A surprisingly well attended meeting at the Trades Hall last night given the low key publicity. Developers, designers and folk from 5 different trade unions were there. Interesting perspective on the potential power of developers to influence the shape of new tech to meet privacy-by-design and other yet-to-be-defined principles. Only one developer raising the blockchain flag as a solution in waiting. But perhaps most encouraging, the trade unions showed real willingness to engage on the issue and explore how things like platform coops can help change the balance in favour of workers from all industries – particularly designers.
When tech meets organised labour then the pendulum starts its swing back from current economic extremes.
A meeting for workers interested in collective action & unionism
We believe in workers’ rights, social justice, diversity and equality. We want to challenge corporate control over our technology.
We share a vision for an inclusive & equitable technology industry. We want to collaborate with workers and friends to build tech worker power, organise on workplace issues and create a space for educating ourselves and exchanging ideas.
Co-operatives tend to mirror their cultural context. Their democratic nature allows them to escape the homogenising demands of capital and to focus on the different ways value can be delivered to their members and communities. So it was not so surprising that the annual Platform Co-operativism conference in Hong Kong was notable for the many faceted ways that platform co-operatives are developing across the globe. They may have a common gene pool but the way it is expressed is very much a reflection of the community that they serve.
Defining the space
A common definition of platform co-operatives is still emerging.
Trebor Schultz (the New School) as the primal protagonist of the Platform Co-operativism movement spoke to the very tangible ways that work is being done to build momentum. This includes projects around the Platform Coop Development Kit that are at the vanguard of change to create open-source software by industry sector and by common function. It’s a very utilitarian definition of platform co-operatives.
In line with these developments, Danny Spitzberg (CoLab) suggested that perhaps it makes more sense to talk about ‘co-operative platforms’– that they are not a new type of co-operative but a specific way to organise a technology platform. They represent the opportunity for the value of a platform’s network, whatever its size, to be retained by its users rather than passed over to profit-motivated shareholders. This makes intuitive sense, as unicorns can only exist if they are able to capture the lion’s share of the network value they catalyse.
The nature of the network was also pivotal to Michel Bauwen’s (P2P Foundation) thinking around the trends he sees emerging in the co-operative sector. In a wide-ranging talk, he mapped co-operatives against two axes – with distribution of value contrasted against their reach:
This approach takes a narrow definition to ‘platform’ – limiting platform co-operatives to the ‘for-profit and centralized’ quadrant – which then enables Michel to distinguish between other network enabling technologies:
Platform coops – are primarily digital marketplaces
Ledger coops – are technologies that enable distributed capitalism
Protocol coops – are open design repositories for common infrastructure development
Cosmo-local coops – are urban commons projects that can use shared technology
For the purposes of this note, we’ll adopt a simple definition that co-operative platforms (aka platform co-operatives) include all those co-operatively owned technologies that enable communities to create online networks.
There is a willingness for co-operatives to share platform technologies across borders.
One of the benefits of being a global conference is that could draw on the latest thinking and developments from a wide variety of industry participants. And as co-operatives are pretty good at sharing, it offers a way for the sector to foster development across borders.
But while platform technologies are generally portable by nature, the way they can be shared will depend on the economics and structure of the networks that they enable. So there were examples at the conference of open-source codebases, hosted software-as-a-service options; peer-to-peer licensing for sharing of code between members; and, proprietary closed software platforms that were owned by cooperatives.
Similarly, the reach of the communities that use a technology can define how platforms can achieve scale and therefore the way they might be shared – from platforms that are defined by an industry or function and that can be adapted to meet local needs, to placed-based co-operatives that seek to take advantage of common infrastructure platforms.
We can see these factors being played out in the different co-operatives that presented at the conference.
This approach is exemplified by the work that the New School is doing with SEWA to create a platform to assist beauty workers in India. Similarly, CoopCycle has created open-source software that enables worker coops to create their own local bike sharing schemes. By solving for a specific problem and making the solution open-source, it is hoped that these platforms can be picked up and developed to meet similar needs in other parts of the world.
Open source software has it limitations, particularly as it still requires that each instance is customised and maintained to meet local needs. For this reason, another way of targeting scale efficiencies is by creating hosted solutions that offer more plug’n’play type functionality. For example, Sharetribe – which enables communities to create their own labour or product hire markets – is a co-operatively owned platform that offers hosted, customizable services.
Special purpose platforms
And then there are the platforms that offer services that meet the specific needs of communities of interest. Their technology platforms tend to be highly customised to the circumstances and target scale at the nation-state level. For example, a worker co-operative like SMart offers very sophisticated back-end support for skilled freelancers. It needs to be specifically customised to the regulatory framework of the region it operates in. Similarly, NeedsMap – which connects donors with communities in need – maximizes its effectiveness when it can match needs on a country-wide scale.
Finally, there are the platforms that are developing capabilities that can support co-operatives regardless of their purpose or structure. These are platforms that are aiming to create common infrastructure. So for example, Coop Exchange is aiming to make it easier for co-operatives to raise funding. Similarly, Geddup is being developed to support distributed organising and governance in co-operatives. Interestingly, Geddup takes a blended approach to sharing the technology as it is being created as an enterprise coop where its members are large organisations that require their own instances, and it also makes a hosted ‘community’ version available to smaller organisations.
The sharing of value across different stakeholders remains a challenge for the sector.
One of the underlying themes of the conference was the question of how value is shared between founders and investors of a platform on the one hand, and its users on the other. It’s a foundational issue. Notwithstanding their democratic approach to the distribution of value, platform co-operatives still need to find ways of attracting the resources required to foster development.
To resolve this challenge, some platforms have sought to align interests by promising to share surplus with founders and investors subject to pre-defined constraints. For example, Fairmondo’s model is to allocate slices of equity to founders and investors, but to also place limits around individual shareholdings, salaries and dividends paid. Notably, Coop Exchange is seeking to free up investment in the sector by promoting a standardised methodology for sharing value based on the Fair Shares model that rewards investors, founders and users.
These concerns are not just limited to multi-stakeholder co-operatives. The sharing of value between members based on patronage or other metrics can give rise to wide dispersion of returns. The debate around these issues suggests that this remains a key focus for platform co-operatives to address both at their founding and as they grow.
There is plenty of scope for the cooperative sector to work with data.
The conference showcased some cracking examples of how data sharing and analytics can change communities:
PetaJakarta showed how using open source software (Cognicity), they had been able to change the way Indonesia could respond to flood events
Shanzhai City is developing tools to measure impact of social investing that can be embedded in the funding structures themselves via smart contracts
Datavest illustrates a data cooperative approach to helping members realize the value of their data
Notwithstanding these examples, there remains an underlying concern about how data is managed by co-operatives and the potential role of emerging technologies in augmenting this. In particular, there was some deep suspicion around blockchain approaches to solving problems.
My view is that co-operatives, with their focus on individual agency within a collective structure, are ideally placed to help with the transition to a data-driven economy. The big technology companies are already well advanced in developing algorithmic ways of interacting with the disempowered consumer. Co-operatives that can understand and develop event-driven solutions, while still enabling members to retain control over their data, offer a very healthy alternative approach.
The conference was a brilliant hotpot of fresh ideas. In our own corner of the world, it’s already lead to the introduction of a few of these international efforts into the Australian market. We look forward to seeing where the movement has taken us next year.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been getting to know the team at Monash BikeShare. I’ve followed their intrepid lead, huffing and puffing my way around the Monash University campus. They’ve shared their stories of rebuff and conquest from their epic start-up trek. And their youthful enthusiasm leaves them with plenty of runway ahead to pursue some grand plans. All-in-all they’ve got a great springboard from which to pursue their bikeshare dreams…
Australia’s most successful bikeshare
So how did the team take an a unloved scheme and turn it into Australia’s most successful bike share? Like all well executed plans, it looks simple in hindsight.
Their first step was to implement the Donkey Kong model of user engagement – they identified the biggest barriers to user take-up and sought to remove them:
Cost – the scheme was introduced with a membership fee structure that had proved an immediate disincentive to potential users. The team convinced Monash University that it would be better to have people using the bikes for free than to have those same bikes rusting in a shed.
Awareness – Notwithstanding the relative visibility of the bikes around campus, there remained the problem of people’s awareness of how and when to use them. To solve this, the team sought to draw in separate groups within the campus to show how the bikes could directly benefit them. By ratcheting up their use by specific users, the team were able to increase the visibility of the bikes actually being used – and thereby tripping the tipping point for network effects.
Know your customer
There’s no doubt getting a critical mass of people to use the bikes was a great achievement for the team. Perhaps the more intriguing thing is their understanding of the way the business works. On the face of it, you’d think that the customers of the bikeshare are the folk who ride the bikes. Not so, say the team, they see their primary customer as Monash University. This starts to make sense when you break down the benefits.
When it is easier for people to get around the campus, Monash University can:
Help IT and support staff get to where they are needed;
Understand how people are moving across the campus;
Infer which facilities and areas are being used – both in and out of term; and,
Encourage better and more timely attendance by students.
We can start to see that the potential benefits of sharing schemes in a digitally connected world are not simply the immediate and most obvious ones around the consumer getting to use the bike. For a relatively small investment, Monash can start to generate some pretty interesting returns…
Bikeshare as a data coop
Which leads us to potentially the most interesting part of the conversation. If the customer of the bikeshare is Monash University, as it pays to derive the aforementioned benefits, what are users?
You could argue that they are the beneficiaries of a fabulous free service.
But we think there’s more to it than that. This is the same situation that has been played out in the models employed by Facebook, Twitter and anyone else that seeks to monetise the consumer. We get to use their platform, and they get to sell our attention and data. The costs of getting the platform up are minor compared to the payoff of locking in the network.
That’s why we believe that there is a different model. That this is the perfect opportunity for a new type of consumer coop – where the members benefit from using the bikes, and where the customers are those organisations that derive second order benefits. The members own the bikes, the data and the platform. The coop negotiates the terms with the customers.
Controlling our data
See this is about more than sharing bikes. As the mesh – as Lisa Gansky calls it – sends its tentacles ever deeper, the real world gets mapped in greater and greater virtual detail. So that while the sharing of assets and infrastructure get more efficient, so too does the information about those that are using them. Our customers want to know more about us.
You want to hop in that self-driving car? Sure just wave your chip, and we’ll map you into the grid. Think about the types of data that the self-driving car company will want on you. They’ll want to check that you wear deodorant and haven’t trashed any self-driving cars lately. Our reputation will be built by the things we do and the data exhaust that comes with it.
Regular readers will know that I believe data coops offer a way through to the next place. That our personal data is best managed in ways that enables the individual to maximise control while still allowing the collective to optimise value in aggregate. Having had a good look at the Monash BikeShare, it looks like a great place for the personal data revolution to start….
It was delightful to have the opportunity to attend a couple of events last week where Lieza Dessein (current Board member and Project & Community Manager) introduced the SMart cooperative to various audiences. The reception was very promising with some of Australia’s more progressive thinking trade unions like the AMWU and NUW leading the way in considering how this model could be introduced into Australia. Following are my notes…
How SMart works
The aim of SMart is to assist skilled freelancers in managing their business administration. It does this by helping with contracting, invoicing and associated functions like insurance, accounting and tax. These functions are primarily managed through the SMart IT platform.
Additionally, every member is allocated a personal advisor to provide career and legal support. It’s intentionally a high touch approach. As there are ~50 advisers for ~20,000 active members, every advisor has 400 potential clients to work with. As a former adviser, Lieza confirmed that this is a number that works in practice.
The interesting thing about SMart is that it brings the power of a cooperative to freelancers – blending independence and flexibility with the strengths of a collective organisation. So for example, as a cooperative it can:
Spread the risks relating to payment and debt collection across its members through a mutual guarantee fund. This means that members can be paid for their work within 7 days of a contract being completed and SMart will then manage the debt collection process; and,
Aggregate purchasing power to enable better access to services such as creative hubs, equipment hire etc, and to business support such as insurance and training.
SMart has helped 90,000 people in Belguim since its inception in 1998 – artists, architects, journalists, IT developers, graphic designers, dog-walkers etc. It is expanding into 9 European countries currently, and Canada has a project underway to explore how the model could be applied within its borders.
SMart’s business model – a worker cooperative
The core idea behind SMart is that members create a pooled capability that can be shared without fear or favour – it’s a new type of worker cooperative. The resources and services of the cooperative are financed by collecting revenue based on the volume of business undertaken on the platform. As freelancers typically have irregular income, each member is participating according to their billing capabilities. It’s a system based on solidarity. This pooling system enables 100% of the members to benefit from SMart’s services when, based on billing capacities only, SMart services are covered by 20% of its active members.
To get a sense of SMart’s operating model, following are its financials from 2015 and 2016. (Note that they are translated from French and there is little by the way of notes to the accounts, so any analysis is necessarily superficial.)
First up, a snapshot of SMart’s revenue. When a freelancer becomes a member, they can use the platform to contract with their clients. In doing so, they actually become an employee of SMart during the term of a contract – which means that SMart reports the gross revenue of all their members.
For the same reason, SMart’s expenses include the wages, commissions and other fees that are paid to members as their employer.
Fees, Purchases & Charges
Participation of members in shared costs (6.5% of sales)
Budget not consumed
To get a clearer picture of the operating performance of SMart, they also provide a ‘clean’ income statement where the activities of members are excluded from the analysis. I have included the complete income statement at the end of this article.
If we assume that capitalized platform development is largely offset against depreciation and amortisation, then there are really only two drivers of income:
Participation of members in shared costs – Members share in the costs of running SMart by effectively paying a fee of 6.5% of the value of the contracts that they enter into on the platform. You can see this number flow through from the gross revenue number reported (ie. 6.5% of €136m is ~€8.9m).
Benefits from pooling – This revenue item contributes as much again as the 6.5% fee – and it is not clear exactly what it relates to from the accounts. The reference to ‘rebates and reduced commercial charges’ implies that SMart is receiving a margin on products and services that it provides to its members. In essence, the volume of administrative, tax, commercial transactions gives rise to scale benefits that the SMart cooperative collects on behalf of its members.
Given that there are approximately 20,000 currently active members, the average annual cost of the entire platform is €850 per member. If the principle that 20% of the members effectively bear 100% of the costs holds true, then the average cost per year for these folk would be €4250. Either way, these costs seem pretty reasonable given the services provided!
Permanent staff – SMart has intentionally pursued a high-touch service model. It believes that by marrying the technology platform with expert advice, its members are best able to learn and develop their businesses. For this reason the largest component of its permanent staff are personal advisors and legal specialists. Additionally it has a large IT team to support this infrastructure that must be tailored to each legal jurisdiction. It also requires a core team for debt collection and contract management.
Bankruptcy losses – Based on these two years, SMart has a reasonably high bad debts experience. As Lieza explained, the losses from bankruptcy arise principally from bankruptcies by major employers (SMart will pay out the employees even if the employer is unable to). While the bad debts experience may be material, the social benefit of providing this safety net to members is significant.
Opportunities for the model in Australia
This model, whether in whole in or in part, has direct application in the Australian context. Following are some reflections on the opportunity and how it could work.
Growth in the gig economy
With at least 8% of the workforce now considered to be working in the gig economy, which may well understate the true extent of the casualization of work, the need to provide services that can effectively help these workers is already substantial and growing. This could include the SMart suite acclimated to Australia:
Career advice, legal support & training
Standardised contracts and cashflow management
Insurance & superannuation
Regulatory and tax management
Shared resources such as co-working spaces
The platform used by SMart is highly customised to the European context. Even if the tech stack can be installed on an Australian domiciled server, it will require customization and integrations with the likes of the ATO, WorkCover, ASIC as well as an API for industry super funds and local accounting packages to draw upon. There is also the question of ongoing development and maintenance of the ‘core’ and the customised components. How will a federated SMart infrastructure be governed and developed across an international user base? This raises questions whether importing the SMart model is really about protocols and processes – and what technology could be efficiently shared.
Industry agnostic versus industry specific
The approach taken by SMart is very much industry agnostic. They can be used by any skilled freelancer regardless of the type of work they do. In their experience, freelancers are often career polymaths moving from industry to industry, even over the course of a year. To effectively spread the risks and costs of the business, they need to adopt this approach.
In Australia, there may be advantages to breaking at least parts of the model into industry segments. For example, it may assist to have specialization around member communication, career advice, micro-financing, training and standardization of contracts. This specialization could occur within a single entity or through the creation of industry specific organisations.
The challenge then is how to aggregate those functions that are common. For example, the mutual guarantee fund and the ‘core’ technology components could be best shared across industries.
SMart has intentionally eschewed setting up marketplaces for its members. Their view is that this is a business that could conflict with their single-minded representation of skilled freelancers. As online markets are generally industry or skill specific, this may support the notion that implementations of the model are industry specific. For example, the creation of a ‘pacemaker coop’ in the graphic design sector could have material benefits in bringing up standards for all workers (following the Stocksy model).
Freelancers as employees
In the Australian landscape, freelancers are typically required to register for their own ABN. They can have all the same problems in managing their back-office, payments, training, and super – but they do so from the perspective of a registered sole proprietor. This may create barriers, whether cultural, legal or mechanical, for the ‘freelancer as employee’ model.
SMart have taken a very constrained approach to data, for example, avoiding any temptation to undertake deep analytics of their member base. This approach meant that navigating the recent introduction of GPDR was relatively straight-forward for them. My view is that coops offer a very attractive way for enabling individuals to better manage their data for both their own benefit and collectively. This is exactly where the work with the farming sector has taken us. Given this, there is a substantial opportunity for the SMart model to lead to better data management tools and capabilities for its members.
Where to start with an Australian model?
Any member-owned organisation must grow from the ground up. One of the challenges with introducing the SMart cooperative model is how to gather freelancers when, almost by definition, they are a disaggregated lot. In a sense, this supports that notion that the starting point is in single industries where the gig economy is dominant (eg. graphic designers). This would allow industry representative bodies to focus on the benefits to the workers in that sector (for example, the AMWU represents graphic designers). Ideally, these organisations have the existing organising capabilities and resources to bring freelancers, government, and industry stakeholders to the table to effectively execute a coherent strategy.
SMart’s ‘clean’ income statement
Participation of members in shared costs (6.5% of sales)