What if, in a wonderful world, companies put people and the planet before profit? What if the platform cooperative model was the answer to a more transparent and democratic economy?

Do you know Mobicoop, CoopCycle, RailCoop, TeleCoop, Fairbnb.coop? If you look closely, they are all cooperatives! Maybe not very innovative in the name, but completely innovative in their economic and social model!

A short look back

Consumer co-operatives as we know them today have existed since the 19th century. Here is an example: in 1844, the weavers of Rochdale, in the Manchester area of England, having experienced a decrease in their standard of living, realised how much they are dependent on the manufacturers -who decided their wages- and the merchants -who set the price at which they could sell their products. As a consequence, they decided to join forces to obtain an increase of their wage. So 28 weavers got together to found, with modest subscriptions, an association, the Rochdale Fair Trade Pioneers Society, and opened a co-operative shop. The aim was simple: to guarantee customers reasonable prices and good quality products.

This co-operative model has inspired many of today's cooperatives, which are building new models based upon this case tried and tested two hundred year ago, and complementing it with a much younger model, the digital platform.

What is a platform cooperative?

Like the digital platforms that now dominate many sectors of the economy, cooperative platforms connect producers and consumers to provide services in the sector of mobility, accommodation, culture, catering and many more. But unlike Uber, Airbnb, Blablacar, Deliveroo.... the governance and ownership of cooperatives is distributed among users, employees, founders, investors and any member of the cooperative.

A cooperative is based on the equal representativeness of its members, at the economic, operational and decision-making levels, and operates according to a democratic model which is established as soon as the board of directors is elected according to the "one member, one vote" rule. For example, employees and user members have equal rights. Important decisions are submitted to all members of the cooperative and the functioning of the organisation is very transparent.

These organisational models can be seen as innovations of use and address market failures. The marriage of cooperative principles and digital platforms is an opportunity to create resilient, community-based infrastructures from which to build back better, fairer and more equitably.

Let's take this a step further and imagine a world where our data is managed cooperatively, for example a social media cooperative. Users would own the platform and decide how data could be used, what data would be collected and to whom it would be sold. An organisation where people would come before profit and where privacy and transparency would be the ultimate goals.

Just imagine that...

Learning from the limits of the cooperative model to better rebound

Cooperative platforms face many challenges, often perceived as obstacles, but which do not prevent them from growing.

The first challenge is that of consumer habits. We are becoming so dependent on Big Tech that we are beginning to believe that there is no alternative to the big monopolistic platforms. Although cooperatives are still few and relatively small, their services often address the same issues as "traditional" platforms, but innovate on the ethical, sustainable and responsible aspects of the management of their business and their employees.

Let's take the example of Fairbnb.coop: this cooperative offers short-term accommodation by putting hosts and travellers in touch with each other. Unlike the digital platforms we are all familiar with, Fairbnb.coop redistributes the fees it collects, those famous 15% platform fees, and gives half of them to local initiatives. In contrast with traditional extractive economies, here the local communities retrieve a part of the financial return.

The second challenge is that of scaling up, as growing an organization with a democratic and organic governance is much more complex and slow than a centralised one. Cooperative platforms do not aspire to replace large technology companies. But as people become aware of the negative impacts of Big Tech, they will seek alternatives. And when they do, it is important that these alternatives are strong enough to absorb the new demand.

A third challenge is their representation towards governments. It is essential that governments involve cooperatives in the development of policies to regulate Big Tech so that they do not have a negative impact on those who are trying to create positive and beneficial alternatives for society.

We need more variety in the business landscape. Cooperatives are changing the balance of power, through community-owned and managed platforms.

It is now up to us, as consumers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and simply as citizens, to seize the opportunities to support cooperative platforms. There are many ecological, societal and economic challenges ahead, and cooperatives are already responding to many of them... It is up to us to choose which structures we decide to support.

This post is by Marie Texier who has collaborated with Volumes over the past year with the specific mission of facilitating the creation of the Fairbnb.coop French cooperative.

In addition to Fairbnb.coop France, Volumes is also the cofounder and promoter, together with many other actors, of the Oasis21 cooperative which currently manages three hubs in Paris: Volumes Lab, Oasis21 and Fab City Hub.