Digital Co-Ops and the Democratic Economy
During the past year, we have seen the rise of platform tech giants throughout the global pandemic, as well as a major effort by the UK Parliament, US Congress, and the European Union to regulate those platforms. Yet far from just a dramatic confrontation between Big Tech and its opponents, any substantial transformation of the tech industry must also involve the fostering of alternatives in the face of economic concentration and deeply undemocratic platform giants. These alternatives can act as long-lasting drivers of change, inscribing new values into the tech industry alongside regulation.
The pandemic has been a time of extraordinary social innovation, solidarity, and experimentation in the digital and platform cooperative sector. Diverse models of ownership like cooperatives and worker-owned platforms can offer a foil to the intense concentration of wealth and power that is embedded in the dominant ownership model in tech, with the potential to put pressure on companies with unfair work practices, presenting ethical alternatives, and reformulating the economic makeup of the sector.
However, it remains unclear at present how digital cooperatives might be able to live up to that potential. Scaling up these relatively small efforts in order to actively compete with the platform giants is not an easy task – indeed, it is one that we at Common Wealth believe will necessitate policy intervention on multiple levels. While lawmakers at the national and international level have increasingly turned to the regulation of Big Tech in the hopes of more competitiveness, it is essential that we begin a public conversation on how regulatory mechanisms can be matched by incentives and investment for the digital cooperative sector as an alternative to the platform giants.
To become the agents of system change, we need to ask crucial questions about the digital cooperative sector. How can we better incubate and scale these democratic alternatives – institutions which serve social and environmental needs, and are governed by their members? How can we foster experimentation in economic forms? What are the barriers and obstacles facing digital co-operatives – and the wider co-op movement – and how can public policy, from local government, devolved administrations, and Westminster, address them? What are the mechanisms and institutions that policymakers have at their disposal to reach these goals?
Digital cooperatives have the capacity to bring about a more democratic economy for us all, transforming the technologies that we use on a day-to-day basis. The value of coops come from their ability to share wealth built in common, rather than extracting it and drawing it away from those who generated that wealth. As both democratic and redistributive institutions, cooperatives can help contribute to Community Wealth Building and other forms of sustainable economic growth. That makes them of vital importance for policymakers as the UK seeks to rebuild from the pandemic.
Following a series of interviews and a public-facing panel event held in late February, “The Future of Digital Co-ops: How policy can help scale the sector”, Common Wealth has been exploring these questions. The following briefing note pulls from those conversations to offer a list of demands that speak to co-operatives, their advocates, the Community Wealth Building movement, local government, and beyond.