Towards a people and planet-oriented (digital) transition in Europe : Platform cooperatives and their fundamental role in the context of recovery

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Digital transition, platforms and the alternative model of platform coops

Digital
transition figures high on the EU policy agenda and among the main
priorities of policies and programmes to come – starting with Digital
Europe and the digital single market, but including also others related
to the EU Recovery Plan, Cohesion Policy, etc.
The COVID19 crisis
further contributed to the fact that an increasing number of national
governments, cities and regions put digitalisation – including the
development of the platform economy – at the very top of their
investment priorities.

At the same time, however, civil society
and scientists, but also a number of local and regional policy makers,
express concerns on how digital platforms have disrupted the way persons
move, consume, travel… Gigantic players such as Amazon, Uber or AirBnb
are about to monetize and “platformize” almost any aspect of people’s
lives, including the most sensitive ones: personal opinions, daily
activities, the functioning of democracies. Their practices transform
access to resources (food, energy, transportation, local services,
housing…), data and territories. At the same time, they contribute to a
deterioration of working conditions and quality employment, bypassing
rights such as access to social protection, social dialogue, training or
equal opportunities. New monopolies emerge which threaten local
economic tissues, SME development and a diversification of economic
players and activities.

Other digital start-ups in the platform area follow their example.

Digitalisation – including the platform economy – has to serve territories !

To this
purpose, a certain number of so-called platform cooperatives have
emerged in different EU Member States to develop alternative models.
They differentiate themselves through values and practices: democratic
governance, cooperation and mutualization, territorial links, a fair
sharing of the created value, a particular care for users’ wellbeing,
ethical use of data, specific attention to enhancing social utility and
environmental protection, inter-cooperation between projects. As
economic actors, platform cooperatives are active in a variety of
sectors (provision of food, mobility, care, support of SMEs, tourism,
IT, …). They contribute to the creation of jobs inside – but also
outside – the digital sector : they have the potential and aim of
reinforcing local and micro-enterprises rather than destroying them,
hence promoting diversity of products and services rather than the
homogeneity of big companies. Platform coops have an important capacity
to foster community-based entrepreneurship involving also and in
particular younger generations.

These alternative platforms have
proven their value for the resilience of territories once again in the
framework of the covid19 crisis. The lockdown of populations has brought
new challenges for organizing local solidarity, re-organizing supply
chains, identifying available housing for workers, local production of
protection equipment, etc.
Dominant platforms have answered to this
situation as an opportunity for their business model, but have not
really taken part to the resilience of territories where they operate,
whereas many platformcoops did – e.g. by enabling local plug-and-play
bike delivering platforms, by organising local solidarity between
neighbours or by enabling decentralized local food systems, etc. – 1 – The replicability
of the platforms makes them a key success factor for sustainable digital transition able to respond also to future crisis.

An
increasing number of cities and regions have been and are developing
partnerships with platform coop initiatives or are looking for
instruments to set up or reinforce this cooperation. Moreover, platform
cooperativism is also increasingly becoming a means to strengthen
solidarity between local communities and territories within Member
States or even at European level.

However, a lot remains to be
done so that platform coops can compete on a level playing field with
dominant platforms and are able to attain sustainable economic models.

 

1.
Examples for such platform cooperatives (and their federations) are
Coopcycle, Pwiic or Open Food Network.
The contribution of the platformcoops to the local resilience in Europe
has been documented in a webinar, hosted by the DG grow of the european
commission in the following webinar

Towards a platform economy that fosters the gender perspective

Moreover,
according to different authors, platform economy until now reproduces
gender, race, and social class hierarchies. Currently, gender inequality
is exacerbated not only in the profit-oriented models, but also between
the most open models and those associated with the social economy.

Policies
and programmes around the platform economy should raise awareness about
the negative impacts of algorithms used by the platform economy
regarding race, gender and social-class hierarchies. They should
underline the necessity of transparency and community ownership on these
digital tools. More generally they should contribute to solve any kind
of gender gaps in platform economy.

The EU Recovery Plan and related policies as an important lever of change also in the platform economy

A digital
transition that is supposed to strengthen Europe, its territories and
people first of all requires to enforce and/or reinforce regulation
targeting mainly profit-driven platform companies that circumvent labor,
tax and competition laws. The actual accounting tools and fiscal frames
only take into consideration economic profits and loss. The current
social and environmental challenges we are facing have pushed the EU to
come up with a Just Transition and Green Deal. In order to achieve these
objectives, it is necessary to adapt our fiscal approach in a way that
actually promotes genuinely socially and ecologically sustainable
economic activities and/or punishes those that create negative
externalities, whatever their legal status. Today these different types
of companies are considered as equals and meant to compete against each
other. But not taking into account the externalities of companies means
creating unfair competition between those who tackle social and
environmental challenges (by undertaking extra cost) from those who
simply externalise them (therefore only generating profit for themselves
while letting public authorities to pay the social and environmental
costs). Tackling this issue means also revising competition law in order
to create a level playing field for truly fair competition. We believe
that promoting such policies will undeniably have positive effects on
the behaviour of digital platforms, be them cooperative or not.

Beyond
regulation, however, Digital Europe and other (future) regional,
national and EU policies and programmes related to the EU Recovery Plan
could positively impact on the development of the platform cooperative
sector and therewith on sustainable digital transition with an added
value for territories and citizens all over Europe.

We strongly recommend to integrate the following aspects into strategies, programmes and policies:

Visibility

Platform
cooperatives, their values&principles and their added value for
territorial development are still not very much known and visible in a
number of European Member States and regions.

Their model – in
Europe rather recent – could be spread and promoted through
awareness-raising activities targeting potential communities willing to
engage in platform coop initiatives, (potential) users (including social
economy and other enterprises), policy-makers, civil society or
citizens in general.

SMEs, social economy enterprises, civil society and other players should be made aware of and be encouraged to use and cooperate with
platform cooperatives as a tool helping them develop their own
activities, products and services, but also as a means to set up
partnerships, create and mutualise knowledge and other type of
resources.

The model of platform coops should be a topic to be
further deepened in transnational exchange activities (for example in
the framework of ESF+). Recent Covid-19-related experiences have shown
the high interest and need for such exchange at European level.

Programmes
and policies might also consider supporting the creation of any kind of
acknowledgment of the platform coops’ standards of quality (fair
working conditions, fair wages, ethical use of data, positive impact on
the local territory, consideration of aspects related to environmental
protection, use of free software, open knowledge, transparency,
democratic governance…).

Foster the
development of platform cooperatives as new territorial collaboration
infrastructures facilitating the transition of territories

In the
20th century, economically structured by the massive use of personal
cars, public investments enabled the creation and maintenance of roads
and mobility infrastructures, connecting every household to an economic
center. The 21th century of information and collaboration demands new
types of infrastructures. Networks hardware are crucial, but
collaborative platforms facilitating the coordination among local
stakeholders and accelerating the social and ecological transition of
territories, through the promotion of local economy and the
relocalisation of production, should also be supported by public
programs.

Programmes and instruments under Next Generation EU and
the related national recovery programmes, but also the ERDF, have a
great potential to stimulate investments in the creation and further
development of platform cooperatives as a key factor of success for
sustainable digital transition.

Investments should help creating
and/or strengthening dedicated financial mechanisms for platform coops
(especially for seed funding). Moreover, they could provide incentives
to mobilize additional public funding and patient capital.

Policies
and programmes under the EU Recovery Plan should also contribute to the
creation of new support instruments to improve inter-cooperation such
as engineering hubs, appropriate advice structures, promotion of
peer-exchange at national and transnational level….

Already existing services
in the field of (social economy) business support, social innovation
support or digital transition-related programmes, including Digital
Innovation Hubs under Digital Europe, would increase their potential if
they were adapted to cater for the needs of communities wishing to
further develop platform cooperatives.

In these fields, the mapping of, involvement of and cooperation with
key partners (banks, alternative and ethical finance, public
authorities, clients, suppliers…), will certainly enhance the success
and sustainability of initiatives around platform cooperatives.

For
this reason it might also be advisable to use Community-Led Local
Development (CLLD) approaches (such as they are possible under
Cohesion-Policy-related programmes).

As highlighted before, the
integration of social rights- and participation-related aspects into a
EU taxonomy would be welcomed also from this point of view.

Specific sectors :

Specific
programmes and policies in tourism and culture – sectors for which the
European Commission proposes a dedicated specific objective under the
ERDF – should also consider strengthening and spreading models developed
in Europe by platform cooperatives in cooperation with local
communities, communities of artists, etc. The latter have, for example,
shown to be able to develop fair and sustainable tourism in Europe that
keeps and creates value in territories.

The ERDF for example could
contribute to further exploring this model and stimulate cooperation
between the platform cooperatives, on one hand, and cities and regions,
on the other. Programmes promoting interregional cooperation regarding
innovation in the tourism sector could stimulate transnational exchange
and experimentation in the field of platform cooperatives. – 2 –

 

2.
Fairbnb – could be a public-supported  fair platform to develop
tourisms in Europe without exposing territories to surtourisms and
keeping the value in territories (without extracting a substantial fee) ;

Education & Training/Capacity-building

Programmes
such as ESF+, but also capacity-building elements under other Cohesion
Policy-related funds should, on one hand, provide opportunities also for
platform cooperatives and related (community) initiatives to increase
their potential to access EU funding, and, on the other, enable
policy-makers, administration and civil society to increase their
understanding and set up more efficient partnerships with the sector.

Investments
and programmes should also stimulate integration of modules on platform
cooperatives into programmes of universities, business schools and
other educational institutions focusing on digital transition,
sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship.
These programmes
should finally raise awareness about the negative impacts of algorithms
used by the platform economy regarding race, gender and social-class
hierarchies.

Data policies

In recent
years, a growing public debate has taken place around personal data in
the context of digital society. Digital platforms extract huge
quantities of such data from billions of users, which corporations
process to analyse or to try influencing social and personal life (e.g.
the case of Cambridge Analytica’s business practices). Thus, financing
that will be made available in the upcoming years through the Recovery
Plan and other programmes in the field of digital transition has also a
great potential to contribute to the development of appropriate data
policy. Indeed, data commons have grown as a potential alternative that
aims to ensure people’s rights over the data they generate, giving them
more personal and collective control over and benefit from such data.
Under that data commons approach, a core question is how to take into
account a wide perspective of aspects that define the relation between
users and data. This means advancing in needed awareness strategies and
proposals about data ownership, citizens’ digital rights protection and
the socio-economic impact of its value. For these reasons, investments
should encourage democratic governance in the collection and use of user
data (e.g. around the promotion of data commons), support
experimentation (e.g. regarding the creation of data cooperatives, as a
tool to ensure the users ownership on the data they create), or
stimulate further research and experimentation around practices of data
interoperability facilitating inter-platform cooperations (including the
application of new standards such as the Solid protocol).

These
type of programmes focus on data policies can take advantage of the
framework and technologies developed by EU projects such us
Decentralized Citizen Owned Data Ecosystems (DECODE).

Promotion of Partnerships

Fully
exploiting the potential of platform cooperatives for a (socially)
sustainable digital transition of territories and tackling the
challenges that all platform cooperatives face requires a collective
work. The individual success of some – platforms and territories –
will depend on the success of others. It is therefore of utmost
importance to consolidate local ecosystems, encourage local and
transnational alliances between the platforms themselves and with their
partners, but also to stimulate cooperation between territories and
countries around platform cooperatives.

At local and regional
level, promoting CLLD approaches through operational programmes linked
to Cohesion-policy would again be of great value here.

At the same
time it appears vital to stimulate and support transnational exchange
involving a variety of players (platforms, policy-makers and
administration, academics, other organisations belonging to the social
and solidarity economy , SMEs…).

With regard to support by and partnership with
public authorities, European and national recovery policies should
encourage and enable the latter to support ecosystems dedicated to
platform cooperatives (encouraging cooperation between different
players, knowledge production, creation of shared resources). The
(co-)creation of incubators, cooperation in the framework of public
procurement or participation in equity (as in the case of French SCICs – 3 –) are just some examples among many.

 

 3. Société coopérative d’intérêt collectif

Promoting research on the platform coop model

Higher
investments – for example in the framework of the Horizon programme –
are needed also for research which investigates the models , practices
and potential of platform cooperatives as pioneers of a digital
transition which takes the active participation of people and
territories as a point of departure and fosters cooperation. This would
contribute to raise awareness, better understanding and knowledge of the
sector, help the platforms enhancing their projects, and provide better
evidence stimulating possible partnership with public authorities,
investors, etc.

“Going digital” and “platformize” – not an end in itself!!

“Digitalise”
and “Platformize” should not be considered as an end in itself. If the
purpose of technological progress is not the wellbeing of humankind it
should not be pursued, if it is creating an imbalance of power it must
be regulated, accordingly to the benefit of the communities it affects.
Beyond rules and regulations, interesting initiatives that counteract
the negative effects of capital-cased digital platforms exist and should
be supported.

Platform cooperatives such as they have been set up
in Europe (and on other continents) today have the objective to respond
to real needs of communities and territories. The digital
infrastructure – platforms – they use are only an instrument here for
communities of persons and organisations (including enterprises) to
foster the creation of quality employment, exchange and mutualization
among different players, joint creation of (social) innovation serving
local territories, creation of clusters, but also to support – physical!
– interactions and encounters between different players.

That’s
why natural partnerships are multiplying between platform coops and
“third places” (coworking spaces, fablabs, hackerspaces, etc.) as their
share the objective to foster collaboration and innovation.

European,
national and local policy-makers should thus encourage and monitor
respect of the principle of proportionality, but also sustainability in
digital transition-related elements of the future national recovery
plans and cohesion-policy-related programmes. 

In the EU, many of
these projects are connected through Co-communs, a working group between
commons activists, social economy networks and academics, acting as an
emerging European Alliance. They are also in relation with the different
movements supporting platform cooperativism worldwide, especially with the Platform Cooperativism Consortium, based in the New School (New York).