Disrupting together

The challenges (and opportunities) for platform co-operatives

Platforms – like Uber, Deliveroo, or TaskRabbit – connect services and products with consumers. With both sides theoretically having control over the interaction, and investing in the platform to reap the rewards, the rapid spread of platforms has the potential to revolutionise capitalism. But increasing concerns over the past few years around tech monopolies and the potential erosion of workers’ rights through the gig economy have raised questions over who really holds control over the platforms, and what impact this has on workers and customers.

Platform co-operatives present a possible alternative to traditional platforms which tend towards monopoly, concentrate power and erode workers’ rights. Drawing on a cooperative lineage which spreads out ownership and control, platform co-operatives could present a brighter future. But there are barriers to the spread of platform co-ops, including challenges of raising capital, finding the right skills within the organisation, competing with Silicon Valley, and harnessing positive network effects.

This is the second of two reports exploring the potential for platform co-ops, drawing on work we undertook with support from NESTA’s ShareLab fund. The previous report, A Better Gig? focused on the concerns of both drivers and passengers engaging in the private hire gig economy in West Yorkshire, and suggested that platform co-ops could go some way to remedying these. This paper draws on these lessons to set out the main challenges to setting up platform co-ops, and suggest ways of overcoming them.

Through our own research, and in particular through observing the development of a new ride-hailing app started by drivers in South Yorkshire, we have identified five areas of challenge for platform co-operatives. Firstly, platform co-ops are not attractive to traditional venture capitalists and tech investors. Platform co-ops can utilise other sources of capital (crowdfunding, co-operative banks and credit unions, or blockchain and alternative currencies) but will still never be able to match the billions raised in Silicon Valley. Secondly, co-operatives must commit long-term operational and financial commitment to building and maintaining their technology. Thirdly, coops need technology which can enable it to recruit drivers and passengers in parallel, and to distribute the profits of the business. Fourth, platform co-ops must find a way of subsidising their early entry into the market in order to build a profile for themselves. And fifth, platform co-ops must find a way to harness the virtuous cycle of positive network effects.

These challenges are difficult for platform co-operatives to overcome. In the ridehailing sector, we posit that co-operatives can be most successful in either focusing on a large city-scale project, or creating a network of federated co-ops to overcome some of the challenges. In other sectors, like cleaning and social care, the less complex tech demands mean that platform co-ops can make more of an impact. As well as developing alternative market interventions, we need to tackle the dominance of existing platforms.

We are at a crossroads. Traditional platforms seemed invincible until very recently, but regulatory battles and consumer action are changing the platform landscape. Platform cooperatives can be part of building a more equitable vision of the future. But small businesses cannot do it alone.

  1. We provide a series of recommendations to make platform co-operatives viable.
  2. We need new funding structures that can provide alternatives to the venture capital funding model.
  3. New platform co-ops must collaborate with each other and, where appropriate, form federated structures.
  4. Workers should be provided with the necessary skills training and support to establish their own co-operatives.
  5. Locally-focused commissioning from the public sector could provide a vital revenue stream to platform co-operatives.
  6. Government must enforce existing regulation robustly to ensure a level playing field for new platform co-ops.
  7. Users and consumers need to understand the impact of spending their time and money on established platforms, and be given opportunities to spend their money on ethical alternatives.

The structural challenges outlined in this report offer some of the answers as to why we have not seen more platform co-ops emerge and flourish. Platform co-ops offer us hope that we can harness the benefits of digital platforms without the harms that many of the current ones create. But their creation will require both continued experimentation and the support of policy makers both to enforce existing regulations on platforms, and create new support structures. Only by working together can we hope to create a digital economy that truly works for everyone.

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