it hasn’t yet had an organisational model to embed this. In 2015, we will see the emergence of Italian-style social co-cooperatives, starting in Wales, but spreading, that are businesses that give a voice to users and workers. These are 360 degree co-ops, in that they offer democratic ownership to all the multiple stakeholders involved.

These are my five, and I’d welcome hearing yours.

Later this year, Co-operatives UK will publish with our member New Internationalist a book on co-operative innovation. Under the draft title of “Co-operative Advantage”, this will look at how, in an age of inequality and stuttering or declining productivity, we see that up-close ownership can help transform the UK economy.

Happy new year! It is going to be a hopeful and purposeful 2015 for the UK social economy.


2 thoughts on “My top five tips on co-operative innovation for 2015

  1. I’d agree with all of these Ed – 3 and 4 speak strongly to me (on the point of 3, are you familiar with the Freelancers Union in the USA?).

    On the sharing economy stuff, the biggest problem is that the development costs of the software platform get funded by venture capital looking for the return later on. Open systems will only go so far, when the need is to develop the infrastructure using co-operative finance. This is an epochal moment, and one where established co-operatives can, should – and, I’d argue, must – consider how ‘old’ co-op capital can seed new capital.

    On a related note, I think a big possibility is informal sharing. The Botsman style collaborative consumption could really take off, but it still has a problem of ownership and utilisation. Lets say five families own a camper van or a car. Who actually owns it? Joint and several ownership has the dual problem of unlimited liability and ownership conflict that can only be addressed through the courts. But setting up a legal entity seems too much hassle. I wondered about a commons company which existed in order to be the legal owner for a a whole load of collectively owned assets in trust for the user-owners. As far as people are concerned, they’ve clicked a button, essentially, and that’s the end of it.

    Liked to this are usage algorithms which codify how the internal usage economy is to be apportioned equitably – that might involve internal currencies (as with many informal babysitting co-ops) or allocating the scarce and finite resource of time usage according to various formula. As always, people need to come to common agreement, but having a variety or preprogrammed templates for people to agree and amend would make things so much easier.

  2. Ed

    Could innovation #3 be a pathway to innovation #4? That is, a union for freelancers in a sharing economy. Perhaps with kickstart funding from a windfall tax on uber and the like?

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