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Platform Cooperativism for alternative socio-economic models

By Jochem Kootstra

We are most probably all familiar with internet-based platforms like AirBnB and Uber. Contemporary economies are increasingly mediated by and through such platforms, which gave rise to a Platform Economy or Sharing Economy. At the background of the aftershocks of 2008’s economic crisis, this has been promoting a disruptive market for individual workers and consumers. Since, the Platform Economy has insidiously evolved into the commodification of citizens via datafication of individuals’ internet usage, paired with emerging side effects regarding workers’ rights, rising wage inequality and its disguised top-down ecosystem, later opted Platform Capitalism. However, the internet-based platform movements have also led to one of the biggest catalysts of innovation in recent years: Platform Cooperativism. As an emergent response to the problem of rising inequality and resource depletion from contemporary market dynamics, Platform Cooperativism offers alternative socio-economic and environmental models that are decentralised and user- and worker-controlled, prompting more equality, inclusivity, sustainable futures and a higher quality of life (income, welfare, happiness, etcetera) in the long run. Although Platform Cooperativism has great potential, the online-offline dynamics is too often not backed by empirical research. This piece is a plea for more empirical research on internet-based platform cooperatives on a local level, to contribute to new societal debates about the role of technology in (data-)society on a global level.

An example worth of scrutiny is a movement primarily motivated by ecological and social reasons in the worker space, as opposed to utility maximization and hyper-consumerism in contemporary markets. It looks for innovative ways to connect municipal goods, spaces and civic assets such as the talents and skills of city residents, as a means for community building and to share responsibility for goods and services that promote collective well-being. But what is most characteristic is that platform cooperatives are owned, democratically controlled and often managed by its workers. Imagine that AirBnB hosts, rather than AirBnB stockholders, own AirBnB. Let’s take a closer look at that and compare AirBnB’s platform with its cooperative counterpart: FairBnB (will soon be tested in Amsterdam). There are three prominent differences between AirBnB and FairBnB I want to elaborate on, that show the key benefits of cooperatives. 

First, FairBnB promises utter transparency and legality in the form of cooperation with the municipality and local law. Second, prices are comparable with AirBnB’s, but 50% of all income will be put into local community projects as it is difficult for them to find non-commercial funding and spaces. The other 50% go to management operations, instead of maximum profits for AirBnB’s stockholders. At FairBnB, surplus goes back to people based on how much they work, in the form of salary or rewarding points. Third, the biggest one, the platform is owned by a worker-cooperative existing of actors representing the platform’s full network: hosts, investors, local stakeholders, neighbours, etcetera. All income is transparent, put to a reasonable amount and fairly distributed.

FairBnB is not the only socio-economic intervention to a platform monopoly and capitalist market, various other types of worker-owned cooperatives are resilient against the status quo: think of Up&Go, a Handling alternative for reliable home cleaning. But also the Uber drivers-protesters who developed and designed their own local cooperative taxi apps; Stocksy, as a producer-owned platform where designers, photographers and other artists and creators take back power and share profits and ownership fairly; or Loconomics, a platform where you can search for freelancers, in a circle of (local) professionals you can trust, which is, again, worker-owned. All mentioned platform cooperative-initiatives embody better job security and quality, transparency and trust, inclusivity and respect for workers’ needs, co-governance and -control, more equality, used by the community for the common benefit, and a steady, trustworthy market in and outside of its design.

Although Platform Cooperativism offers great potential, there are challenges related to the interaction with digital platforms following the specter of ‘technological solutionism.’ Internet-based platforms often run on peer-to-peer systems (resource sharing network) that heavily rely on predictions made by artificial intelligence (AI) for automatic matchmakings and recommendations. Based on your indicated preferences, they present you the best services or goods nearby, which even gave rise to possible AI-biases. Next to some use of review-rating systems, the platform can record, track and determine every member’s/worker’s input and output, which may lead to more exclusion than inclusion when the platform compares members and rewards the best-rated or most active ones. The platform needs to gather large amounts of data, because successful cooperatives need to be leading in AI, machine learning and data analysis to be scaled and survive. Yet, such allegations have been disproven by cooperative-enthusiasts, emphasizing that these claims are specifically true for platform capitalist models. Now that more platform cooperatives, online tools and technology come up all over the world, the above-mentioned issues are being tackled by, for example, facilitating help in flaws regarding democratic governance and decision-making (Loomio) or trust in fair distribution and social solidarity (blockchain) on the platforms. 

So, fuelled by technology-driven interactions, cooperative platform economies present the sites of potential near-now futures that are human-centric, sustainable, empowering and transformative. Although such cooperatives sound quite cutting-edge, it has been around in Europe since the 19th century, primarily in Britain and Spain. Yet the incorporation of digital platforms is rather new and the online-offline dynamics change cooperative outcomes which is not properly backed by empirical research yet. Therefore, it is important to study what cooperative peer-to-peer ecosystems present to understand how communities (can) arise digitally and correspond physically. We need to know more about particular institutions and behaviours that define successful (digital) communities in regard to a new set of rules, good governance (between workers themselves), as well as the technical and economical groundwork for enabling sustainable and equal models. Researching this on a local level will help to enable new types of social relations between workers and users from different backgrounds and varying capacities that would normally not interact. This offers great opportunities for (local) community building, who could even connect on a global level. Therefore, citizens, municipalities, enterprises and other stakeholders need to come together to support cooperative platform economies to be able to compete with traditional and platform capitalist models. Only then we can come up with ways how such platforms can be designed in more socially, ethically and environmental-friendly ways, and establish a human- and environment-centric future with technology.

Jochem Kootstra studied Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU and did his Master’s research on the way engineers and artists explore human-machine boundaries. He received the Professor Van der Zouwen Master thesis prize for his work.

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