Ownership Matters in the Sharing Economy

Editor’s note: This blog post first appeared on Medium published on August 3rd and re-posted with permission.

On September 9th & 10th, a conference at Toronto’s Reference Library will explore sustainable business models for digital entrepreneurs. The Disrupting the Disruptors conference will present successful alternatives to the venture capital path experienced by many founders. Oftentimes, great ideas need a business model that helps build community rather than monetize the users. Many founders found themselves forced to abandon their original purpose and vision and ‘pivot’ in ways that have proven unsustainable.

 

Entrepreneurs working in the digital economy have long embraced the values of collaboration, open source, co-operation and partnership. These values are now being applied to the ownership model of some platform businesses.

The so-called “sharing economy” has spawned some giant investor-driven platforms that are exacerbating critical social and economic problems: the dissolution of labour standards, app-driven precarious employment, the undermining of elected governments, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few venture-capital owned platforms.

This conference will feature co-operatively owned Internet startups that are looking for a more sustainable path to follow in the platform economy. Platforms can be co-operatively owned and democratically controlled by workers, producers, consumers, communities, or any group of stakeholders for that matter, even a group of companies in a B2B arrangement. Co-ops deliver products and services online while sharing the benefits and profits with the community rather than investors. So, what can this conference teach us about new forms of ownership? A couple of key things, we think.

  • Co-ops can disrupt and eventually stop the “uberisation” of work and living standards in the gig economy.
  • Co-ops can disrupt the start-up monoculture — one that forces founders to seek extraordinary returns from on-line communities by monetizing user data or user experience for the benefit of investors only.

Platform co-operatives are emerging in countries around the world and in a variety of business sectors. Here in Canada, 1000 photographer members own Stocksy United, an online stock image service based in Victoria, BC. They pay a fair price to photographer members and reported revenues of $7.6 million in 2015 and grew in 2016. There is a waiting list of thousands to become a member. Fairmundo is a German Startup that has created a market for ethical goods that is replicating itself in major cities like Berlin and London to scale up to compete with Amazon… is Toronto next?

Other platforms started out as traditional sharing economy businesses and transitioned to digital platform co-operatives. Modo Co-op is celebrating 20 years as the dominant player in the lower mainland of British Columbia car sharing. Their booking platform is owned by its users and is now being used by 12 other car share co-ops to compete against much bigger competitors. For them, being anchored in, and democratically controlled by communities they serve is a competitive advantage.

A proven model that works in the digital economy is priceless. Today’s challenge is tapping this huge potential to create significant economic and social change before too much of that potential is lost. Big brand platform monopolies such as Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit have understandably run into both regulatory and labour relations problems. People are starting to question them, albeit that they no longer claim to be ‘sharing’ platforms. These services can and will be delivered in more community-centred and sustainable ways through member and stakeholder-owned platforms, creating a transformative shift toward a more community and people-centred economy. Nothing they do is proprietary, communities can simply duplicate them with better ownership models, and they are popping up everywhere!

This conference is the next in a series that began in November 2015, in New York City. Since then, a variety of events have continued building on the momentum that began in the Big Apple.

In Toronto, we will bring together both critics of the sharing economy and speakers from existing projects that can help us explore Canadian opportunities for innovation and democratic wealth creation using member-owned digital platforms. Your participation can help build a broad-based coalition that can accelerate this entrepreneurial innovation.

This learning event is targeted at tech sector entrepreneurs, tech incubators, labour organizers, co-operative developers, business studies academics and municipal, provincial, and federal policy makers.

To register, visit the Eventbrite page!

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