“Multinational platforms like Uber and AirBnB, which do not pay taxes to the city and frequently ignore local regulations, must be seen as a ‘threat model’ to be combated in an effort to return vital infrastructures to citizen control” – Francesca Bria, Barcelona City Council.
The development of sophisticated mobile technology over the past decade has changed the way we do business. And the depth and speed at which we can now interact with others has hastened in a new organisational model; the platform.
Paul Mason, in his excellent book Postcapitalism, speaks at length about capitalism’s ability to evolve and mutate to take advantage of technology as it advances. This is illustrated clearly by Uber, the taxi-hailing company that’s posing an existential threat to the cab industry. All of a sudden, drivers no longer need to work under local firms. They ditch the local firm’s logo for the Uber car stickers, and they swap the local switchboard for the Uber app. And because many taxi drivers are already self-employed, this market has been relatively easy for a business like Uber to tap into.
For Uber, the development of this platform as their core business model has proven lucrative. It depends who you ask about the company’s estimated value, but it’s probably worth at least $28 billion.
Just good business?
Uber has done very well out of the tech developments of the past decade. Sure, it’s been embroiled in scandals, law suits and plans to switch its entire fleet to driverless vehicles, but it remains a global leader in the car-hailing space. And by profiting from this technology it has also been instrumental in developing it (mostly, however, to its own ends).
The way this tech is being deployed into society should not go unscrutinized
But, as the opening statement suggests, the way this technology is being deployed into society should not go unscrutinized.
The neoliberal model of capitalism supposedly promotes economic empowerment of the individual. And apps like Uber, whilst allowing individuals to take further control of their own lives by choosing their working hours, pose a number of ethical concerns around how these apps impact both the individual and wider society. Should Uber give its workers basic protections? Should the company pay taxes to the districts in which it operates? Should cities have the power to regulate Uber’s activity? As a profit-hungry entity, Uber is unlikely to say “yes” to any of these questions.
Enter the cooperative platform
As creators we now have a choice. Do we enable technological oligarchy, where the biggest beneficiaries of this new technology are company shareholders, or do we try to reshape the landscape and put worker interest front and center?
If we choose the latter, we choose platform co-operativism.
The platform cooperative business model means the development of a platform (typically a website or app) by a cooperatively-owned, and democratically-governed organisation. It means placing the workers and the users as the primary beneficiaries of the company’s success. This differs from a more traditional top-down approach which sees major shareholders making key decisions and pocketing huge dividends when projects become successful.
This differs from a more traditional top-down approach which sees shareholders pocketing huge dividends when projects become successful
Platform co-ops may not suit every type of industry, but for things like transport, flexible working and local marketplaces, the model could be significantly more effective than privately owned, for-profit ventures by putting the interests of workers and customers at the heart of the platform.
Interested in platform co-ops? Join our community and stay in touch.
A working example of a platform cooperative
Coined only in 2014 by Trebor Scholz, author of Uberworked and Underpaid, “platform co-operativism” is a relatively modern term, referring specifically to a co-operatively owned technology platform (the co-op business model has been around for hundreds of years).
A good example of a platform co-op in action is the stock photography site Stocksy. In their own words, Stocksy believes in “creative integrity, fair profit sharing, and co-ownership, with every voice being heard”, and operates as an “artist-owned cooperative founded on the principles of equality, respect, and fair distribution of profits.”
We got in touch with Brianna Wettlaufer, CEO and co-founder of Stocksy to find out a bit more about running a platform co-op. According to Brianna, running a co-op is not hugely different to running a for-profit business – especially if your goal is to “create sustainable incomes for your members”. In respect to the organisational structure, Brianna says “The difference with the co-op model is instead of being accountable to a removed group of executives or venture capitalists, you’re accountable to your member-shareholder/co-owners whom make up your community. Many of the goals are the same: how do you engage this group of people to meaningfully participate in business decisions? How do you improve/scale the product to better serve the members and clients? In a co-op, your members are concerned about how those decisions support the equality of its producers.”
“The difference with the co-op model is instead of being accountable to a removed group of executives or venture capitalists, you’re accountable to your member-shareholder/co-owners whom make up your community” – Brianna Wettlaufer, Stocksy
On the advantages and challenges of running an online co-op, Brianna says:
“We sometimes hear the assumption that because you’re reporting to a larger community of people that running a co-op is ‘more work’. Stocksy doesn’t think of it that way. Starting a co-op means you invest up-front with your membership to ensure transparency and trust; and these things do take time to build.”
She summarizes with: “in the end, that investment you make with your community means an incredible group of people, typically diverse with a deep understanding of your product, are working with you to guide the company in a way that everyone can feel good about.”
Setting up a co-op is not too dissimilar to setting up any other business. And if you’re tech-savvy or have programming skills, now might be the time to find out more about this emerging business model. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and don’t forget to join our community by subscribing to our newsletter. This is a subject we’ll be covering more as it develops.