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The Next Steps for Platform Co-operatives in Wales

Following the last meeting of the Cross-Party Group for Co-operatives and Mutuals, Policy and Research Officer Daniel Roberts outlines what we learned about the potential for this new type of firm and what we need to do to allow the sector to flourish.

By Rhodri McDonagh · May 4, 2021

See this page in: Cymraeg

Next month, we will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Owen, one of Wales’ most famous pioneers of the co-operative movement. Although our lives, communities and economies have been utterly transformed over this period, we know that the spirit of co-operation and solidarity has the potential to create a more equal and resilient society. One of the most disruptive developments in our economy over the past ten years has been the growth of digital platforms in a whole range of industries; from food to taxis, and accommodation to culture.

On the 25th of March, the Wales Co-operative Centre hosted the Senedd’s Cross Party Group for Co-operatives and Mutuals. We heard about platform co-operatives and the potential they have to make this new type of digital platform enterprise more democratic. Rather than being owned by big tech businesses or venture capital, platform co-operatives are owned and governed by the people involved, like workers and users. This can improve working conditions and ensures that these businesses are motivated by creating social good.

At the meeting, we heard from a variety of experts and practitioners and discussed what the next steps should be in promoting these types of co-operatives in Wales. Ludovica Rodgers from Co-operatives UK spoke about the launch of the UnFound programme, which was set up to facilitate the development of the platform co-operatives sector across the UK. While a significant body of academic work has been developed internationally looking at the potential for platform co-ops, the sector itself is still at its early stages – but this is unsurprising given that the platform economy generally is a relatively new phenomenon.

Around 30 platform co-ops have started in the UK since 2015, but there has been a surge in interest over the past year, especially since the start of a dedicated support programme. Ludovica outlined the different types of firms that exist, including those that are worker-led such as platforms for taxi drivers, infrastructure co-ops for utilising tech on a local basis (such as a local community coming together to share electric cars), and data co-ops where individuals come together to pool their data either to sell or to gain new insights on how they work.

It is clear that this sector has a lot of potential. We need the co-operative movement as a whole to promote and support the concept and the organisations that have already started – we know the economic and influencing power of digital platforms, but platform co-operatives need to rival that with solidarity and partnership. The public sector can play a part by providing specialist support for these businesses and nurturing the community, and acting as anchor institutions. We must create the conditions for under-represented groups in tech to start these platforms; they often come from a place of need, from those who are often already struggling as a result low wages and precarious work.

Next the meeting heard from Duncan McCann from the New Economics Foundation, who discussed two of the main barriers to developing this sector; capital and skills. In his experience of working with nascent entrepreneurs attempting to start platform co-ops in different locations across England, he found that for many businesses, choosing ethical practices over profit-seeking was almost impossible. Using examples of the experiences of taxi drivers launching that own platform co-ops in London and Yorkshire, he showed how start-up costs are becoming increasingly prohibitive, and as a sector and movement we need to work out a way to solve this. The diversity of skills needed to run a platform co-operative is also a challenge – there is the initial need to be skilled in the activity you are working on (such as taxi driving or food production), but on top of this you also need to be able to run the co-operative firm. Finding the people able to perform every skill needed to run an enterprise like this, like HR, marketing and tech development, is extremely difficult and proves why specialist support is so necessary.

The group then heard from real entrepreneurs in this industry about their experiences of starting platform co-operatives. Lynne Davies from Open Food network in the food industry described food as a nexus challenge –  linking environment, health, communities. According to Lynne, giving something so central to our lives away to big corporate powers doesn’t feel appropriate. Open Food Network operates a on a global scale on the basis of subsidiarity, providing a support system that can be made relevant to the local context. Before UK Government had even launched the lockdown last year, the Network  was speaking with people in China to see how similar businesses were responding, which helped UK business to learn and adapt.

Emma Back from Equal Care Co-op discussed her experience of launching a platform co-op in the social care sector. She said that at the moment in this sector, both carers and those receiving care are badly treated – the care industry isn’t caring. Decisions on the way care is given need to be made by the participants in these actions – this is the core purpose of this platform co-op, and it is the first in the world doing this. It is owned by givers and receivers of care and support. It allows for the development of a relationship between giver and receiver, sharing power, and allowing support to exist in abundance.

To conclude, the group and attendees discussed what the next steps are for this sector, in Wales and internationally, with topics ranging from intergenerational housing co-ops to community land management. It is clear this this model has significant potential, and we stand ready to support the sector to develop in Wales. Through our experience and specialist knowledge, we can support those wanting to shift power to workers and communities.