Collaborative economy and innovation in cooperative enterprises: emerging opportunities and challenges for the future
The collaborative economy defines a new organizational and business model that uses digital platforms to connect distributed groups of people and allow them to exchange goods and services in a direct and simple way, with very limited intermediation. Such model has seen a significant boom in the past few years, mainly thanks to the rapid growth of some platforms, which proved the enormous potential of the model in terms of market and commercial value. However, other experiences that tried to use the platform model for social and solidaristic objectives tended to remain less visible. This contribution aims to shed light on the aspirations and potential of the collaborative economy for cooperative enterprises, and to discuss how these may make use of such model or adopt some of its elements, carefully adapting them to their own objectives and identity. At the end of the analysis, we also try to discuss some of the future challenges and to highlight the main critical issues that will need to be further investigated and discussed, both inside and outside the cooperative circles.
Cooperative economy: definition of an emerging phenomenon
The collaborative economy does not refer to a clearly delimited and defined concept, but rather to a wider and more varied set of practices, which are inherently similar because of the use of the “platform model” and digital technologies to make people connect and allow exchanges and peer collaboration. Generally speaking, collaborative economy platforms foster the encounter between on the one hand those who own resources but do not use them entirely (and therefore wish to share or exchange them), and on the other hand those who need such resources (and are thus interested in connecting with people owning them). Exchanged resources can be of different types: goods, spaces and other material resources, but also intangible resources like competences and knowledge, which are made available to potentially interested people in order to maximise their value and social utility.
The origin of the collaborative economy dates back to the 1990’s1, but its boom took place only in the second half of the years 2000S, when new technologies potentials met a growing demand for change of the global social-economic model. In those years, in fact, economic crisis, with its systemic nature and the bias against dominant neo-liberal paradigms, favoured the origin and the gradual development of “alternative” forms of economy, based more on the individual, the sharing, the complete and efficient use of resources, thus creating an ideal environment for the development of collaborative practices.
The vast complex of collaborative economy practices includes activities that are extremely different the one from the other: web platforms fostering peer-to-peer exchange of goods and services, actions linked to the development of open source softwares, time banks, alternative peer-to-peer finance, co-working, fab lab, makers’ activities, and much more. In these contexts, exchange and sharing modalities vary considerably, sometimes they are totally voluntary and free, other times they can be provided through traditional market mechanisms, such as rent and sell (therefore, in order to have access to a certain resource, you have to pay).
Generally speaking, the most characteristic element of the collaborative economy platforms is the fact that they are peer-to-peer, i.e. originated in order to foster a collaboration among peers circumventing the majority of those structures that traditionally intermediate exchanges and social and economic relations.
Another characteristic aspect of the collaborative platforms is the use of digital technology in order to foster direct exchanges, thus creating first of all matching opportunities between supply and demand that are more rapid and flexible than traditional ones, whose transaction costs are extremely low, and allowing also the connection between distant and unknown people, thus enlarging the circle of interactions and knowledge. This aspect is extremely interesting, if we consider that some types of exchanges traditionally happen only among persons that know each other and among whom there are strong interpersonal relations based on mutual faith (e.g. lending a good, hosting somebody in their own house, sharing food) (Schor, 2014). Precisely because they create relations and exchange among strangers, collaborative economy platforms can become a vehicle for new social relations, thus promoting meetings and socialization, and sometimes creating “communities” or shared identities2. It is not a case that users of those platforms are encouraged to share information on themselves and on their own interests, or to access the service directly using their profile on social networks.
Most well-known and accredited definitions of collaborative economy3 (European Commission, 2013; NESTA, 2014; Wosskow, 2014) identify as key features of the phenomenon the technological and peer-to-peer element; moreover there is the general tendency to gather the empirical practices along five categories4: collaborative consumption, collaborative production, collaborative learning, collaborative finance, collaborative governance (Table 1).
Despite evident similarities, the collaborative economy associates experiences and empirical cases that are very different the one from the other, sometimes defined by other “labels” - peer economy, crowd economy, access economy, gig economy, on demand economy (NESTA, 2014) - identifying in turn different aspects of the same phenomenon. This variety of terms may lead to a certain confusion, and arouse contrasting feelings among the public of observers and stakeholders of the collaborative economy, because every definition carries important deviations of meaning, and there is a debate on the controversial impacts of some phenomena (for example, the topic of on demand economy) (Gray, 2014; Rampell, 2015).
In this paper we will make reference to the “wider” definition of collaborative economy that has been recently presented, but we will make a meaningful distinction between:
- bottom up experiences of collaborative economy of a more civic and social nature, which provide an answer to the crisis through an alternative economy, and which use digital technologies to foster collaborative dynamics of a mutualistic and solidaristic kind (e.g. time banks, couchsurfing, social street etc.);
- models of enterprise-platform that can be placed more on a market level, which use technological innovation mainly to gain economic value from widespread resources and generating low cost opportunities of consumption (e.g. wide platforms such as Uber and Airbnb).
Even the latter model can be considered as a form of collaborative economy, to the extent that it creates new ways of making peers meet and be involved; the stake of its social innovation, however, is usually inferior to the former case, since it favours market logics and models of enterprise that are more similar to the traditional ones.
Why bringing together collaborative economy and cooperative enterprises?
This paper aims at comparing and putting into relationship the phenomenon of the collaborative economy and the universe of cooperative enterprises, in order to realize whether an interaction between them can be envisaged; more specifically, it is interesting to understand whether it is possible to “use” collaborative economy as an innovation model for cooperatives.
It is immediately evident that there are some common elements between cooperatives and collaborative economy, both at a linguistic and inherent level. The terminology itself emphasizes this similarity: “sharing” economy5, “collaborative” economy, “cooperation”. Undoubtedly, we are on the same ground, i.e. the domain of an economy that considers “people” as a fundamental resource and “collaboration” or “cooperation” as the most efficient, effective and sustainable way of “making economy” and addressing needs6.
On the other hand, as we have already emphasised, the paths and the models characterising the collaborative economy are not always the same. Keeping in mind the distinction previously suggested, we can state that cooperatives are more similar to those bottom up experiences of collaborative economy where citizens decide to organise themselves by using digital technologies in order to promote solidaristic dynamics, while they are generally different from the models of platform enterprise - which are considered forms of collaborative economy as well - but which, comparing to cooperatives, have less collaborative range and show more critical issues from a social point of view.
The comparison between cooperatives and collaborative economy is, on the whole, not a simple one. First of all, this is due to the differences between historical and structural characteristics of the former (which consolidated as a form of enterprise a century and a half ago), and, for the time being, more fluid and indefinite characteristics of the latter (referring more to a model of service than to a specific form of enterprise7. In order to establish an effective comparison, therefore, we will try to keep the two levels separated: on the one hand the forms of enterprise (“cooperative” vs “collaborative platform”) and on the other hand the wider paradigms or socio-economic models to which they make reference (“cooperation” vs “collaborative economy”).
Regardless of the level of comparison, we can thus summarise central questions to fuel further reflection:
- Compared to the historical background, social and economic roots, and future development prospects of cooperative enterprises, should the collaborative economy be seen more as a threat or an opportunity? Is there a risk that emerging collaborative platforms could sweep away the historic cooperative model, and to what extent is it probable or desirable that, on the contrary, some forms of synergy of positive interaction occur?
- Under which profiles can we imagine their possible interaction and mutual contamination, and which are the possible consequences for cooperatives? Which prospects are emerging for innovation in cooperatives and how can we transform new challenges into opportunities? Which is the role played by factors such as, for example, regulatory, finance and dynamics of cultural change?
Before dealing with these issues in the Italian contexts and relating the results of a recent research on this topic, we would like to briefly hinting at the international debate.
The international debate
Possible contaminations between cooperation and the collaborative economy were also tackled on an international level. The most known lines of thinking are those referring to concepts of open cooperativism (Conaty, 2014; Conaty, Bollier, 2014) and platform cooperativism (Scholz, 2014; Schneider, 2014, 2015). In both movements, authors deal with the possible convergence and synergy between the cooperative movement and the collaborative economy, with particular emphasis on forms of peer production as means to re-direct current economy and renew cooperation, thus building new forms of political and economic power that are external to the duopolistic logic Market/State.
Open cooperativism focuses on the potentials of peer production and on the movement of the commons in order to innovate cooperation and originate economic and social forms that are at the same time alternative and sustainable8. Conaty and Bollier assume that the cooperative movement really needs to understand and exploit new digital forms of organisation, while citizens need to develop new institutions and juridical structures capable of protecting their own resources and communities from the capital logic (Conaty, Bollier, 2014).
Open cooperativism suggests that a convergence between cooperativism and commons will be useful to face two unsolved issues: the problem of means of subsistence and work in a commons-based economy (traditionally weak from these points of view) and the need on the part of cooperatives to develop new organisational forms enhancing the potentialities of the digital. And the answer to this dual need may be provided, at least on a transitory level, by a new wave of “open” cooperativism, which authors define as a new sector linking the ability of pooling and redistributing resources of commons movement, with the need to generate sustainable economy and cooperatives means of subsistence.
Among possible instruments and paths to realize this transformation, authors identify: the constitution of new multistakeholder cooperatives, the development of strategies to implement systems of complementary currencies, the development of new management models of common resources (such as cooperative based social housing and new uses of the territory), the creation of synergies between open network platforms (such as crowdfunding and crowdsourcing) and cooperative structures with a social base, or the development of innovative partnerships between citizens and administrations for the management of common goods. In the transition phase in which European cooperative movement finds itself, authors lay the foundations to search new forms of link and relation inspired by peer production, and innovating the production and the management of common goods, forms that can contaminate cooperative world and regenerate it by using new instruments, even technological ones.
Instead, platform cooperativism originated with the aim to denounce and offer a (cooperative) alternative to the phenomenon of the so-called platform capitalism that is infiltrating inside collaborative economy. The term “platform cooperativism” was coined by Sasha Lobo to define the spread of wide capitalistic platforms that define themselves - or are defined - as collaborative economy, but which have little to do with collaboration and shared value creation, because they exploit the potentialities of technologies and peer-to-peer markets with the aim to extract value from the distributed resources of citizens, and realize a profit that is to be accumulated in the hands of few people (the owners of the platform) (Lobo, 2014). It is, therefore, a consideration on the limits of the American model of the sharing economy (especially of platforms of on-demand work) that is rapidly developing in the Silicon Valley.
According to the movement of platform cooperativism, growing platforms of collaborative economy should distance themselves from platform capitalism and learn from the cooperative model in order to be recognised as real social value creators. First of all, this means promoting the shared property of the platform in cooperative terms, and then adopting a clear regulation on the working forms. Moreover, a crucial aspect of platform cooperativism concerns the generation of the valuable social relations, the careful relation with the territory and the attention towards social impact.
In general, platform cooperativism wishes to maintain technology as the pulsing heart of the platform model, but it transforms governance by entrusting it to a cooperative organisation. There are cases of cooperatives where workers share the property of the platforms where they sell their work (es. Stocksy), or cases in which the prosumers also own the platform (e.g. Fairmondo, the online supermarket where both customers and producers are owners).
By focusing the debate on governance and on the problems stemming from a weak regulation of platforms, platform cooperativism suggests some principles of self-regulation: cooperative platforms should be open source, governance should be democratic and the platform should use the blockchain technology as a means of shared control. In our opinion, the topic presented here is extremely relevant, especially in the American context where the main platforms reproducing the capitalist model originated, but in the future it will surely become more urgent also in Europe, where on the other hand, thanks to the cooperative and solidaristic tradition (especially in certain countries, such as Italy), a different path of more social attention seems possible and desirable.